Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Tight times keep bicycle budgets from shifting into gear

County focuses on other transportation issues

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Cyclists and county officials recognize that Silver Spring’s bike path network is inadequate, but with a lack of funding and difficulty in acquiring land, those involved are not expecting a timely solution.

Other transportation projects have taken precedence over finishing the network, and the completion of long-planned off-road bike paths has been delayed by pre-existing development.

‘‘We have major gaps in the system,” said Gail Tait-Nouri, the Montgomery County bicycle coordinator from the Department of Transportation. ‘‘There are priorities and sometimes they get rearranged. It’s a difficult task to sort out what should be the most important transportation issue.”

While the Paul S. Sarbanes Silver Spring Transit Center and the state’s Purple Line transit project have gained most public attention, cyclists have been frustrated by the lack of progress on connecting some of the county’s major bikeways, including the Capital Crescent Trail, which runs west to Bethesda.

‘‘No funding is allocated for it and bike facilities are lacking in Silver Spring,” said Darian Unger, chairman of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board transportation and pedestrian safety committee when asked about transportation priorities for Silver Spring. ‘‘Right now, we’re fighting to keep [funding for] the transit center. That’s of utmost priority. That deals with thousands and thousands of people while the bike paths are part of a multi-pronged solution.”

The transit center, a $91 million project that would serve as a hub for buses, Metro, passenger trains as well as providing a connection to the proposed Metropolitan Branch Trail for bicycles, is facing a $19 million budget shortfall.

The Capital Crescent Trail does not connect with the planned Metropolitan Branch Trail or the Green Trail in downtown Silver Spring. Instead, cyclists must wind through a series of neighborhoods and busy roads, including the six-lane16th Street intersection with Second Avenue, to make it to Silver Spring’s central business district.

Peter Gray, the chairman of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, commutes by bicycle from Silver Spring to 14th Street and H Street in Washington, D.C. Gray said he must navigate through neighborhoods and down 16th Street every day.

‘‘If we’re going to get people out of their cars and onto bikes, then we have to create safe areas for cyclists,” Gray said. ‘‘We need to create more off-road bike paths.”

Officials have been trying to negotiate a crossing for the Capital Crescent Trail over the railway in Silver Spring owned by the CSX Corporation, but have been unsuccessful. According to Wayne Phyillaier, a cyclist and advocate for completing the Capital Crescent Trail, a Purple Line project that includes an off-road bike path is the only way to complete the trail.

‘‘We were talking about connecting the trail from Bethesda 20 years ago,” Phyillaier said. ‘‘It’s only been the last five years or so that I’ve come to the realization that it’s never going to happen without the Purple Line.”

Up to 20,000 people use the trail per week in certain areas around Bethesda, according to a 2006 survey by the coalition.

Upon completion, the Green Trail would run east along Wayne Avenue and serve as a connector between the other major trails and the Sligo Creek Trail. But the Green Trail comes with delays as well. The trail currently stops near the Whole Foods supermarket on Wayne Avenue and will not be completed until the planned route for the Purple Line is known, according to Unger.

In the meantime, cyclists will have to wait. ‘‘Bicycling facilities are really the first things to go when times get tough, and that’s what we’re seeing in Montgomery County right now,” said Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. ‘‘In our opinion, everything should be developed with bike access in mind.”

With funding constraints and delays, Tait-Nouri said the best the county can do for Silver Spring’s bike path network would be signage for bikers wishing to travel from Silver Spring to other destinations.

‘‘Signage is important, but we need to do something that creates a more inviting bicycling environment,” Phyillaier said. ‘‘Putting signs down Second Avenue does nothing to make the roadway crossings at Colesville Road safe enough to make people feel comfortable.”

For now, according to Phyillaier and Unger, the gaps in Silver Spring’s bike network won’t be filled until after the transit center and Purple Line projects are resolved.

‘‘When things don’t happen for years, you get people in the community waving flags,” Unger said. ‘‘It’s hard, but steady progress on all of the bike paths would be important.”