November 9, 2011
Envision the trail – plan bigger
Chevy Chase Patch
By Dr. Mary S. Rivkin

Now that the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has presented its options for the Tunnel on the Trail—including astronomical costs to shove two tracks and a trail into an already problematic space—it’s time to call a halt and rethink the whole proposal.

Planners take many variables into account, but the variable of economic development should not dominate the decision-making as it has in the case of the Purple Line. I suggest that other variables—environmental justice, community health and childhood development—now take precedence.

Environmental justice is not served when the Purple Line establishes a 24/7 maintenance yard adjacent to a historically minority community. Nor is it served by removing a nature trail that provides fresh air, access to Rock Creek Park, and exercise space to numerous lower-income children in an apartment complex bordering the Capital Crescent Trail. Montgomery County must be fair to its lower-income residents.

Community health is not served when the Capital Crescent Trail—which, with 10,000 users a week, is the most popular trail in the county—is closed for construction for five years and reopens as a shadeless strip of asphalt. Or perhaps it never opens because it has not been built, due to cost. Nor is it served by losing this trail as a safe, multiple-access way under—rather than across—two state highways, Routes 410 and 355. The possible elimination of the tunnel under state Route 355 (Wisconsin Avenue) foretells increased morbidity and mortality for trail users.

Childhood development is also a clear casualty of closing off the Wisconsin Avenue tunnel. Now, children ride and walk safely through the tunnel. In addition, children in the middle years (7-12) have an established developmental need to “wayfind” across their own neighborhoods and beyond. The current trail is an excellent resource for such essential development. Further, as the whole nation struggles to combat childhood obesity, it is stunning that this progressive county proposes turning a path near six schools and two childcare centers into a very limited-access route dominated by fast trains. We should be providing more access for children to walk to school, not less.

Envisioning a fair, healthy and developmentally supportive trail. The old visions of the trail, from trolley path to double-track light rail, are truly outdated. Now that we know how important nature exposure and exercise are to health, the best response to the increasing numbers of residents, especially children, in lower Montgomery County is to reduce the priority given to economic development, and envision a nature trail all the way from Bethesda to Sligo Creek, crossing all economic levels , and linking neighborhoods in a beautiful and healthful way. We should bridge Connecticut Avenue, tunnel under Jones Mill Road, and construct dedicated pathways through the jumble at the current trail’s end, on to Sligo Creek. Use county taxes to extend the benefits of the trail into Silver Spring and connect two thriving cities.

Finally, the prevailing theory that economic development follows transit is demonstrably fallacious. Most Metro station neighborhoods in Prince George’s County have not shown development. Rather, a more promising example is the beautiful Highline Park in New York City, where a repurposed railway right-of-way has become a linear urban park so notable it has attracted both development and philanthropic funds.

Let’s try that vision for our trail!

Mary S. Rivkin is an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her research and writing focus on the benefits of time in nature for children. She is a member of the Board of the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.