WMATA has done another inspection of the Foundry Branch Trolley Trestle, and they now say it could collapse at any minute.
An inspection last week found the 122-year-old structure in “imminent risk of collapse,” prompting park rangers to renew a warning to keep pedestrians off a trail underneath the trestle in Georgetown.
That portion of the trail has been closed to bike users and pedestrians since August 2016, after the Park Service determined the trestle’s structural condition too frail to allow people to run underneath. But many trail users have ignored the warnings and jumped over a fence to stay on track.
Trail advocates, including myself, have been eager to see this used as part of a trail that could run from the Palisades to Georgetown. Unfortunately WMATA has seemed much more eager to tear down the trestle than to make that happen. At the January BAC meeting DDOT said they were working towards a spring 2018 start date for the feasibility study. Despite that, WMATA is seeking permission from NPS and DC to tear it down, after which they would reportedly store the pieces some place in case a plan to restore it emerges.
The findings are not surprising. Other inspections in recent years have led to similar conclusions, frustrating preservationists and trestle enthusiasts who have been calling for its restoration. Some have asked the District Department of Transportation to take over the structure and turn it into a pedestrian walkway that would connect Georgetown and the Palisades neighborhood.
Supporters say this would take the trestle off the list of the most endangered places in the District and put it back in service after decades of neglect. The trestle has sat unused since the streetcar shut down in 1962, and its age shows; sections of the steel supports have rusted away and wooden ties have fallen.
It's not true that it has been unused since 1962. People used to walk across it until the 1980's when someone fell off it to their death, but it hasn't been used as streetcar trestle in that time.
It may be that everyone has dickered around with this so long that demolition is the best remaining option. I'm not sure if this is a case of demolition by neglect or just garden-variety neglect, but either way WMATA has done a terrible job of managing this asset for the people they were supposed to serve and now, ironically it they - and everyone else - will be worse off than if they'd done the right thing back in 1996. Or if the Rider's Fund had in 1993. Or if DC Transit had before that. The right thing, of course, would've been to give it to DDOT for the purpose of making a trail. Making it into a trail in 1993, when everyone was interested in it, ironically, would have served bus riders far more than letting the thing sit for 25 years, and certainly more than spending ~$200,000 to remove the trestle (and then store it). A further kicker is that I suspect the riders fund will have to come up with the money for that. Winning!
Unfortunately, all 3 owners held out hope of making money off the right-of-way. That hope hinged primarily on Georgetown U, since they're one of only 3 parties that would be interested in it. Of the other two, NPS has no reason to buy it since basically it's in the exact state they want it to be. DDOT could use it, but it's never quite made it up to a high priority for them.
Several years ago I talked to the person at WMATA who managed this property and asked him how much they wanted for it, thinking, if it wasn't too much, I could find a way to raise the money and then get DDOT to take it over and build a trail on it. But the guy wouldn't even give me a number because he thought it would hamper negotiations with Georgetown. Then Georgetown didn't buy it (even after WMATA tried to force them to when they expanded the driveway that crosses it). I'm not sure they were even really interested. Now WMATA's left holding a strip of land with negative value while a much-used hiking trail sits closed for 1.5+ years. Sigh.
Making it worse is that DC tried to help them get historical preservation grant money to repair it, and they failed to turn the paperwork in.
But that's all runners under the trestle now. At this point the question is, is the cost of tearing it down and building a new bridge less than the cost of restoring it, even if we consider the historical value of it - whatever that may be? I think, sadly, that it probably is. But there's another wrinkle. Will NPS let DDOT build another bridge if WMATA tears this one down? It's hard to say, and DC should figure that out before they let WMATA tear it down, but if not, than restoration is the only option to save the trail.
Palisades resident Brett Young has watched with dismay in recent years as Foundry Branch Bridge has fallen further into disrepair. Back in 2014, Young pushed Metro to commission an architectural study of the structure. The transit authority obliged that June, with architecture firm Structura concluding that a host of necessary replacement and repair efforts would cost approximately $2 million, while a temporary stabilization would cost around $800,000.
“It is recommended that a restoration program be implemented within the next three years to address noted structural concerns and to maintain the stability of the framing system and limit further deterioration,” the report reads, adding that until that happens “the structure should be regularly monitored for any changes from its present condition.”
On Sunday, Young showed a reporter several sizable wooden planks that had fallen recently from the bridge — and could have injured someone walking underneath at the wrong moment. The most rapid deterioration happens during snowstorms, Young said. Other curiosities at the site include a bicycle lodged in a tree atop the bridge.
Young has long floated the possibility of converting the three-mile trolley right-of-way from Georgetown to Galena Place in the Palisades into a 30-foot-wide trail with separate lanes for pedestrians and bicyclists, rather than a narrow path that’s periodically interrupted by impassable abandoned rail bridges. But given that agencies don’t yet agree on short-term plans, his proposal will likely have to wait a while.