With the likes of the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail, the Mt. Vernon Trail, the Fairfax Connector Trail and the soon-to-be completed Cross County Trail, Northern Virginia's legions of weekend cyclists and growing numbers of weekday bicycle commuters have several different paths to choose from. But for many in the region, the dreaming and the planning doesn't stop there.
That's why the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has commissioned a study to identify facilities and outline the steps that could be taken to further develop an interconnected network bikeways in Northern Virginia linking busy population hubs throughout the region.
On Oct. 9, for the first time, VDOT presented its preliminary report to a small but dedicated group of two-wheel enthusiasts in Fairfax County at Sunrise Valley Elementary School in Reston.
Avid Reston cyclist Kerie Hitt rides her bike to work at the United States Geological Society (USGS) nearly every day. On Oct. 9, she peddled to Sunrise Valley to hear VDOT's presentation about the proposed Northern Virginia Regional Bikeway and Trail Network. "It all sounds great to me," Hitt said. "I just don't know if it is something that I will see in my lifetime."
Similar presentations were delivered for audiences from Arlington County and Alexandria on Oct. 14 and Prince William and Loudoun counties on Oct. 16. In addition, exhibits of the bicycle network will be displayed at the Loudoun County Government Center Building now through Oct. 27. Comments from each of these three meetings, and on-line public input, will compiled until Oct. 27 and will be incorporated into the final report due out in November, VDOT officials said. The study began in February 2001.
But almost three years, and several budget reductions later, officials stress that the study report is just that, a study. "You have to remember, this is a planning tool not an implementation document," said Fatemeh Allahdoust, a senior VDOT engineer.
"IF WE CONNECT all these trail projects, we can have a seamless long-distance network of bikeways," said Jennifer Toole, president of Toole Design Group, the projects consultant.
According to the recently released final draft of the study report, while VDOT plays an important role in the construction and maintenance of many of the primary and secondary roads, much of the primary responsibility falls on local jurisdictions to continue to develop local bicycle and transportation plans.
The proposed network of bikeways is not limited to trails, but in many cases, includes using existing roadway space and "dividing it up differently."
"We do know that it will be a challenge ... But, I have been surprised at the level of cooperation among the different parties," Toole said. "We do have a community of interested cyclists, now we need to know if we have the will to follow through."
During the question and answer section, bicycle commuter Larry Butler, the Reston Association parks and recreation director, asked VDOT officials if the Virginia had any "statutory problems" on the books that could hinder project.
Allahdoust assured Butler that under Gov. Warner's stewardship, the "atmosphere has changed" at VDOT. "The Secretary of Transportation has at least expressed an interest in bikes and trails," Allahdoust said.
Currently, VDOT is initiating a comprehensive review of its policies and procedures relating to bicycle and pedestrian accommodations. This review, according to VDOT, will result in a new bicycle and pedestrian policy to be present to the Commonwealth Transportation Board. In addition, VDOT has become more open to non-motorized projects but she conceded that there is still a bigger population that is interested in widening roads rather than adding trails and bike lanes. "There isn't anything inhibiting funding projects," she said. "The only thing is the scarcity of funds."
CHRIS WELLS, THE FAIRFAX COUNTY DOT's pedestrian and bicycle guru, understands that much of the responsibility of coordination for a future network would fall to local and county municipalities. And like the state, Fairfax County is also feeling the pinch. "We live in a constrained budget environment," Wells said. "In past years we were getting $1 million per year, but not the last two years."
Audience member Mary Cortina of Burke said that last year's failed transportation referendum was defeated because it was tailored to developers not taxpayers and commuters. "What people wanted was not what was put forward. If we had had a different package, maybe we would have passed it," Cortina said. "I think taxpayers might vote to fund a project like this because they would be happy to see some sort of vision. Had the referendum been a compelling plan, it may have gone a different route."
Bruce Wright agreed with Cortina. Wright, the Hunter Mill district representative on the county's non-motorized transportation committee, urged Allahdoust and Toole to take their presentation directly to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "They really need to hear this," Wright said. "This is a good plan, but its not going to be implemented for awhile."
Later in the evening, Allahdoust urged the interested residents to attend a public hearing at Oakton High School on Nov. 18. The meeting will solicit input and transportation priorities on VDOT's six-year plan. Allahdoust said her priorities for the network are "filling the gaps" between existing trails and roadways.
"If you think this network is important, you absolutely need to get it on the plan," she said.
Toole told the audience that the average bicycle trip is 3.9 miles while the average walking trip on a trail is 1.2 miles. In Northern Virginia, about 40 percent of car trips are less than three miles. Toole found that there is a "latent demand" for trails in Northern Virginia, meaning that people would bike or walk if they had a good way to get there.
"Surely we can utilize a portion of that 40 percent," Toole said. "If that happens, we can surely get a whole lot of people out of their cars."