Recently, the Matthew Henson Trail has been in the news - mostly due to two fatalities on the trail crossing of Viers Mill Road, but the trail has been in the spotlight before in it's extremely long history.
The idea for the trail dates back at least as far as Montgomery County's 1978 Master Plan of Bikeways - the county's first bike plan - when a trail was recommended for what was then known as the Rockville Facility Right-of-way, which was originally purchased in the 1950's for the Outer Beltway, but instead became Matthew Henson State Park and a county park in 1989, in part due to the intervention of bicycle advocates.
In 1995, momentum for the trail finally began to pick up after it was included in the Aspen Hill Master Plan. In that plan it was originally intended to connect the Rock Creek Park Trail with the Sligo Creek Trail and with a trail alog the Northwest Branch all the way to Norwood Park. The Rockville Facility Trail would have been complemented by bikeways on Connecticut Avenue and Georgia Avenue. The current trail doesn't quite make it to the Northwest Branch, and the Northwest Branch Trail doesn't make it as far north as Colesville, nor are there bikeways on Connecticut or Georgia Avenue, but the Matthwe Henson Trail has been constructed. At the time the Post wrote
The Henson State Park proposal would be the mid-county link that could hook into the Sligo Creek Trail and the Rock Creek Trail and the 23-mile Capital Crescent Trail now under construction.
The trail was also intended to pass under Viers Mill Road. The state legislature authorized construction of the trail the following year.
In the 1998 Countywide Park Trails Plan, the 7-mile Matthew Henson Trail was broken up into two phases. Phase 1 is the 4 mile section that exists now and phase 2 would "Provide a hard surface park trail from Alderton Drive east to Northwest Branch and south to Wheaton Regional Park." But phase 2 was contingent on the purchase of part of the Indian Springs Golf Course, if ever were to be redeveloped. It was redeveloped, in 2007, but alas, no phase 2. The trail was also to eventually continue east from Rock Creek Park along the Montrose Parkway right-of-way.
Prior to 1995, bike advocates, environmentalists and neighbors worked together to have the right-of-way removed from consideration for a road, and used for a hiker-biker trail; but once the trail planning began, neighbors and some environmentalists led by the Sierra Club began to oppose it. Opponents lost, but by 2001, there was an all-out fight over what kind of surface the trail would have.
A team of environmental activists, called a "Tiger Team," has spent recent weeks rounding up area civic leaders and coaxing them into the woods to look for themselves.
They are encouraging civic groups to speak out against paving the path.
"If there must be a path, we want it to be a natural surface," said Jim Fary, conservation chairman for the Montgomery County Sierra Club, which opposed the trail when the proposal was approved in 1995.
They argue that the hard pavement will damage the balance of nature in the 660 acres that were set aside in 1995 for a trail.
This of course, sounds strikingly familiar to the battle over the Purple Line where the plan is to build a transit line and trail on land purchased for the purpose of building a transit line and trail. And, of course, opponents pulled out some of the usual boogeymen
She also cautioned that a paved trail could create more traffic in the neighborhood and possibly increase the risk of crime.
In 2002, Montgomery County Council member Blair G. Ewing (D-At Large) proposed a law to ban paved trails in environmentally sensitive areas in county parks.
Ewing said he proposed the ban after learning that staff of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission had proposed paving the Mathew Henson trail in Aspen Hill, which connects the Rock Creek and Sligo Creek trails, and a trail in the Muddy Branch park in Potomac.
And the following year, State Senator Brian Frosh introduced an amendment requiring any new path to allow water through its surface. The amendment eliminated asphalt paving. Proponents of the trail argued that paving would be more handicap-accessible, but opponents argued that
“There are some things handicapped people can’t do and places they can’t go,” said Alyce Ortuzar, an environmental activist. “This is one of those areas.”
That amendment failed and about a month later the county council voted to build a paved trail. By that time the Viers Mill crossing was at-grade. In 2006, local residents sued the County to stop construction of the trail.
In the suit, Strathmore-Bel Pre Civic Association residents and environmentalists argued that the trail would harm rich wooded areas and streams, and depreciate values of nearby homes.
The suit contended that the county did not properly assess the trail’s full impact on the environment. The county’s environmental study focuses on the approved trails, but fails to address the damage future connections will contribute, said Arlene Thorne, a plaintiff. One proposed trail includes a path from Alderton Road to Wheaton Regional Park.
The Countywide Park Trails Plan says the Henson trail would ‘‘provide residents of more than 16,000 housing units with an attractive outdoor experience within roughly one mile of their homes,” and more recreation opportunities.
But Layhill Village resident Ken Giordon said the trail would bring strangers, crime and spur home depreciation. His house sits about 100 feet from the trail’s path. Also, he said the trail’s proximity to Bel Pre Elementary School poses a danger to students.
‘‘It intrudes on our privacy, on our safety and our security having this kind of traffic coming in and out of the trail, and it’s not right,” Giordon said. ‘‘The concept of a trail [so] near, adjacent to houses is not a good one.”
But a few months later a judge sided with the County and construction began. The trail opened in May of 2009.
Originally the Viers Mill crossing didn't have a painted crosswalk or any type of button-activated light (though parts were installed at that time) but by 2012 that was changed with a light that would flash up the hill from the crosswalk. One writer wrote in to the Washington Post to criticize the unusual light arrangement.
I think if you go through the trouble of installing lights on a crosswalk, it would be better to use good old red, yellow and green rather than the various flashing arrangements that many drivers rarely encounter.
Another writer disagreed.
The button-activated standard stoplight for pedestrians crossing Westbard Avenue, between Massachusetts Avenue and River Road, in Bethesda is rarely used (at least during non-school hours), but it triggers a much longer delay for cars than necessary.
Wouldn’t a flashing red stop signal protect crossers just as well without imposing the long red-light delay the planners now employ to permit a slow person to cross this wide street?
Dr. Gridlock chimed in, first saying
Safety experts tell me that a traditional green, yellow and red signal isn’t necessarily an upgrade on heavily traveled routes. They would rather go with a signal that remains dark unless activated by a person.
The flashing signal on Veirs Mill Road was a special design worked out to accommodate the needs of both trail users and drivers on this high-volume roadway, with a traditional traffic signal in the area where drivers also must stop. That’s an appropriate balance for its environment.
We don’t need a one-style-for-all standard, and I admire the efforts to accommodate different needs, but the key need is safety. I wouldn’t want drivers to have too many types of signals to consider.
Which is, of course, just what has happened there. Twice.