Bicyclists, Pedestrians Try Out Dedicated Lane on Wilson Bridge

Cyclists and pedestrians coming from the Virginia side try out a newly opened bike lane on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Cyclists and pedestrians coming from the Virginia side try out a newly opened bike lane on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

Shortly after noon yesterday, about 100 cyclists pedaled through the streets of Old Town Alexandria to do something they had never been able to do before: Bike the 1.1-mile span of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Maryland.

"To the bridge!" cried an elderly bystander, pumping his fist at the convoy as bystanders snapped photos of the event.

The bridge's bike and pedestrian trail was inaugurated yesterday morning, in time for National Trails Day. Politicians and cycling advocates made the trip from Alexandria to a new overpass on the Maryland side, near National Harbor. They cut ribbons, gave speeches and ate ice cream to mark an achievement that spanned 15 years of collaboration by Maryland, Virginia and the District.

After crossing to the other side, Gayle Putrich, James Saint-Rossy and Keith Daegele stopped their bikes and looked around. Behind them was the roar of bridge traffic; ahead of them, a tangle of highway overpasses.

They had made it to Maryland.

What next?

"That's kind of the big question . . . " said Daegele, 29, of Alexandria, his voice drifting off.

". . . . what there is on this side," said Saint-Rossy, 34, of Arlington, completing his thought.

The question was on the minds of many who wondered where, after a decade and a half of lobbying, their bike path led.

A few trails on the Maryland side lead to federal parks, but not all are connected, and some require riding along a busy highway. No unbroken path leads into the District.

Silver Spring resident Abigail Rome, 52, biked 20 miles and crossed the 14th Street Bridge to use the Wilson Bridge from the Alexandria side. She said she would have liked to ride home through Maryland without backtracking. Until she can, she said, "I'm not sure I'll be using [the Wilson Bridge] that much."

Some people focused on the positive.

"You can hopefully, eventually, do a loop," said Sue Robinson of Arlington, who crossed the bridge with her husband, Rich, on a tandem bicycle. For now, she said, "There are little pieces of path, but they're hard to find."

Politicians and cycling advocates, many of whom worked on the Wilson Bridge project for many years, said they are trying to add bike trails and publicize existing ones.

"There is funding for trail development, to put bike trails along Oxon Hill Road," said Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), an avid cyclist who made the inaugural ride and lives nearby. "But we do need more trails that actually connect to each other."

One problem is that the most direct route to the District would require laying down a trail past five privately owned homes. Despite an easement, those residents have resisted the idea.

Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said the District is working on plans for a bike trail along South Capitol Street that could link with trails leading to National Harbor -- but only if Maryland builds connecting trails on its side.

Many cyclists who turned out yesterday contented themselves with being able to ride across the bridge, which had been restricted to motor vehicles. Some stopped at National Harbor for lunch. The 12-foot-wide bike and pedestrian path across the bridge has viewing areas, benches and telescopes pointed across the Potomac to the area's landmarks. At rush hour, cyclists should be able to speed past stopped traffic.

As for development on the Maryland side, "it's partially on the bicyclists to go to the other side and explore, and ask for it," said Putrich, 30. "People here have been howling about this forever, and now they have it."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company