TRANSPORTATION • BY KIRSTY GROFF
Metropolitan Branch Trail work in Montgomery County could be delayed indefinitely, if Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s budget recommendations are approved by the council.
In the recommended capital budget for fiscal year 2013 as well as the fiscal year 2013 to 2018 Capital Improvements Program budget, Leggett recommended all funding for future construction of the county’s segments of the bicycle trail be removed, leaving no money for building or planning the trail’s course.
The Montgomery County Council approves the final budget, so a complete funding loss for the project is not guaranteed. In fact, District 5 Councilmember Valerie Ervin, who has supported the MBT project for years, feels good about the chances some funding will make it into the final CIP budget.
“I’ve done a lot of work on the Metropolitan Branch Trail project for the last four years, and there are colleagues that agree with me that the funding should go back in,” she said. “I’m feeling optimistic that when we pass the CIP it will be back in.”
Members of the cycling community came out to a public hearing February 7 to voice their concerns about the loss of project funding. The
Many projects have had their budgets reduced or cut due to the economy; however, when news broke of the trail’s funding loss, some officials and cycling advocates said it was in part due to negotiations about trail plans in certain parts of the county, specifically involving the Silver Spring B&O Train Station.
Montgomery Preservation, which took over the title to the station in 1998 and has since renovated the historical site, had past issues with the original proposed plan, which had the trail running along the back of their property – a plan the Maryland Historical trust was unlikely to accept. [updated on March 27, 2012]
However, they had believed they found a solution that worked both for them and the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. As a result, it was a shock to MPI Executive Director Judy Christensen that not only was project funding up for elimination indefinitely but that MPI was being blamed.
“We did disagree with the first alignment through our property, and for the past year, have been trying to get it worked out a little bit differently,” she said. “I think we were making the most noise, frankly – that’s how a rumor like that starts. We were totally taken aback by the whole thing.”
Christensen said she found out about the budget during a previously scheduled meeting with Leggett himself – who had told her the issue was fiscal and temporary, and that the project was delayed, not gone forever.
Several area bicycling advocates and websites have been attempting to discover why the funding was cut and who is at fault, if anyone. One such blog is SilverSpringTrails.org, written by Wayne Phyillaier, who commuted to work for more than 20 years by bike but has since retired. Whatever the reason for the delay, the trail portion by the station is important.
“I think the trail can add so much to the museum – biker trails and historic train museums are such natural partners,” he said, adding that he hopes any issues involving the station can be worked through soon.
The MBT is eight miles long and will eventually run from Union Station in D.C. to the new Silver Spring Transit Station, as long as funding gets reinstated. While much of the D.C. trail is complete, segments in Montgomery County remain unconnected from the trail as well as each other – an issue that make is difficult to keep up with the surrounding region regarding support for alternative transportation like cycling.
“In order for us to really be able to enter the 21st century with our neighbors in Arlington and D.C. we have got to complete these trails so there is a large system that takes us from Union Station in the District to Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Bethesda,” said Ervin, who has also supported the county’s upcoming bike share program. “You can’t have hundreds and maybe thousands of bicyclists without finishing all of these pieces of the trail.”
“We have the potential here to have a great trail network, a great connection between the communities, but it does need to be fairly complete and continuous to work,” added Phyillaier.
With the upcoming bike share program, as well as a new agreement that the Department of Transportation will now add a bike lane to roads during the repaving and painting process, the county is beginning to embrace biking more as an alternative to cars or buses.
“More and more people are seeing bikes as an alternative mode of transportation and it’s catching on in the District of Columbia, and here we are nearby and it’s taken a lot of time to get on program,” she said. “We’re kind of late to the game, but we’re playing catch up.”
Although the delay seems troublesome, it has its perks – especially for people involved in trail site negotiations like MPI. “This gives us a period of time to figure everything out, so that’s the good part,” said Christensen. “We would like to have enough funds put back into the budget for negotiations so when our economy recovers and the county wants to get back to building this, the county has the plans so they can get started right away.”
“The Metropolitan Branch Trail is a signal and a sign of progress that the county is making toward alternative modes of transportation,” Ervin added. “You can’t have it without infrastructure, and this trail is a major part of that infrastructure.”