Trail of the Month: June 2018
“An interesting characteristic of this trail is that it touches everything.”
—Jon Korin, chair of the Anne Arundel County Bicycle Advisory Commission
The stars seem aligned for Maryland’s WB&A Trail, a straightforward, 13-mile pathway—beautiful in its simplicity and surroundings—that is rapidly becoming a key connector in a growing movement to improve walking and biking options in the Mid-Atlantic region. Linking Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Annapolis by a continuous, safe and scenic trail system is not just a pipe dream—it’s actually happening, and the WB&A Trail has an important place in that vision.
Making this grand idea possible is the fact that these cities were once connected by the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad (hence the WB&A), a passenger line that ran from 1908 to 1935. It now sets the stage to connect them once again by the rail corridor’s conversion to rail-trail.
In the mid-1980s, when the idea for the rail-trail was just taking off, the wind in its sails was citizen activist Morris Warren. “He was a local business man who had had a heart attack,” said Fred Shaffer, a planner with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC). “To get in shape and be healthier, he started biking.”
A love for trails grew from that experience, and the energetic Warren began working with M-NCPPC and other local organizations and agencies to develop a new rail-trail through the inactive WB&A rail corridor. The trail was included in the region’s transportation plans in the 1990s and completed in Prince George’s County in 2000. The trail section through Anne Arundel County was completed in phases in tandem.
“When the project hit roadblocks, he kept it moving,” continued Shaffer. “He was one of the driving forces behind it. He was a passionate advocate for the trail and passionate about using it once it was built.”
Carrying the trail advocacy torch today is the Capital Trails Coalition, a collaborative effort between public agencies, private organizations—like the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy—and citizen advocacy groups. A centerpiece of the coalition is its work to create an 800-mile network of multiuse trails, including the WB&A Trail, which are distributed equitably throughout the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region.
“The Capital Trails Coalition is working hard to build on the hard work that’s been done by our region’s trail advocates over the past 30-plus years," said Liz Thorstensen, RTC’s vice president of trail development and a member of the steering committee for the Capital Trails Coalition. "Because we are lucky enough to have amazing existing trail spines in our region, like the Capital Crescent, W&OD, and the Anacostia Tributary Trails System, the time is ripe to band together as a region to connect them into a world-class, integrated network of trails so that more people throughout the DC region have access to trails, walking and biking.”
Sublime in Suburbia
The WB&A Trail begins just a few miles from the eastern point of D.C.’s diamond and rolls almost immediately into the canopy as if eager to leave the bustle of MD 450 behind. Although it travels through suburban Prince George’s County, the paved pathway feels tucked away among the trees for much of the route—its tranquility encouraging the occasional deer or other wildlife to step out of the brush. Shaffer even recalls a time when he saw a painted bunting, a rainbow-colored songbird more common to the South, flitting about the trail. It’s unexpected and striking appearance drew a small crowd of onlookers and photo takers.
Continuing through Glenn Dale, the trail passes the Glenn Dale Splash Park, one of many popular recreational amenities along the route that make it so beloved by residents. An impressive bridge whisks travelers over MD 197, and less than a mile farther on is Race Track Road. Off the trail, but just up the road a short distance, is Bowie, home to a historical area (which locals call simply “Old Bowie”), the Bowie Railroad Museum and Bowie State University. A proposed Bowie Heritage Trail could one day link these and other attractions together, incorporating part of the WB&A Trail and making for a worthwhile side excursion.
“I live in the city, so I see trails as a transportation use,” said Katie Harris, WABA’s trails coalition coordinator. “On the WB&A Trail, the pace is much slower and people are genuinely enjoying themselves. I like to see how the trail is integrated into their lives. It’s a cherished piece of the community.”
A few miles farther, the Prince George’s County section of the trail ends at the Patuxent River in a lush, natural area. The northern half of the trail, which winds through neighboring Anne Arundel County, lies tantalizingly close on the other side. A project to build a long-awaited bridge over Patuxent River, which would unite the two halves of the trail (both nearly equidistant at 6 to 7 miles each), was awarded $4.7 million in funding from the federal Transportation Alternatives Program late last year. Design work is underway on the 700-foot bridge and trail advocates hope to see its construction completed within two to three years.
“The trail will see a dramatic jump in usage once the bridge is in place,” said Jack Keene, president of Friends of Anne Arundel County Trails. “Right now, there’s no easy way to get from the north end of the trail in Anne Arundel County to the south end in Prince George’s County.”
Jon Korin, chair of the Anne Arundel County Bicycle Advisory Commission, agrees. “That bridge will be a gamechanger for both transportation and recreation,” said Korin. “When the design study for the bridge crossing was launched, a public meeting was held in the Two Rivers community, and it was standing room only. We packed the house! There were people there from both sides of the river, and the sentiment in the room was, ‘When are you going to get it done?’”
The section through Anne Arundel County continues the pleasant, wooded experience until opening up at its end in a commercial center of Odenton. Along the way, charms of the route include a bridge over the Little Patuxent River and delightful trailside gardens planted by volunteers of Friends of Anne Arundel County Trails.
A Regional Renaissance of Connectivity
At the northern end of the trail, a future extension of about 6 miles would reach Baltimore, where the existing BWI Trail circles the airport. Connecting to that loop, the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail (B&A Trail) extends outward for 13 miles, like the stem of a lollipop to the outskirts of Annapolis. The developing South Shore Trail, which follows a branch of the old WB&A Railroad, would provide a link from the B&A Trail back to the WB&A Trail in Odenton. A short section is already open in Annapolis, and eventually the route will total 14 miles.
Not only would these trail linkages prove useful to local residents and to the region as a whole, but this chain of trails—along with on-road sections through the gaps—is already being utilized by nationally significant biking routes, too. The East Coast Greenway, which is connecting multiuse trails from Maine to Florida, is one, and the American Discovery Trail, from Delaware to California, is another. The September 11th National Memorial Trail, linking the World Trade Center, Flight 93 and Pentagon Memorials, utilizes the WB&A Trail as well.
Looking back at the southern end of the trail in Prince George’s County, the final puzzle piece to fit into place is the D.C. connection. This summer, a feasibility study will be released by the M-NCPPC, which will flesh out the details for how to make that happen and provide trail advocates with an invaluable resource to use in applying for construction funding. At community meetings to gather feedback on the project, Shaffer said the response from residents and cyclists has been very enthusiastic.
From MD 450 in Glenn Dale, the much-anticipated southern extension would span 6.3 miles, paralleling MD 704—a roadway built in the old rail corridor—down to the District line. From there, D.C.’s Marvin Gaye Trail would be but a block or two away and, in turn, leads to the Anacostia River Trail, which would open up a whole host of connections to other trails and numerous attractions throughout the nation’s capital.
“It’ll be a straight shot along the state highway, but the intension is not just to build a wide sidewalk,” said Shaffer of the proposed ideas for the southern extension. “It will be more like a linear park with a buffer from the roadway, landscaping and amenities. A lot more people will use the trail if they feel safe from traffic.”
And, when it comes to transportation, the connections don’t end there (we told you the stars were aligning); in any discussion of transportation in the D.C. region, one must bring up Metro, the heavily used rail system, as well as Maryland’s MARC commuter line. Stations for both are peppered throughout this expansive trail network, including Metro’s New Carrollton Station (near the proposed southern extension) and MARC stations in Bowie and Odenton to name a few.
“An interesting characteristic of this trail is that it touches everything,” said Korin. “It connects large urban areas, suburban areas in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, natural areas like at the Patuxent River crossing, and transit and employment centers.”
And, lastly, the trail has made one final connection, this time crossing the political divide. The county executives for both Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties—Rushern Baker, a Democrat, and Steve Schuh, a Republican—have both thrown their support behind trail projects.
“The local officials, regardless of party, support the trail,” said Eric Brenner, chair of the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “It’s not a political issue. You’ll see both Schuh and Baker together on this cross-jurisdictional project with a high level of enthusiasm.”