Touring bicyclists in spandex and neon, their heads low to the handlebars, streak down Falls Road most weekends. More casual bicyclists — the kind who sit upright — cruise the region’s bike paths in small groups.
Falls Road south of Potomac Village is a major artery for area bicyclists, funneled into Potomac from the MacArthur Boulevard bicycle path and often headed for River Road and rides along quieter roads upcounty.
All three Potomac roads, Falls, River and MacArthur, are slated for improvements that will make them friendlier to bicyclists, following a revision of Montgomery County’s nearly 30-year-old Master Plan of Bikeways by the Montgomery County Council last week.
However, only the improvements currently underway are on Falls Road south of Potomac Village, and are included in the county's Fiscal Year 2005-2010 Capital Improvements Plan. The bicycle path is being moved so it will run contiguously on the west side of the road, eliminating several crossings.
The CIP also includes an "Annual Bikeway Program" item, whose purpose is to develop the bikeway network specified by master plans, with each project costing less than $300,000. However, none of the specific candidates identified in the CIP are in the Potomac area.
ON FEB. 2, the council unanimously passed a comprehensive update to the 1978 Master Plan of Bikeways.
The revised plan proposes more than doubling the total mileage of countywide bikeways — which include bicycle paths and roads with signs or striping designating them for bicycle use.
The Countywide Bikeways Functional Master Plan calls for the Falls Road bike path to be extended north from Potomac Village to Wootton Parkway, connecting it to Rockville’s Millennium Trail, and for a contiguous bicycle path along River Road from the D.C. line to Seneca Road, more than five miles past Potomac Village. That path currently exists only in tiny, substandard segments.
The plan also proposes bikeways along Bradley Boulevard between Persimmon Tree Road and Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda and along Democracy Boulevard from Falls Road to Gainsborough Road.
Improvements to the existing MacArthur Boulevard bikeway are already in facilities planning and are earmarked as a high priority in the master plan. When facilities planning is complete, officials will have an accurate measure of the project's cost, and it will likely move in to the CIP. However, additions to the CIP are only made in even-numbered years, and even when projects enter the plan, it often takes several years for construction to begin.
“I think it’s a big win for the Potomac area,” Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) who represents Potomac, said of the plan. “It helps in the Potomac area supply the missing pieces.”
“As we provide the safe places I think it encourages more people to pursue [bicycling],” said Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), chair of the Transportation and Environment Committee which took up the master plan revisions late last year.
A 1994 study by the Washington Regional Council of Governments showed that Washington area residents took 10,300 bicycle trips from, to, or within Montgomery County each weekday. That number has likely risen, and the number of bikeways, bike shops, and residents commuting by bicycle are all up as well.
Area bicycling advocacy groups generally lauded the new bikeway proposals while offering suggestions to improve the plan.
Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, called his group “extremely pleased” with the document in a letter to the council.
"We were actually involved very early in the creation of the plan. So we think that it does reflect input from the bicycle community," said Jack Cochrane, chairman of Montgomery County Bicycle Advocates. "We’re very pleased with the plan."
Cochrane identified the MacArthur Boulevard improvements and the shared-use path slated to parallel the proposed Intercounty Connector as high priorities for his group.
The three types of bikeways are referred to as Shared Use Paths, Bike Lanes, and Signed Shared Roadways in the new master plan. They were formerly called Class I, II, and III bikeways. The plan also introduces a new concept, “dual bikeways” which include a shared use path paralleling the road and either a bike lane or signed bikeway in the road itself. Dual bikeways cater to bicyclists of varying ability levels, and all of the proposed Potomac routes will be dual bikeways.
Inclusion in the master plan does not mean that any of the bikeway projects are funded or even tied to a timeline for implementation, officials said. Though the master plan brings ideas much closer to reality, they must one by one move into the county’s Capital Improvements Plan and in most cases must go through a facilities planning process that must itself be funded through the CIP.
“The master plan is very ambitious and could take up to 20 years to implement,” said Denis. But, he added, "Having it in the functional master plan really moves it very much closer to reality."
Floreen agreed. “We’ve got this big long list now of bikeways. Some of them are in process. Others of them are gleams in the eye. Others of them will come on board depending upon other construction projects.”
Asked if the projects are prioritized, Floreen said that implementation depends on many factors. “If you’re in the plan, you’re ahead of the ones that aren’t in the plan,” she said, noting that several good ideas did not make it into the master plan because they had not been adequately vetted.
One such idea was to use the corridors of high voltage transmission line rights of way for new shared use paths.
The power line corridors offer new possibilities for bikeway connectivity and have the advantage of already being cleared, with a semi-hard surface beaten down by utility vehicles that travel beneath the wires.
Pepco, which owns most of the rights-of-way was generally amenable to the idea, said council staff director Glenn Orlin, who worked on the master plan. As for the idea that the power lines give off dangerous discharges, "that was really an urban myth," Orlin said.
Orlin and the council staff recommended a trail along the powerline corridor between Cabin John Regional Park and DuFief Mill Road in North Potomac.
"What I had suggested was that it go into the master plan but with a big caveat. ... This came up very late in the process. I’d recommend putting in the plan but with a caveat that it would have to go in further facilities planning and a public hearing just to see if was feasible," Orlin said.
THE T&E COMMITTEE liked the idea, but was uncomfortable including it on such short notice.
“It’s a great idea. But there area lot of communities with an interest in that that we simply hadn’t had the opportunity to hear from,” Floreen said. “It’s there, it’s an idea out there. We’re not precluded from looking at that. And if the right … developer comes along who might be able to do that, we’re not foreclosing it.”
Still, master plans are generally amended all at once and not piecemeal, making the power line pathway idea unlikely to reemerge for some time.
“If the public really wants it, the council will find a way of doing it, it’s just going to be somewhat more of a laborious process,” Orlin said. “The onus for pushing this forward now is going to be strictly on the public.”
Speaking about the plan as a whole, Orlin said he was pleased and that the process included little controversy.
“This [plan], given the number of bikeways and the potential for heat, was extraordinarily smooth,” he said, adding that it was the first time he could recall in 14 years that the county executive offered no amendments to the proposed plan.
Cochrane called the plan "a major step towards actually creating a bikeway network in Montgomery County so you can actually get from point A to point B without getting stuck."
But writing an impressive plan isn't the key step, Cochrane said: "I think that the issue now is that the council needs to follow through and implement it. That’s the real test. We’re very happy with the plan, so we just want the council to step up and provide the funding."