By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008
It was the one part of the six-lane intercounty connector that even highway haters embraced as a small but eco-friendly offset to a road that will pave over streams, woods and wildlife.
Now, the possibility of building a continuous, off-road bicycle and walking trail along the Maryland highway's 18.8-mile route is in jeopardy -- in the name of protecting the environment.
Montgomery County planners say a continuous 10-foot-wide asphalt bike path would cause too much damage to ecologically sensitive parkland traversed by the toll road under construction between Gaithersburg and Laurel. Instead, planners say, cyclists and walkers should be detoured in some areas onto local roads, such as New Hampshire Avenue and Layhill Road.
But bicycle enthusiasts say forgoing a continuous off-road trail on environmental grounds is absurd, saying damage from a path would be minuscule compared with that from the highway. Requiring walkers and cyclists to use sidewalks along busy roads, they say, would be too intimidating and potentially dangerous for many people, particularly recreational riders and children.
"We really don't understand the rationale behind dropping a bike trail for environmental issues when they're already running a big highway through there," said Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
Just as bewildering, bike advocates say, is the timing. As gasoline prices, traffic jams and waistlines grow, governments have been pushing cycling and walking as healthy, eco-friendly ways to get around.
The debate is playing out before the Montgomery County Planning Board, which will decide whether to preserve the bike route that runs adjacent to the highway and through parkland, as outlined in the county's master plan, or support a state plan that would use some local roads. The Planning Board is scheduled to consider the issue again next month before making recommendations to the County Council, which will have the final say.
The problems, county planners say, started in 2004, when Maryland highway officials conducting a fast-tracked environmental study of the connector dropped plans for an off-road bike path. At the time, highway officials were facing a federal review of the connector proposal, which had been stymied for decades because of environmental concerns. Highway officials said they cut the bike trail because they needed to curb costs and reduce the project's environmental "footprint."
The state eventually agreed to build 11.4 miles of a trail in separate segments in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. That left county officials to link those new pieces along local roads by using existing bike lanes and sidewalks or building new ones.
Although the long-planned east-west bike path through central Montgomery avoids local roads, it falls within the state-owned right of way for the connector, said Chuck Kines, bikeways planner for the Montgomery planning department. Connecting the state-built pieces of a new bike path without using state-owned property or local roads would require building a trail through county parkland, Kines said.
Many Montgomery parks department officials who act as stewards of that parkland want to protect its flood plains, wetlands and large forests, including habitat for endangered species, Kines said. That means limiting rainwater runoff from pavement, including asphalt bike paths, that can contaminate streams and other habitat.
As a transportation planner, Kines said, he believes it would be "shortsighted" not to build a continuous, off-road bike path along the highway. However, he said, parks officials think improving local roads, such as by widening sidewalks to accommodate bikes, would be sufficient.
"As environmental planners, they're concerned about environmental impacts, not necessarily whether a bike path serves its intended purpose," Kines said.
Bike advocates say riding on a separated parklike trail is far safer than navigating parked cars and driveways on streets. A continuous, off-road path along the connector route, they say, would provide a vital east-west link in the region's trail network that would enable people to ride or jog safely between Gaithersburg, Rockville, Clarksburg, Silver Spring and Laurel.
"It's their duty to build a transportation facility that accommodates all vehicles, not just automobiles," said Jack Cochrane, chairman of Montgomery Bicycle Advocates, which pushes for improved bike amenities.
Bike advocates say bike paths can be made more eco-friendly by being built around environmentally sensitive areas or as wooden, water-draining boardwalks.
Construction on the $2.4 billion highway began in November. It is scheduled to open in segments between 2010 and 2012.