Gilbert is executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NOVA Parks).

The plan is simple: In the most congested areas of the W&OD Regional Trail, create parallel paths, one for walkers/runners and one for cyclists. These two user groups move at different speeds.

The goal of this is to allow the trail to serve the high volume of people using it, and the result should be a safer and more pleasurable experience for everyone. Any of us who have walked, run or biked during peak time usage can see that crowding on the trail is an issue.

Thoughtful improvements that will serve millions of people mean change, and change can be uncomfortable. The week of May 18-24, a group prompted 64 people to write in and oppose this plan. Another group of 253 people saw positive potential to improve our region’s multi-modal (bike and walking) infrastructure, and wrote in to support the improvements.

Both groups directed their comments to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), which was picking projects for the upcoming 6-Year Plan. This is a process that is usually dominated by technical review.

While NOVA Parks understands concerns raised by opponents, many of them were based on inaccurate assumptions.

First, they claimed the added trail surface would make flooding worse in the area. After the extreme flooding of last summer, this issue sounded concerning.

In reality, one of the great benefits of this dual-trail project is that it substantially improves stormwater management for the trail property. A combination of swales, meadows and modular wetlands are used to manage the stormwater like never before. These low-impact development tools will make the area better able to handle major storm events in the future.

Second, the opponents made the claim that the project would cause “significant loss of mature trees.” This claim is also without basis.

For more than 150 years, there have been few trees on the W&OD. First, it was a railroad, and over the last 50 years, it has been a powerline transmission corridor, and Dominion Energy removes any trees that could potentially impact the lines. The only significant trees grow along the outside edge of the 100-foot wide property.

The Arlington section will not be designed for a least a year, and not built for more than two years, but a similar-length section in Falls Church is fully designed and ready to be built this summer. In Falls Church, the only trees over 12 inches in diameter that were impacted were a result of grading for the stormwater improvements.

In total, only seven trees of this size were impacted, and four of those were already damaged or diseased in some way. Most people would not view this as a significant loss of mature trees for a mile-and-a-half project area.   

One of the on-site environmental benefits is the planting of meadows. This environment will help with stormwater, as well as provide needed habitat for pollinators and birds. It will add greatly to the biodiversity of this narrow corridor of land.

The supporters of this improvement also were motivated to action by the environment.  One of the central challenges of our generation is global warming. One way to proactively address this is to change our transportation habits. We need to have infrastructure that supports people using non-motorized modes, like walking and biking. The W&OD is the center spine of trail networks in Northern Virginia. It is a good problem to need to expand the capacity of the trail because it is getting so much use. We need to make the trail work well as a carbon-free transportation route.

The late Arlington County Board member Erik Gutshall was concerned when he saw the first rumblings of opposition to this project back in November. At the time, he noted, “People who are concerned about preserving nature and open space and trees and are concerned about the impacts on the environment, and those that are interested in cycling and that use alternative modes of travel for commuting, are both part of a larger sustainable society and a much much bigger picture of overwhelming environmental good.”

The answer to the future can never be to resist change. The challenge is to make sure the change is good. Dual trails is that kind of progressive vision that can address many issues: enhance safety, help more people commute in a carbon free way, expand the biodiversity, improve the stormwater performance. We need to embrace great steps forward like this.

Gilbert is executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NOVA Parks).

(1) comment

Audrey Clement

Paul Gilbert argues that concerns about doubling the paved width of the W&OD Trail are misplaced, because NOVA Parks plans to improve storm water management. First, how is the public to assess this claim when neither a preliminary design nor an environmental assessment have been produced? Second, Gilbert claims that a combination of swales, meadows and wetlands will be installed to control runoff. Yet on a one mile stretch of the widened trail between East Falls Church and Bon Air Park—half the length of the project area--there is no room to put in these structures without ripping out the existing rain absorbing under story along Four Mile Run. Gilbert allays concerns about tree removal, saying that only 7 mature trees are slated for removal from the trail widening project west of Lee Highway. This is not the scenario relayed by Falls Church residents in a recent LTE to the Falls Church News-Press, who oppose “the proposed elimination of valuable, usable space, and natural assets, including almost 100 trees (oaks, cedars, maples, Japanese cherry, dogwoods, etc.) and bushes adjacent to the proposed trails.”

Gilbert says that trail widening is environmental, because it will induce more bike and foot traffic. Yet NOVA Parks refuses to consider the less damaging alternative of redirecting foot traffic to the adjacent Four Mile Run Trail.

Mr. Gilbert indicates that dual trails are the wave of the future and Arlingtonians should get on board. I’m all for dual trails, namely an existing paved trail on either side of Four Mile Run. I also insist on a full environmental assessment including an alternatives analysis for W&OD trail improvements.

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