Nov 112014

Montgomery County is putting considerable effort into signing new bike routes in the county.  They’ve signed four continuous road routes so far: Tuckerman-Plyers Mill-Dennis AveBethesda/Fernwood RdGeorgia Ave Corridor, and Rt 29 Corridor.  More are yet to come!

Question:  Which of the following four destination formats do you like best for county signs?  The county has used all of these formats lately.  They vary in the number of destinations per panel, total width, text flow and use of the word “miles”.  Overlook the fact that one is a hiker-biker trail sign and one lacks a big arrow.  Image scale is adjusted so you can compare sizes.

Four destination formats (images are scaled to allow size comparison)

To start off with, the county defines a base sign configuration consisting of two panels indicating route type and route direction respectively.  The route direction is shown by a big arrow (a double-headed arrow if you’re coming upon the route):

No destinations given

Destination Format 1

Below is what I call “destination format 1”, which puts all the destinations on one panel.  It’s fairly compact.  These are used on the older Tuckerman/Plyers Mill/Dennis Ave route.  For example:

Format 1 with three destinations

The following example adds a mile marker, making it clear that we’re on a defined route, not just a bike-friendly road.

Format 1 with two destinations and mile marker

The “format 1” sign assembly consists of a

  • Bike Route panel
  • “Big arrow” panel with an arrow pointing in one or two directions
  • Single destination panel, with an arrow and mileage for each destination
  • Optionally a mile marker (sometimes on the big arrow panel, sometimes on a separate panel).
  • Optional panels that may say “Start”, “End” “Use sidewalk”, etc.

There’s some room for creativity with this format.  The contractor can adjust the text flow to widen or narrow the panels or combine panels to make things more compact.

But format 1 was deemed to be wasteful. For example, why waste space with the word “miles”?

Destination Format 2

So a new destination format that I call “format 2” was adopted for newer bike routes.  The main difference is that each destination is on its own panel.  The destination panels are wider and matched in width.  Because the panels are matched in width, some will be wider than necessary and the more panels there are the wider the panels will tend to get.  It’s nice that destinations can easily be added or removed if errors are found or the route is extended.

Format 2 with two destinations

With four destinations, format 2 gets really big

I’m not sure I’d want this in my front yard

This post has 10 panels! It starts very low to the ground.

What we didn’t anticipate was that the newer sign assemblies would be so much bigger.   They’re so big that I’ve started recommending fewer destinations on each sign.  If the county adds mile marker numbers or someday route numbers they’ll get even bigger.

I also find format 2 to be, well, ugly.  The signs look “sterile” to me, like they’re cells in a spreadsheet.  I wouldn’t want to see them on a rustic road.

Destination Format 3

It is possible to have smaller destination panels that are still modular, which is how format 3 does it.  It’s sort of hybrid between formats 1 and 2.  Text can be wrapped to optimize panel width and keep them all the same width (though I don’t see why they’d have to be the same width). Including the word “miles” seems to make it a little easier to flow the text as desired (you can have “7 miles” on a line by itself but not “7”).

Format 3 has small yet modular destination panels

Destination Format 4

Finally, format 4 is a hybrid format where the destination panel is broken into multiple sections rather than panels.  This sign was used near Battery Lane in Bethesda:

Format 4 has multiple destinations sectioned off on one panel

What do you think? I’d like new signs to use the older format (format 1) or maybe one of the hybrid formats (3 or 4).  I’d also like the consultant drafting the signs to be flexible with text flow to minimize panel size.

Nov 042014

Wouldn’t it be great to air a public service announcement saying why cyclists don’t stay right all the time?  After all, this blog can’t reach everyone.  How’s this?

[Sound of driving]
MAN: Hey, there’s a bicyclist.  Why is he riding so far to the left?  Shouldn’t he move over?
WOMAN: Not if he wants to be safe.  There are a lot of cars parked along the street.  Cyclists should always stay well away from parked cars because a driver might suddenly open his door.
MAN: Even if there’s a bike lane?
WOMAN: You bet.  A cyclist might also leave the bike lane to avoid leaves or broken glass or potholes or to get ready to turn left.
MAN: I get it.  Look, there’s another bicyclist up ahead.  There’s no parking but she’s in the middle of my lane.
WOMAN: That’s because the lane is too narrow for cars to pass her in the same lane.  If she rides all the way to the right, some drivers will think they can pass in the same lane and they’ll come way too close to her or even hit her.  But if she rides in the middle of the lane, drivers won’t pass until they can move over, and everyone is safer.
[pause with more sound of driving]
WOMAN: And one more thing Mike.  Drivers must always keep at least three feet to the left of cyclists when passing.  That’s the law.
MAN: Wow.  There’s so much I didn’t know.  I’ll definitely keep an eye out for cyclists in my lane now.

It should be broken up into a couple shorter PSAs, but you get the idea.  Here are some more topics:  Why aren’t cyclists using the bike path?  What are those funny bike markings with arrows in the middle of the road?

Car doors are not your friend

Nov 012014

Woodglen Drive in North Bethesda now features Montgomery County’s first cycle track.  The county Department of Transportation deserves kudos for its willingness to support this type of facility.  The implementation is not without its shortcomings, but growing pains are to be expected as the county begins implementing cycle tracks, also known as protected bike lanes.  Moreover, the cycle track is not 100% complete (it will be by the end of November hopefully).  The primary problems seem to be intersection design and the proximity of parking to the cycle track, creating the potential for cyclists to collide with suddenly opened car doors.  Moving forward, there are steps the county can take to improve this facility and to create better cycle tracks in the future.  It would be good for the county to adopt some application criteria, design guidelines, and a process for implementing protected bike lanes.

Here’s a great drive-by video taken by Monte Fisher.  Note that the signs and street markings aren’t fully complete yet.

Click to play video (it’s a bit slow to load)

WABA is urging the county to provide a cycle track on Arlington Road in Bethesda as well, in conjunction with a road diet to eliminate a travel lane.  This would improve north-south options for cyclists, calm traffic, and help separate pedestrians from car traffic.  WABA could use your help on this campaign!  For information visit WABA’s People First on Arlington Road page.

Woodglen Drive context and history…

The Bethesda Trolley Trail currently runs from downtown Bethesda to the White Flint Metro station, including the entire length of Woodglen Drive.  The original Woodglen design called for bike lanes in the roadway and a shared use path on the west side, creating a “dual bikeway” (on-road + off-road) as called for by the White Flint Sector Plan.  The path would serve as the trail.  However, the bike lanes would’ve come too close to parked cars on the west side, so after much discussion that plan was modified to provide a northbound bike lane on the east side but sharrows on the west side.  Sharrows were considered suitable since the street is relatively calm and cars can cheat into the two-way center turn lane to pass cyclists (as they did before without major difficulty).  There would be a facility for everyone.  However, this plan fell apart when the adjacent neighborhood objected to having 5′ or 6′ wide pinch points in the path to avoid trees and utility poles – poles which could not be removed without prohibitively increasing the cost.  So DOT came up with the two-way cycle track as an alternative solution, ostensibly to serve all types of riders.  Now the cycle track is complete except for some pavement markings and signs.

A few concerns

Probably the biggest concern with the Woodglen cycle track is that half of it is in the “door zone” of parked cars.  Protected bike lanes are supposed to protect cyclists, so they’re not doing their job if cyclists are safer in the street. Intersections are a concern as well.  The transition to two-way bike flow at the north end (at Nicholson Lane) is very awkward, even dangerous, as it’s currently configured.  The transition to the trail across Edson Lane is problematic as well.  Access to side streets on the opposite side of Woodglen is awkward and requires crossing the entire street.  It’s important that cyclists be able to avoid these problems by riding in the roadway without harassment.  Painting sharrows in the roadway could go a long way towards accomplishing that, although DOT believes this would create confusion.

If you haven’t already, go see the cycle tracks for yourself!  It’s great to see the county taking bicycling seriously.  Please use the comment section to express what you like or don’t like about the Woodglen solution.  I’m looking for comments to pass on to the county.

Jack Cochrane, MoBike

Feb 242014

Five County Council members have signed on to a letter by Roger Berliner asking for a cost estimate of clearing snow on the Capital Crescent Trail, with an eye towards covering it in the county operating budget this year.  This is something cyclists have been requesting for years, but the requests (like bikes in the snow) never got much traction.   The letter is directed to county DOT and the Parks Department, though the latter department owns the trail.

Also, Councilmember Hans Riemer has asked DOT to draft a plan for better snow removal from sidewalks.  Forcing pedestrians to walk in the street because plows have dumped snow onto sidewalks is unacceptable.  A local pedestrian was killed in recent years doing this.  If they can’t find a place to put snow, close a lane of the street.

Feb 202014

The draft 2014 Rockville Bikeway Master Plan is ready for public comment!  For details, visit the plan update site or directly view the draft plan and map at these links:

You can comment on the plan in person at a public hearing to be held on Wed. April 9th at 7 pm in the Mayor and Council Chambers, City Hall, 111 Maryland Avenue, Rockville, MD, 20850.  You can sign up to speak by calling 240-314-8200.   Individual speakers get 3 minutes; those representing organizations get 5 minutes.  Or you may provide written comments via email, via this form, or via regular mail (to bike coordinator Kevin Belanger, 111 Maryland Avenue, Rockville, MD 20850).  Planners will formally present the plan to the Planning Commission on March 12 at 7 pm in the Mayor and Council Chambers at City Hall.

The current official version of the plan was last created in 2004.  The city has a strong record on supporting bicycling and most of the recommendations in the 2004 plan were implemented.  It has an effective bike advisory committee (RBAC) on which anyone is welcome to participate.  Among the city’s accomplishments:

  • 34 miles of dedicated bikeways, including the Millennium Trail, portions of the Rock Creek Trail, a dedicated trail bridge over I-270, abundant sidepaths, bike lanes and now sharrows.
  • Mobile and printable bikeway maps.
  • Capital BikeShare stations in and around the city
  • Designated bike routes in the city, marked with color-coded signs

General information about bicycling in Rockville can be found on the city’s bikeway page.

 Posted by at 9:23 am on Feb 20, 2014  Comments Off on Rockville Bikeway Plan available for public comment
Feb 082014

The Maryland Department of Transportation just issued its new Twenty-Year Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan.  According to MDOT:

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan establishes a 20-year vision to support cycling and walking as modes of transportation in Maryland. The Plan provides guidance and investment strategies to support cycling and walking, both on-road and off-road, as part of Maryland’s multimodal transportation network.

It’s not the kind of plan that stipulates which streets will get bike lanes and where paths will be built.  Instead the plan describes the current state of affairs, identifies objectives, lays out strategies and discusses implementation.  It presents a lot of useful facts as well.

The plan was released January 15, 2014.

 Posted by at 3:19 am on Feb 8, 2014  Comments Off on Maryland’s New Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan
Feb 072014

On January 15th, County Executive Ike Leggett released his recommended 2015 Capital Budget and 2015-2020 Capital Improvements Program (CIP), aka the 2015-2020 Capital Budget.  It identifies capital project funding over the six year period starting with Fiscal year 2015 (which begins July 1, 2014).   The first two years of the budget, 2015 and 2016, are the ones to watch.  The other four years are “out-years” which represent intentions or best guesses but may change significantly.  The capital budget is re-crafted every two years.  It is amended during the other years or any other time as needed.  “Capital” projects essentially involve building, creating or designing things – as opposed to operating and maintaining things which is the purview of the Operating Budget.

Helpful hints

Most bike and pedestrian projects are identified under Transportation in the capital budget.

However, parkland trails usually appear under M-NCPPC in the budget (on the M-NCPPC page, note that some projects are listed only on the CIP230 form).

Each capital project has its own Project Description Form (confusingly abbreviated PDF) describing the project and its funding profile year by year.   These forms are very useful.

Facility Planning is a useful budget item to examine.  The Facility Planning-Transportation PDF (see the last page) identifies projects that the county plans to study in coming years.  Facility Planning is the phase of studying and doing preliminary engineering (up to 30% design) on a project before it’s allowed to move on to the next step with dedicated funding of its own.  Road, transit, and bikeway projects undergoing Facility Planning are grouped together for budget purposes under Facility Planning-Transportation.  The PDF for Facility Planning-Transportation gives insight into the future of bike projects in the county.

The Projects

The following dedicated bikeway projects are identified in the budget (not counting projects only scheduled for Facility Planning, or road projects with significant bike components):

  • Bikeway Program – Minor Projects.  This county program covers selected small projects up to about $500K each.  It was previously called the Annual Bikeway Program.  The program is flexible and allows individual projects to be approved fairly quickly by DOT working with bicyclists.  The fund may also be used to study larger projects.   Funded at approx. $500K year, it will receive an additional $500K in 2015 from the state’s Maryland Bikeways Program.
  • Bethesda Bike/Pedestrian Facillities.  Remaining work consists of upgrading the Capital Crescent Trail non-tunnel route through downtown Bethesda for about $1 million.
  • Capital Crescent Trail.  Completion of the CCT as a hard surface trail from Bethesda to downtown Silver Spring in conjunction with Purple Line construction.
  • Falls Road East Side Hiker/Biker Path.  A path along 4 miles of Falls Road in Potomac.  No money is allocated because it’s so expensive it will likely never be built (though a sidewalk may someday be built on the west side).  Likely cost of $15-20 million.
  • Frederick Road Bike Path.  A $7.2 million, 2.5 mile long shared use path along Rt. 355 in Clarksburg.
  • MacArthur Blvd. Bike Improvements.  An almost completed $8.7 million project improving a 2.6 mile path and widening a shoulder along MacArthur Blvd.  This project is the first segment of three to be improved (the next segment is in Facility Planning).
  • Metropolitan Branch Trail.  Extension of the Met Branch Trail over Georgia Ave. and into the Silver Spring Transit Center by 2018.  Funding estimated at $12 million
  • Needwood Road Bike Path.  Construction mainly of a 1.7 mile path along Needwood Road linking the ICC Trail to Lake Needwood.  Cost is $4.2 million, but much of this will be covered by the state’s Maryland Bikeways Program.
  • Seven Locks Bikeway & Safety Improvements.  This 3.3 mile new path & shoulder upgrade is prohibitively expensive at $27 million and no funding is allocated.
  • Silver Spring Green Trail.  Extension of this sidepath east of downtown Silver Spring in conjunction with Purple Line construction.
  • North Branch Trail.  The Executive’s budget provides no funding for this important M-NCPPC trail.  The park trail would extend the Lake Frank Trail northward across MD 115 and the ICC Trail until it reaches Olney.  In all, 2.2 miles of trail for $4.3 million by 2018 if funded.
  • Trails: Hard Surface Design and Construction.  M-NCPPC work on miscellaneous new hard surface trails, approximately $300K per year.
  • Hard Surface Trail Renovation. M-NCPPC trail renovation work, up to $800K per year.

The most critical concern is lack of any funding for the North Branch Trail (see map and PDF) in the Executive’s recommended budget.  M-NCPPC requested funding to complete the trail by 2018.  In fact the trail is already in the design phase.  The Executive cited “affordability” as the reason not to continue funding the trail.  It’s up to the County Council to make sure the trail is funded in the final budget.  Stay tuned.

Thanks to Jon Morrison for the original Share the Budget sign!
 Posted by at 3:35 am on Feb 7, 2014  Comments Off on Share the Budget with Bikes!
Jan 272014

Good news…  An arrangement to fund and build the Fishers Lane Trail, which will connect Fishers Lane to the Rock Creek Trail near Rockville, has been approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board. Fishers Lane (the road) in turn connects to Twinbrook Metro and is relatively bikeable (in the roadway).  While ultimate construction of the trail depends on funding that has not been allocated, the major issues that jeopardized the trail appear to have been largely resolved.  The superb web page created by Monte Fisher (no relation) covers the trail project and its recent history.

The main issues facing the trail were:

  • The originally intended alignment became impossible due to a new plan to put Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on the shoulder of Veirs Mill Road
  • Resolving that problem by moving the trail off the Veirs Mill Road shoulder would greatly increase the project cost.

Under the new arrangement, the developer JBG and the Parks Department have agreed to build the trail away from Veirs Mill Road.  While JBG was originally required to fund the entire trail as a condition of developing NIAID, now it’s only required to pay $900K and the Parks Department will cover the rest, though it may take some time for Parks funding to be available.  The Planning Board just approved this arrangement.  Everyone benefits.

The new alignment of the segment parallel to Veirs Mill Road will be located on parkland owned by MNCPPC.  This poses some technical challenges, but the Parks Dept. believes these can be resolved.  Also approved by the Planning Board is a minor change to the trail route south of Veirs Mill Road so the trail can cross Rock Creek on a bridge perpendicular to the stream rather than at an angle, reducing cost.

The original alignment is shown as the pinkish-purple line below (crossed out where canceled) and the new alignment will follow the red line (subject to some small changes since this map was drawn):

Revised trail alignment

Unfortunately, the BRT plan precludes construction of a segment of the Veirs Mill Road sidewalk, shown in yellow, which would have been a vital connection for pedestrians and bicyclists.

For more about this trail, see Monte’s page.

 Posted by at 9:09 am on Jan 27, 2014  Comments Off on Fishers Lane Trail Arrangement Approved
Jan 182014

County Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Hans Riemer have introduced a council bill to change county road standards in urban areas to better serve pedestrians and bicyclists.  Bill 33-13 seeks to 1) reduce car speeds, thereby making pedestrians and bicyclists safer, 2) stipulate certain road features to improve pedestrian safety and access, especially at crosswalks, and 3) better accommodate new technology including bike sharing.  Roger Berliner briefly summarizes the bill here.

Whenever roads are rebuilt or in some cases resurfaced, engineers can choose from a toolkit of improvements designed to make urban areas safer for biking and walking.  The tools include everything from curb extensions (aka bulbouts or neckdowns) that make crosswalks shorter to HAWK beacons that blink when a pedestrian wishes to cross the street.  One of the most effective things designers can do to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety is simply slow cars down.  One way to do this is by reducing the speed that drivers perceive is a safe maximum driving speed, using techniques such as narrowing lanes, making turns sharper, and reducing side banking on curves.  The “design speed” of a road refers to the speed it’s designed to accommodate, which is closely related to the speed drivers believe is safe.  County standards stipulate a target speed for each roadway type, indicating the prevailing car speed designers seek to achieve by adjusting the design speed and using other techniques.

With that in mind, Bill 33-13 was introduced to modify the county’s road standards governing urban streets as follows:

  • Reduce the widths prescribed by the standards for travel lanes, turning lanes, and parking lanes
  • Reduce the “target speeds” specified in the standards for various urban street types
  • Limit the size of curb radii in urban areas (i.e. make turns sharper)
  • Require curb extensions (aka bulbouts or neckdowns) at the end of parking lanes.
  • Require 6′ wide pedestrian refuges in the median of 6-lane divided roads at intersections
  • Require construction of curb ramps, curb cuts and sewer grates that are not hazards to bicyclists or wheelchair users and meet ADA standards
  • Require designs that facilitate future accommodation of technology such as bike sharing, car-sharing, electric car charging, intelligent signals, smart meters and way-finding systems
  • Permit the County Executive to contract with developers to share the cost of such technology

The Road Code

Montgomery County road standards are codified in a set of regulations commonly referred to as the “Road Code”.  To view the regulations, go to Chapter 49 of COMCOR here or open them in PDF form.  Chief among the Road Code’s stipulations are rules governing roadway target speeds, dimensions of various street elements (such as travel lanes, bike lanes,  shoulders, medians, sidewalks and tree panels), and stormwater management.   In 2008 these standards were substantially updated to make them more specific to their surroundings (context sensitive) and generally more accommodating of walking and bicycling than the old standards.  I served as the bicyclist representative on the Road Code Work Group, a task force of stakeholders tasked with coming up with new Road Code standards.

Designers and engineers do not have to blindly follow the Road Code.  Engineers can seek exceptions to the standards.  Planners have wide discretion to follow, extend, or deviate from the standards (the Planning Department has its own policies and interpretations) but the Road Code carries great weight and serves as default rules.  In any case all designs must be approved by the relevant bodies or officials (Planning Board, County Council and/or County Executive).

One of the guiding national manuals on context sensitive design is Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach sponsored by the Institute of Transportation Engineers.  This guide helped inspire some of the Road Code changes.

Travel Lane Width

The bill calls for travel lanes (not bike lanes) on some urban roadway types to be considerably narrower than what’s specified in the Road Code today.  The bill calls for the outside curb lane (the rightmost travel lane if it’s against the curb) on all urban streets to be 11′ wide including the gutter, and for other travel lanes to be 10′ wide including any left-side gutter.  Compare that to the templates in today’s Road Code which call for outside curb lanes in urban areas to be as wide as 14′ and inside lanes as wide as 12.5′ (and never less than 11′) depending on context.  Reducing lane widths in the Road Code could free up more space for bike lanes and other street elements as well as lead drivers to slow down.

Target Speed

The county designs its streets with a particular vehicular speed in mind, referred to as the target speed.   Target speeds for various contexts are officially specified in the Road Code. On all but the smallest streets (where target speeds are already 25 mph or less) and freeways, the bill would reduce target speeds on county roads in urban areas to a flat 25 mph.  Target speeds in urban areas in today’s Road Code are: 30-40 mph for Parkways, 25-40 for Major Highways, 25-35 for Arterials, 25-30 for Minor Arterials and Business District Streets and 25-35 for Industrial Streets, as specified on PDF page 24 in the text portion of the Road Code.

Bicycling Implications

MoBike and WABA are in the process of weighing in on the bill.  Certainly we welcome any reduction to automobile speed on county streets.  Allowing narrower lanes leaves more room for bike accommodations.  I thank councilmembers Berliner and Riemer for paying attention to pedestrian safety.  As a bike advocate and a parent and a fellow vulnerable road user (and indeed often a pedestrian myself), I feel cyclists have to stick up for pedestrian safety.

But there is a possibility here of unintended consequences, because making some roadway features larger can take away space utilized by cyclists.  Preliminarily, here are some concerns:

1. Most of the bill appears to modify only county laws (County Code), not regulations.  The Road Code is specified as a set of regulations. Thus the requirements added by the bill could possibly supercede the Road Code, in practice if not in theory.  If the bill simply directs the county to adopt new regulations then this is not such a concern.  It’s important to understand that the Road Code attempts to balance different uses of limited roadway right-of-way.  Not all street elements of desired width can fit on every road, and the Road Code suggests ways to balance the elements with one another, whether it’s sidewalks, bike lanes, tree panels or medians.  Would the bill upset the balance by putting the new standards into the County Code rather than regulations?  This needs to be addressed.  The County Code and regulations (COMCOR) can both be viewed online.

2. The amendment stipulates a curb extension at the end of every parking lane.  However, extensions can cause problems for bicyclists, who often ride in the parking lane to stay out of the flow of car traffic.  It would be better to recommend the extensions on a case by case basis based on context.  The new standard should mention curb extension designs that are more bike-friendly.

3. Pedestrian refuges are important because they protect pedestrians crossing wide streets, but requiring by a 6′ refuge at every intersection could preclude other elements that may be more important in some contexts, possibly including bike lanes.

4. The existing Road Code also has some oversights that should be rectified either in this bill or a later one.  None of the four templates for Business Streets (aka Business District Streets) in the existing Road Code make any provision for bike lanes, yet these streets are very common in sector plans and are vital for bike connectivity.  The oversight tells planners and designers that bike lanes are not so important on these streets.  Getting bike lanes on Business Streets can require street-by-street advocacy by advocates rather than being widely planned as a matter of routine.  If bike lanes are to be on equal footing as other street elements in the allocation of limited space, they at least must be an option within the existing templates.

5. On some street types, the Road Code templates call for a combined bike lane + parking lane width that is less than 14′.  While there may be situations where this is necessary, the templates should specify 14′ as the default.  This is the minimum needed to provide adequate separation from car doors.

The bill is a step in the right direction.  It also sets the precedent of making modifications to the Road Code, which bodes well for fixing its bike-related problems.   It remains to be seen how all the stakeholders in the Road Code development process including MCDOT, MNCPPC, environmentalists, MCPS, the fire department, the police department and AAA will respond to the proposal and to the idea of making changes through legislation rather than consensus.

Jan 152014

Trail advocates have recently been pushing the county to study the idea of building hiker-biker trails in the rights-of-way of major Pepco power lines.  These strips of land can be ideal sites for trails because they are generally free of development and forest cover, consist of many miles of continuous straight segments, and cut directly from community to community to create excellent connections.

Montgomery County’s Pedestrian, Bicycle and Traffic Safety Advisory Committee  (PBTSAC) has commissioned a working group of public officials and stakeholders to explore the issue.  The PBTSAC may then make a recommendation to the County Executive and/or County Council.  The working group met with Pepco and presented its findings to the PBTSAC last week.

To sum it up, Pepco is very resistant to the idea.  The utility argues that it’s their land and cites everything from wanting to be good neighbors to fearing that people might light bonfires under their lines as reasons not to allow the trails.  In response to the well-supported argument that the extra eyes and ears of trail users would improve security in the corridors,  Pepco asserts that they already watch the lines.  Yet they claim that numerous security problems would arise despite their observation if trails were built, so clearly their observation has shortcomings and more eyes and ears would help.  It’s not unreasonable for Pepco to claim that they can do whatever they want with their own land, but as a utility they already have a mandate to use their resources to serve the public.  These resources include their power lines and the land under them.  If there’s a public benefit that can be gained through a second use of the land at virtually no expense or risk to the utility, Pepco should be required to allow this use.

John Wetmore of Perils for Pedestrians has compiled a gallery depicting trails under power lines that exist today around the country.

To elaborate on Pepco’s rationale against power line trails:

1. Safety.  Pepco says it’s safer not to have anyone near their high tension lines and that safety is their number one priority.  But we can point to a large number of trails along power lines that have not had any safety issues.

2. Private property.  Pepco does not even want us to use the term “right of way” because that might imply they only had an easement, whereas they own the land fee simple. They use the analogy that asking for a trail on their land is equivalent to asking for a neighborhood dog park in someone’s front yard.  Yet Pepco used condemnation powers (or the threat of condemnation) to take private property to assemble their utility corridors.  Shouldn’t the public get something back in return for allowing Pepco to condemn private property?  In any case, public use of these corridors should be considered part of Pepco’s mission to serve the public.

3. Liability.  Pepco feels they have the least liability when they post No Trespassing signs and forbid anyone to be on their land for any purpose.  But to address this concern, all 50 states have passed recreational use statutes.  Let’s ask Pepco what the shortcomings are in the Maryland recreational use statute that could be changed to address their liability concerns.

4. Good Neighbors.  Pepco says they have an obligation to their neighbors not to allow any activity on Pepco land that might disturb them.  Yet consider that many quality trails built in the county were initially opposed by immediate neighbors but embraced by communities they pass through.  If neighbor opposition always stopped trail construction, we’d have very few trails indeed.  Moreover, utility corridors are wide enough that the trails could be located considerable distance from rear lot lines.  The types of activities that tend to draw complaints, such as motorized ATVs, would remain illegal even with a trail there. 

Pepco does not talk at all about trails as a way to give back to the community  (“We’re connected to you by more than power lines” is Pepco’s registered trademark).  Allowing these trails could have a greater impact than all the other ways they give back to the community.

 Posted by at 9:04 am on Jan 15, 2014  Comments Off on Pepco responds on power line trail issue