An Uncertain Path

Friday, August 29, 2008

A10-FOOT-WIDE ribbon of asphalt is the source of much debate and frustration in Montgomery County. Construction of the six-lane intercounty connector, a long-planned 18.8-mile highway that will run between Gaithersburg and Laurel, has been underway since late last year. The future of an accompanying 10-foot-wide bicycle and pedestrian trail remains uncertain.

For cyclists, an ideal trail would avoid busy roads and intersections and would closely follow the highway's contours. But county planners must consider the path's impact on the environment, along with its cost. Though there has been some acrimony, both sides have reached reasonable compromises on the path in the past. We hope that they're able to do the same as plans are finalized.

Both sides agree that the optimal trail would be adjacent to the highway and run its length. County officials originally proposed such a plan, but state officials -- citing budget constraints -- announced in 2004 that they would fund only seven discontinuous miles of the path within Montgomery, saving $100 million. None of the segments were longer than two miles.

County planners have had to find a way to connect the disjointed paths while meeting environmental standards and keeping costs low. They've recommended detouring cyclists to existing roads to fill in the path's gaps. Planners said that using existing roads will limit the path's environmental footprint and that the county will fund improvements to make the roads safer and easier for cyclists and pedestrians to navigate.

Cyclists counter that the impact of the path is minimal compared with that of the highway. They've asked for a continuous trail that follows the general path of the highway and that stays mostly within the right of way purchased by the state. The county Planning Board will consider the issue and make a recommendation next month to the Montgomery County Council, which has the final say.

To their credit, the two sides have reached an understanding on many of the proposed detours. A dispute over a 2 1/2 -mile gap in the path near the upper reaches of Paint Branch Stream Valley Park north of Silver Spring remains the most significant obstacle. Planners said that they'll study whether it's feasible to keep the path in the park; some cyclists don't believe that the planners are sincere. It's easy to understand why cyclists, who have been promised much and given little, are skeptical. But they should allow county planners, who seem committed to assessing the proposal seriously, to do their job.

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