The project is designed to fill a gap in the city’s growing trail system and facilitate bike commuting between the two sides of the Anacostia River, particularly for residents east of the river, where there is little bike or pedestrian infrastructure.
Cyclists and their advocates support the bridge as a key piece of the 28-mile Anacostia River Trail, a project that is more than halfway to completion and will connect users to more than a dozen waterfront neighborhoods and destinations, such as Nationals Park, the Washington Navy Yard and the arboretum.
But a vocal group of rowers say the proposed structure will create hazards for those on the water. The bridge, to be erected with three piers, will add obstructions the rowers say will make it difficult for boats to overtake other vessels in that stretch and complicate travel for novice and young rowers.
“Bicyclists have options to get across. We don’t have any other rivers,” said Susan
Dorn, a Prince George’s County resident who has been rowing on the Anacostia for a decade.
The Washington Rowing School, based just north of the city at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, is lobbying the District and the National Park Service, which own the land, to hold off on the construction or make significant changes to the bridge’s design.
But project supporters say the bridge’s importance goes beyond just providing a crossing. For one, they argue, it furthers the city’s overall efforts to transform the shores of the Anacostia into a lively waterfront.
The closest crossing available in the area is about 1.5 miles south, at Benning Road. That is an impractical detour for pedestrians or bicyclists, said Katie Harris, trail coalition coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA).
“This is more than just a bridge,” Harris said. “It is a connection between the communities on both sides of the river. It will provide a safe and convenient crossing for commuters and people that live there.”
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Charles Keenan Taylor, who leads group walks for the Kenilworth Recreation Center, said the bridge will expand recreational opportunities for residents east of the Anacostia, such as access to the arboretum grounds, while those west of the river can cross to visit the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
“A lot of people are accessing the trail and walking,” said Taylor, who has seen an increase in cyclists using the Anacostia trail and more neighbors using the facilities. “This will give them access to additional space to walk and recreate.”
Tamara Blair, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7, said she understands the concerns of the river users but also worries that non-D.C. residents are trying to derail a project that would benefit some of the city’s lowest-income residents.
“We can’t let people who don’t live in the area dominate the conversation on what should or should not happen,” Blair said. “The bridge will be a great way to connect these communities. It gives us an alternative way to get to the arboretum without having to take a roundabout path.”
The District Department of Transportation, which is leading the design and construction of the project, says it has made modifications to the design that keep the deepest part of the river open, with four travel lanes for rowers.
The most recent design puts the pier on the west side of the river in an area rowers have indicated is too shallow for them to use, District officials said, leaving only one pier as a significant obstruction for their boats — a change from the original plan, which placed two of the three piers in deepwater areas used by the rowers.
DDOT Director Jeff Marootian said the changes address the rowers’ concerns, and the city plans to move forward on a bridge that he says “will serve both commuting and recreational transportation purposes.”
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But river users think they should have a say in the deal. Their concerns are about not only about the impact on navigation but also the well-being of the river. They worry that a bridge will worsen the Anacostia’s sediment problem, noting that there are no dredging funds available to address it. And they say the project fails to coordinate with other efforts to improve the health of the river, including cleanups.
Marian Dombroski, a rowing coach and chair of the Anacostia Watershed Community Advisory Committee, said the rowers don’t oppose a bridge if it is done right.
“It needs to be coordinated, and the river needs to be protected,” she said. “There’s no question that people need access across the river, but not at the expense of the river.”
DDOT’s modified design, she said, creates a new obstruction in a stretch of the river that is already challenging to navigate because it is shallow and the channel is narrow. The piers add an additional hazard, including for middle and high school students from across the region who use the river for recreational and competitive rowing programs, she said.
Dombroski also fears it will mar the natural beauty of the area, after significant progress in recent decades since the closure of a dump site at Kenilworth Park.
“My heart breaks to know they will put something there,” Dombroski said.
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The project is one of several aimed at improving pedestrian and bike travel in the District, where the rate of commuting by foot, bike and scooter is growing.
The Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, a $480 million project under construction over the Anacostia in Southeast and Southwest Washington, will feature pedestrian and bike facilities, including four pedestrian overlooks.
Elsewhere along the Anacostia, there are plans to build the 11th Street Bridge Park using a defunct bridge over the river. That project would feature gardens, an open plaza, an amphitheater, play areas and a solar-powered environmental education center. Exelon, the parent company of electric utilities Pepco and Constellation, announced last month that it had given $5 million to the project.
It will be a few years before the proposed bridge near the arboretum is built. Design is at the 30 percent stage and is expected to be completed next year, officials said. Construction is expected to begin in 2021 and it will take between 12 and 18 months to build the bridge, according to DDOT. The project is being funded with federal grants.
WABA’s Harris said the project will open access for residents and visitors to enjoy the river in ways they haven’t before.
“Some people have the ability to experience the river by boat, but not everybody has that access,” Harris said. “The most important thing is that the Anacostia River is for everyone.”
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