Prince George’s County’s bicycle and trail advisory group (BTAG) has asked state officials to meet with them about a possible state role for resolving a decade-old disagreement between Prince Georges and Anne Arundel counties over the best location for a proposed trail bridge across the Patuxent River.
In a November 10 letter to Don Halligan, MDOT’s Director of Planning and Capitol Programming, the advisory group said that Prince George’s County wants the trail linking Bowie to Odenton to cross the Patuxent River “on, or very close to, the abandoned railroad right-of-way” of the former Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis (WB&A) Railroad. BTAG opposes a northern detour, which was originally proposed by the late Buz Meyer, a naturalist and hunting safety expert who lived along the proposed route of the trail. Anne Arundel has long favored the northern detour to accommodate the wishes of Mr. Meyer that no trail be built near his land.
BTAG includes representatives from citizens groups, incorporated towns, and expert staff from the county planning, transportation, and parks departments. The county officials generally provide their best professional judgement, rather than the official positions of their department. Recently, County Executive Leopold announced that Anne Arundel County is creating a similar citizens advisory group.
According to the BTAG, Prince Georges County Executive Wayne K. Curry wrote to Anne Arundel County’s Executive Janet S. Owens in 2001, urging her to continue the trail along the former right-of-way of the WB&A Railroad:
Prince George's County was aware that the Meyer family preferred a northern detour which would cross the river near Bowie State University. But Prince George's County opposed that detour because it would greatly increase construction costs, require permits to impact protected wetlands, and result in a longer and more circuitous trail off the original level, graded rail corridor. People expect a rail trail to be straight with minimal hills…
Although Prince George's County opposes the more northerly crossing, M-NCPPC [the county park and planning agency] staff has continued to cooperate with the efforts of Anne Arundel to create an alternative to the direct alignment, by working on trail improvements between the WB&A and Bowie State University, which would facilitate the more northerly crossing that Anne Arundel County prefers. BTAG hopes that Anne Arundel County will similarly keep both options open by preserving the necessary rights-of-way for the more direct alignment—either on the former railroad right-of-way or along the former right-of-way as the Preserve at Two Rivers is developed.
The WB&A trail currently has a 6-mile segment from just outside the Capitol Beltway to the Patuxent River in Bowie, a one-mile gap, and a 4-mile segment from Woodwardville to Odenton. Anne Arundel plans to extend the trail east to Annapolis; Prince Georges plans to extend it west to the District of Columbia.
Earlier this month, my commentary about the WB&A Trail in GreaterGreaterWashington reported that state and local officials are moving ahead with plans to fill the one-mile gap with a two-mile detour, even though the detour is likely to cost an extra $3 million. Prince Georges County and state agency staff prefer the less expensive direct route; but I conjectured that Maryland and Prince Georges officials are more willing to give in than Anne Arundel. So Anne Arundel is likely to get its way, unless elected officials more concerned about wise use of limited funds (such as the Governor) get involved.
The Prince Georges group seems to be more optimistic. Its letter proposes that MDOT follow a practice that is standard for new highways and rail lines: Assess the costs, benefits, and environmental implications of reasonable alternatives; and conduct an open process that includes both counties, key regulators, and citizens to ensure that everyone agrees that the route-selection process is fair:
We understand that the state is not in a position to directly referee a disagreement between counties regarding the trail alignment. However, we hope that increasingly limited public funds can be spent as efficiently as possible for this project, as a substantial investment of county and state funds will be required to implement this trail connection. Highway programs often base decisions on a careful and transparent evaluation of the costs, benefits, and environmental impacts of the different alternatives. Trail programs need the confidence and enthusiasm of the public and should include a similar transparent evaluation process. We think that public confidence will be enhanced if people are provided a clear explanation about the reasons for preferring one alignment over the other, which may require a detailed analysis.
BTAG invited the officials to attend its next meeting on January 20. No word yet whether the MDOT officials have accepted the invitation.
The BTAG letter focused on the need for a fair and transparent process to finally resolve this issue. Every time I write something about this dispute, a number of people say that the Meyers own the right of way so the County must build the trail a half a mile away. In the next few weeks, I'll write a post on the question of who owns what, and the implications. And while we're talking about property rights, we might as well look at whether the constitutional rights of a developer are violated when an exaction forces the developer to build a trail to nowhere. (If the trail is built as part of the bridge project, it is not a trail to nowhere; but if the bridge project does not start until after the detour trail is built, then the detour trail will be a trail to nowhere.) If you want me to explore any particular aspects of these questions, please send me an email with your phone number.
(Jim Titus is an active member of the Prince Georges County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. The comments in this post do not represent the views of BTAG or any other organization.)