Feb 012013

Color-coded map of the proposed sidewalk

Below is a report from community/bike advocate Steve Friedman on a meeting held Monday to discuss details of the Wisconsin Ave. “Green Mile” sidewalk (sidepath) project in Chevy Chase. The meeting was hosted by the Little Falls Watershed Alliance (LFWA) and attended by project staff from the Maryland State Highway Administration as well as the public.

Also check out the article in the Bethesda Patch reporting on the meeting.  (The Patch erroneously states that without the new facility, cyclists must ride against the direction of traffic in the roadway.  But cyclists certainly can (and must) ride in the same direction as car traffic if using the street, with or without the project).

We are referring to the proposed facility as a sidewalk rather than a shared use path because that is the state’s designation and because many portions lack the 8′ width recommended by AASHTO for shared use paths.  This is due to lack of right-of-way on the east side of Wisconsin Ave.  But nevertheless it’s a vitally important project for both pedestrians and cyclists.  Cyclists may legally use sidewalks in Bethesda and Friendship Heights.

The project plans as of August 2012 are as follows.  These may have been revised somewhat and may be revised further.

So this is yet another worthy path or sidewalk being opposed in the name of protecting the environment.  If every trail or sidewalk were canceled whenever opposed by groups claiming impacts to stream quality, stormwater management, street trees, neighborhood trees, interior trees, native species, invasive species and homeowner plantings, not to mention fear of careening cyclists and criminals, we wouldn’t have half the paths the county has today (but still lots of roads).   Fortunately in this case, large numbers of nearby residents support of the new sidewalk. The state has made many changes to the project to reflect public concerns, even conducting a walking tour of the route with interested citizens.

The project is expected to cost between $1.2 and $1.5 million.

Here is Steve’s report:

The Little Falls Watershed Alliance (LFWA) hosted a public meeting with the Maryland State Highway Administration at the Somerset Town Hall regarding the proposed sidewalk along Wisconsin Ave in Chevy Chase.  The sidewalk would run for 0.7 miles along the east side of Wisconsin (Rt. 355) between Bradley Lane and Grafton St., or most of the “Green Mile”.  It would be located adjacent to the Chevy Chase Club (a country club) as well as a small number of residences at Grafton St. and Hesketh St.

There is an existing sidewalk on the west side of Wisconsin opposite the proposed facility, but it’s only about 3 feet wide and the pavement is uneven in several sections.  This renders it inadequate to satisfy ADA regulatory requirements.  It lacks the width to accommodate multiple users and can be particularly hazardous if a cyclist is involved.  A cyclist riding on that sidewalk has little room to navigate around other sidewalk users, and given the narrow width, uneven sections, and large tree roots close to oncoming traffic on Wisconsin (related to the major source of objection to the project by LFWA) this has the potential to cause a serious incident.  SHA asserts that it’s unable to widen that sidewalk because it would mean acquiring right-of-way from all the residences on the west side of Rt. 355 between Cumberland Ave. and Nottingham Dr.

Residents of the Chevy Chase West neighborhood have put their support behind the new sidewalk because it would provide a continuous and easily accessible pedestrian route between Friendship Heights and Bethesda for residents living east of Rt. 355.  The width would reduce the potential for conflict between bicyclists and other path users compared to the facility on the west side.  This is an important consideration as the county begins participating in the bikeshare program.  Both Bethesda and Friendship Heights are slated to get multiple bikshare stations, which will result in more cyclists traveling between the two communities.  High volumes can be expected during rush hours, at lunch time and during the nice weather months.

LFWA’s main argument against the proposed sidewalk is that it would require removal of trees along the curb.  The initial plans drawn up did indicate the removal of all mature trees along that stretch of Rt. 355 which totaled 53 trees.  Based on feedback from various stakeholders, SHA is redoing the plans in order to minimize the removal of trees.  In an effort to press this issue, LFWA invited SHA to meet the public for a presentation and Q&A session, hence the Monday meeting.

Councilmember Roger Berliner opened the meeting, providing some background surrounding the project.  He indicated that after all the assessment done by SHA, which incorporated the ongoing expertise of arborists, he was still supportive of the project.  He opened the floor for Q&A, and several attendees expressed their opposition to the project. Tree removal and cost (projected $1.2-1.5M) were the main issues raised.  Some attendees also claimed that the sidewalk was strictly a bike trail and wouldn’t be utilized enough to justify the effort needed to make it happen.  Several questioned whether cyclists could use the sidewalk legally (this stretch of 355 has a “Bikes May Use Full Lane” sign); these attendees needed multiple reminders that nowhere in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area are there restrictions against sidewalk use by cyclists.  Other people asked questions about other SHA projects that were unrelated to the topic of this meeting.

At this point Councilmember Berliner left and SHA was left to attempt to give their planned presentation in the 15 minutes provided for them.  However, the presentation never really got off the ground as they were constantly interrupted, so no real information flow out from SHA to the attendees could occur.  SHA did convey that during the initial review of the trees by the arborist, it was determined that five were to be taken down immediately and have since been removed.  SHA also informed the attendees that there were still ongoing discussions to move the fence line further back away from the curb.  A final rendering of the plan incorporating the revised assessment and any concessions on moving the fence line (the project moves the existing fence line which is currently on SHA property back to the property line) will be released when completed.

Several residents of Chevy Chase West spoke up in support of the project and applauded SHA on their due diligence in minimizing the environmental impact which including the stakeholders in this process.  SHA had conducted multiple walk-throughs to receive questions and consider factors raised by residents.  Around this point, the meeting reached its time limit.  Berliner’s policy analyst encouraged residents to provide comments to his office for consideration.  SHA will continue to move the process forward to develop a final plan for consideration.

Thanks Steve!

Note: To contact Councilmember Roger Berliner about the project, call his office at 240-777-7828 or send him an email.  To provide input to the State Highway Administration regarding the project, you can call the District 3 office at 301-513-7300 or send an email to shadistrict3@sha.state.md.us.

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