Capital Trails Coalition Begins Creation of World-Class Trail Network in DC

Posted 10/13/16 by Amy Kapp, Katie Harris in Building Trails, America's Trails

Mount Vernon Trail in Washington, D.C. | Photo by Brandi Horton

On the morning of Oct. 13, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) joined the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA), the National Park Service, REI and a crowd of more than 40 people along the Mount Vernon Trail in Washington, D.C. to formally announce the creation of the Capital Trails Coalition.

Comprising more than 40 public and private organizations and agencies, as well as citizen volunteers—and supported by REI, who has committed $500,000 to support the development of this project—the coalition is working to complete a world-class multi-use trail network in the D.C. metro region with a collective vision: to transform public life by providing healthy, low-stress access to open space and reliable transportation for people of all ages and abilities.

Here is a video of the ceremony:

Speakers included Rep. Don Beyer Jr. (D-Va.-08); Charles Glass of the Maryland Department of Transportation; Beth Porter, Alex Romero, Peter May and Capt. Sarah Newman of the National Park Service; Matt Liddle of REI; Sam Zimbabwe of the District Department of Transportation; Greg Billing of WABA and Keith Laughlin of RTC.

Why D.C.?

Although D.C. currently has hundreds of miles of trails on the ground—used and cherished by the area's 6 million residents and 20 million visitors annually—they are not all connected in a cohesive, easy-to-navigate network. According to WABA Trails Coalition Coordinator Katie Harris, D.C.’s trails were built by the individual standards of multiple jurisdictions, and with diverse sources of funding—when available. “The result was facilities that functioned in their own right but were disconnected to other trail infrastructure,” says Harris.

Met Branch Trail in Washington, D.C. | Photo courtesy RTC

The coalition’s goal is to create a tightly connected trail network that links communities and major destinations in the region, promotes health and physical activity, and helps spur both economic development and trail tourism. Coalition partners believe there is no better place than the nation’s capital to create what can ultimately serve as model for other similar projects.

“D.C. is one of the top places in the country for bikers, walkers and runners; gets the attention of millions of tourists each year; and is a beacon for policymakers and influencers from around the country,” says Keith Laughlin, president of RTC. “The success we have here is sure to resonate with communities around the country, who are seeking to replicate it.”

The Capital Trails Coalition is one of six—and counting—Projects of National Significance that are a heavy focus of the organization’s trail development efforts. RTC is focusing these regional network-building projects on geographic areas that are at a tipping point in trail connectivity, where strong trail infrastructure exists and strategic investments can be made that close gaps and dramatically improve trail access.

With these model projects in hand, communities nationwide will have a blueprint to catalyze trail-network development and the opportunity to deliver smart transportation, strong economic growth, healthy people, competitive regional advantage and social equity.

RELATED: 112 Years Later: Baltimore’s Trail Network Vision Is Coming of Age

The Grit Work Begins (With Collaboration)

Of course, the early disconnect in planning also means that cross-sector cooperation at all levels is crucial to the project’s success.

Mount Vernon Trail in Washington, D.C. | Photo by Brandi Horton

“The region is incredibly complex,” explains Gregory Billing, executive director of WABA. “It comprises two states, a federal district, multiple counties and numerous cities. Accomplishing a major project like this one will require an intense focus on regional coordination and collaboration.”

The Coalition has been meeting regularly since the 2015 Trails Symposium last November and has made tremendous progress, including establishing a steering committee and three working groups, and developing governance structures and a graphic identity.

The coalition has also begun the “gritty work” of defining the trails system and establishing criteria for inclusion in the network.

Over the next few years, the coalition will continue to identify trail funding sources, broaden its base of support and cultivate widespread consensus that a capital trail network is a regional priority.

The Footprint

Though still in development, the geographic footprint of the network currently includes more than 400 miles of existing and planned trails and connections in the following places:

  • Two counties in Maryland: Montgomery and Prince George’s
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Three jurisdictions in Virginia: City of Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax County
Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in Washington, D.C. | Photo by Milo Bateman

Many core spines of the network are complete and will serve as the superstructure upon which the rest of the network is linked. They include popular rail-trails such as the 11-mile Capital Crescent Trail, which connects Georgetown in D.C. to Bethesda, Maryland; and the 45-mile Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park trail, which runs from urban Arlington to Purcellville in Virginia and helps make up the western portion of the network. They also include greenways like the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail, a central segment of the network, which follows the George Washington Memorial Parkway from Alexandria south to George Washington’s residence at Mount Vernon.

One of the first major trails to open since the Coalition has formed is the Kenilworth section of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, a 4-mile segment that will connect the 15 miles of the trail in D.C. to more than 40 miles of the Tributary Trails in Prince George’s County, Maryland. That means that the tens of thousands of people that live in the suburbs to the northeast of D.C. can now safely walk or bike into the city on separated multi-use trails.

W&OD Trail near Leesburg in Virginia | Photo by Matthew Culbertson

Another corridor of note, in the capital region, is the 13-mile Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis (WB&A) Trail, which stretches toward Baltimore in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties. As it stands today, it traces along a disused rail corridor through wooded suburban neighborhoods. The coalition strength will be on full display as it works to connect the WB&A to the rest of the trail network, forming its eastern spoke.

In addition to serving as a case study for other American cities, this trail system will change the way people live, play and get around in D.C., and will serve as a shining example of a successful trail system for Congressmen seeking to push for similar networks in their home states.

For more information, go to the Capital Trails Coalition website.

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