Washington Boulevard Trail Yields Environmentalist Debate

Washington Boulevard Trail Yields Environmentalist Debate

County looks to building trail on east side of boulevard.

Building the trail along the east side of Washington Boulevard may result in areas of substandard width near the Sheraton Hotel.

Building the trail along the east side of Washington Boulevard may result in areas of substandard width near the Sheraton Hotel.

— While Arlington County has been discussing its plans for the Washington Boulevard trail at community meetings, two opposing petitions concerning the trail have surfaced on Change.org.

The petition against the trail was started by Terri Armao, a member of the Penrose Neighborhood Association’s Green Committee. The one in favor of the trail was started by the secretary of the neighborhood association and member of the transportation commission, Chris Slatt.

Both the neighborhood association and the Urban Forestry Commission wrote letters to the county in June stating their concern over the loss of what was then 175 trees for a half-mile of trail.

Richard Viola, the transportation planning section supervisor for the Department of Environmental Services, confirmed the drop to 140 trees from 175 at a July 17 meeting with the Penrose Civic Association’s Green Committee.

Both letters also cited a 2011 county survey that showed the Penrose community as having 31 percent canopy coverage, the second lowest in the county, whose average is 41 percent.

The UFC’s letter expressed concern that, even though there are 250 replacement trees planned, the slope of the ground near the trail would require a 4-foot high retaining wall that would keep watering trucks away.

Armao is also concerned about how long it would take any replacement trees to make up for the ones there now.

“Even with replanting, none of us are going to live to see any benefit of that,” Armao said. “If they plant down at the bottom of Washington Boulevard, it’s going to take 60 years to see the tops of the trees.”

Most of the trees that would be cut down are near Towers Park, which, according to Armao, is shielded from the noise and pollution from traffic on Washington Boulevard by those trees.

According to VDOT’s 2010 assessment of average daily traffic volumes, the section of Washington Boulevard near Columbia Pike has a combined average of 105,000 vehicles traveling three parallel roadways there a day.

“So, not only: who wants to look at that, but who wants to hear it?” Armao said. “And the trees also block the fumes from the cars.”

The petition opposing the trail has 89 supporters, and Armao said she and another member of the Green Committee also got 188 signatures from the neighborhood by walking Adams Street, Veitch Street, the dog park, and the Blues Fest and the Farmer’s Market.

Armao said they told people who signed the hard copy of the petition not to sign the electronic one as well.

The petition favoring the trail has 80 supporters. Slatt is a regular cyclist who runs a blog about Columbia Pike revitalization projects called “Along the Pike.”

Slatt commutes by bike and is fairly comfortable on the road, but said he still feels some trepidation about it, especially when trying to bike to Pentagon City or east Arlington.

“If you’re going east, it’s going to be increasing the amount of time you spend on Columbia Pike,” he said.

Slatt said that people waiting at bus stops along the pike tend to block the sidewalks, which he mentions in his blog along with speeders, backed up traffic, and a shortage of crossing signals.

Slatts’ blog, as well as people who support his petition, have also called attention to the long-term environmental benefits a separated trail might have by encouraging more people walk or bike.

Both the Green Committee and the UFC have suggested alternatives to the current plan of having the trail follow the west side of Washington Boulevard, including painting bike lanes on either side of the boulevard itself, or on South Courthouse road or Wayne Street, or pursuing additional easements to the one the county already has on the east side of the property behind the Naval Support Facility north of Towers Park, through which the trail runs.

Painting a bike path on South Courthouse Road was one of the top alternatives for Armao, but Slatt said speeders made that option less desirable for him.

Armao also cited Wayne Street as an option because it has less traffic, but Slatt said that would take the path farther away from the proposed Hoffman-Boston connector.

A more recent alternative that was discussed at an Environment and Energy Conservation Commission meeting July 23 could remove as few as 75-95 without significantly affecting the $1.5 million price tag. This would be accomplished by building the trail on the east side of Washington Boulevard, as opposed to the west.

Viola, however, wrote in an email that the 75-95 tree estimate could be “considerably off” because it is based on a field inspection rather than a design. Viola also said at the meeting that this option is feasible, but that it presents some challenges.

The trail would require a bridge over Long Branch Creek whether it was on the east or west. An east side trail would meet the creek at a wider point downstream and require a longer, more complex bridge, and it would run parallel to and uphill from the creek for about 800 feet, creating the potential for water pollution. A west side trail would only have to bridge over the creek.

Viola also said an east side alignment would also require property easements from the Sheraton Hotel property and the Henderson Hall.

“Both would require considerable time and effort and could be rejected,” he said.

Challenges for the Sheraton include building a substantial retaining wall at the Second Street end of the trail and segments of trail near the Sheraton’s garage that would be of substandard width. The Second Street Bridge would also need to have wider sidewalks, taller safety rails and roadway markings to better suit bicyclists and pedestrians.

Viola also said an east side trail would not provide access to any county facilities like a west side trail would.

“It would simply serve as a connection of Point A (Second Street) to Point B (Columbia Pike) with no access in between,” he said.

The environmental assessment for the east side alternative was criticized at the meeting. Viola said he will produce another assessment, but that it likely would not be available till early fall after design revisions are complete.

An overview of the Washington Boulevard Trail is available from a search of arlingtonva.us.