Although the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has been installing R4-11 (Bicycles may use full lane) signs on many highways, managers have indicated that sharrows will be used more sporadically, if at all. So I was quite surprised to see some sharrows on MD-450 in Bladensburg, where right the lanes are 12 feet wide.
Unfortunately, SHA placed the sharrows about 4 feet from the curb rather than in the center of the lane. I sent them the following complaint.
I am filing this under "complaint" because it may or may not be time-sensitive. I noticed about 4 sharrows painted in the right lane and if more are planned, it would be wise to reflect on these concerns before proceeding.
MBPAC and others have warned SHA that the guidance for sharrows is incomplete and/or misleading. Sharrows are used under two very different situations: On lanes that are wide enough to share side-by-side, and on lanes that are too narrow to share side by side (often with an R4-11 sign). In the former case, sharrows should usually be about 4 feet from the curb or pavement edge--and that is what the guidance said. But when the lane is too narrow to share side by side, then sharrows should be in the center of the lane.
Here you have sharrows 4 feet from the curb on 12 foot lanes. Such sharrows communicate to drivers that the cyclists should be keeping right to make room for the car to pass within the lane--but there is not enough room. The sharrows also communicate to drivers that a cyclist using the full lane (generally about 7 feet from the curb) is hogging the lane when he should be farther to the right. Given that we even have R4-11 signs on this road, you have just painted sharrows that contradict the message of the R4-11 signs.
For examples of the right way to do this, please see the photos for the following cities:
A side benefit of mid-lane sharrows is that they do not wear away as fast as sharrows placed in the tire tracks, But the main reason not to place sharrows 4 feet from the curb in a 12-foot lane is that doing so encourages cyclists to ride in a place where drivers will attempt to pass bikes within the lane with insufficient clearance--exactly the opposite of what the R4-11 sign was designed to do.
I'll let you know what they decide.
Jim Titus is a bicycle advocate from Prince Georges County. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which he is affiliated.
Media accounts of the two bike fatalities last month raised a few eyebrows among the commentariat here and at GGW. The news accounts left the reader with the impression that each cyclist inexplicably placed himself in the path of an oncoming dump truck or SUV. The average person reading those accounts would probably take them at face value; but for many of us, that is hard to do because we have seen so many cases where initial reports were wrong.
GGW briefly presented both incidents as cases where a driver killed a cyclist, and the predictable discussion centered on whether that was totally unfair to the drivers, or whether it is reasonable for GGW to provide a counterbalance to the prevailing way these stories are told. Here on the Washcycle, the comments were focused more on trying to read between the lines and explore the various possibilities of what could have actually happened. In the case of the dump truck on a state highway colliding with a cyclist crossing the highway, the account seemed believable.
The 9-year old child killed on a residential road between Bowie and Glenn Dale, however, was more troubling. Several of us have young children, and none of us like to hear that the police and the media accept the premise that a driver has no responsibility to avoid running into an unpredictable child on a residential street. When I got my driver's license, the simulator always had a ball bouncing into the street with a child following it; the lesson was that a driver in a residential street should assume that a child may run into one's path at any moment.
Of course, we don't have the strict liability system wherein drivers always are to blame if they run into a cyclist, but that does not mean that the duty of care does not change when one sees a child on a bike. That's the main reason for the 25 mph speed limit. Obey the speed limit and if you strike a pedestrian, she has a 10% chance of being killed. Drive 35 mph and there is a 2/3 chance she dies. And of course, avoiding the collision is easier if you go slow.
Then twk from Bowie directed us to the link showing the front-end damage to the SUV, which made all of us wonder (in exasperation): how can police say that speed was not a factor? The damage does not seem possible if the driver was only proceeding at 25 mph. But if the driver was proceeding at 35 mph, then the odds are about 6:1 that the death was caused by the speed. That seems to make a prima facie case that speed was definitely a factor. How could the media fail to ask the obvious followup question?
Part of the problem may be that the police and reporters have adopted a short-hand jargon which makes sense for auto-auto crashes. They are trying to say that the speed was not the single most important cause of the collision. But if a child dies, we are also interested in why the collision caused someone's death. In fatal auto-auto crashes, the vehicles are usually going so fast that it goes without saying that speed is sufficient to kill, the only question was whether it was so great that one loses control, or did they crash for another reason? In bike or pedestrian crashes, by contrast, collisions are often at slow enough speeds for people to live; speed may be the single most important factor that determines whether a victim lives or dies.
So how can the story overlook the most obvious question: Was the driver complying with the 25 mph speed limit?
Is the problem with the police or the media? I find myself hoping that it's the police rather than the media, because the police are public officials accountable to the public. There are clear lines of authority whom we can lobby. The media is not really accountable to anyone, and the turnover of local reporters is so great that trying to change how the media covers a type of event is like spitting at the zeitgeist.
After reading the comments on the Washcycle, I sent a terse but rather harshly worded complaint to a few officials. For some reason, I thought that the Maryland State Police (MSP) had changed its approach to the media in the case of bicycle fatalities, after having made disastrously wrong preliminary judgments in the Leymesiter and Pettigrew cases. So I was annoyed that the Prince George's Police had not adopted the more cautious approach of the MSP.
Recall that in the Leymeister case, the State Police stated that the cyclist had failed to ride as far right as practicable on a road where the narrow shoulder was blocked by branches. MBPAC protested because this was a road where the cyclist had the right to take the lane. It later turned out that the problem was that the driver had an entirely frost covered windshield with just a little peep hole to see where she was going.
In the Natasha Pettigrew case, the police initially stated that the cyclist lacked reflective material. Her mother knew otherwise and reporters who went to the scene of the crash found the materials that the police said did not exist. Early statements also said that the driver left the scene because she thought she hit a dog or a deer. Only because of public outrage was that claim more thoroughly investigated, and the driver was convicted of hit-and-run.
After those cases, an MSP official told MBPAC that the state police would be more careful about what they tell the media before the investigation is done. It's a balancing act for police spokesmen, because there is usually great public and media interest after a fatality, especially when the victim is a child or a notable person. But MSP staff felt that they could tell the story by presenting the issues they are investigating, rather than conclusions, and by mentioning (for example) the possibility that the driver was not looking where she was going, as well as the lane position of the cyclist.
Unfortunately, MSP's thinking was never memorialized. I now know that this was just a sense of what they needed to do; but some people have moved on, so the Maryland State Police seem to be back to where they used to be, according to my source there. My source referred me to Lieutenant Alexander who does media relations at the Prince Georges Police Department.
Mr. Alexander did not have the specifics of the 9-year old killed in the Bowie/Glenn Dale area when I called, but he did tell me the general approach of the Prince Georges County Police. He said that they will not make a preliminary statement unless they are 90% sure. There has to be credible or neutral witness, such as the family members with whom the child was riding, he said. The Prince George's police will not make a preliminary statement "if the only witness is a driver who tells us that he killed someone but it was their fault."
I did not follow up about this particular incident, though perhaps I'll call back in a few weeks. My main purpose for calling him was to get a regular police contact for bike-ped issues. Police statements to the media can be a problem, but dangerous driving is a bigger problem. The police have too much work to prevent every type of crime. If they are doing too little to enforce the laws designed to protect us, maybe it's because we haven't been asking them to do so. Now we will.
(Jim Titus is a bicycle advocate from Prince George's County. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization with which he is affiliated, and the pronoun "we" does not mean any organized entity.)
The long-awaited reconstruction of Oxon Hill Road will start this week, according to signs posted along the road by the Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) of Prince George's County. The $14 million project will add bike lanes to the 1.5-mile section of roadway extending from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Trail south to Ft. Foote Road. A few traffic lights will be replaced with roundabouts.
This project will have almost immedate benefits for some cyclists who wish to ride from the Wilson Bridge south to Fort Washington. The worst section of roadway between the bridge and the fort for cyclists is the first mile on Oxon Hill road, which has 10-foot lanes, no shoulder, and drivers who often ignore the 3-foot rule when passing cyclists riding to the far right, and lay on the horn when cyclists use full lane. When I suggested adding "Bicycles May Use Full Lane" signs, the DPW&T safety director responded that they prefer that cyclists not ride Oxon Hill Road until the construction is complete. Nevertheless, the construction barriers will provide drivers (and hopefully cyclists) with the optical hint that bikes should use the full lane.
The bicycle accommodations for Oxon Hill Road will not be perfect. The rotaries are being designed to encourage novice cyclists to ride onto a sidewalk and cross the streets as a pedestrian, but DPW&T has tentatively agreed to refrain from posting a sign stating that the bike route goes onto the sidewalk. There will be some door-zone bike lanes; but DPW&T is open to marking the hazard if the state will pay the cost for the extra striping (and the door-zone bike lanes account for less than half of the section of rebuilt road).
(Jim Titus is a cycling activist from Prince George's County)
After complaints about drivers making illegal U-turns across the Penn Ave bike lanes, DC put up giant signs telling drivers not to do that. But they took those down when cyclists pointed out it blocked their view.
Prince George's County is considering a law that would "instruct the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation to include lanes for bicyclist and space for walkers on all new roadways or when existing roadways go under repair."
"The governing body of cycling will not appeal the United State Anti-Doping Agency’s findings that Lance Armstrong led a massive doping program, concurring with the USADA decision that he should be banned for life and stripped of his seven Tour de France titles." Still, all in all, it was probably worth it.
Jill Stein for President? "Her platform includes ... a “Green New Deal” that she says would cost less than the first stimulus package and put millions of Americans to work weatherizing homes and businesses, installing solar panels, building bike paths, upgrading public transit systems and constructing safe sidewalks. The only benefits, of course, would be lowering unemployment as well as our dependence on fossil fuels and making us healthier. Cuh-razy, right?"
The rise of anthropological bicycle studies. “More and more of the research is pointing to the fact that also people’s attitudes, social norms and things like that have an influence over their decisions to bike or walk or take public transit.....In Portland, installing a cycle track – where the bike lane is moved from the actual street alongside drivers to the other side of a row of parked cars – resulted in bikers breathing less of some pollutants."
Tom Hicks, the long-time head of the Office of Traffic and Safety within the Maryland State Highway Administration, is retiring at the end of June. Cyclists often disagreed with his perspective on managing bicycle traffic, but even so, it was a pleasure to work with him. Like all good engineers, he looked for solutions rather than for opportunities to argue. So even when he was blocking something I was pushing, I had the sense that we were just two people viewing a problem different perspectives but on the same team.
His successor will be Cedric Ward, who has been SHA’s key person for traffic and safety in Montgomery County. My first in-depth conversation with Mr. Ward concerned the Bicycles May Use Full Lane signs, and is summarized in the last section of this post
As we’ve reported several times, the Maryland State Highway Administration is poised to post signs that say “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” on a number of area roads. But instead of posting the official R4-11 (a white rectangle) sign on all of these roads, SHA intends to use a combination of the R4-11 sign and a new yellow diamond warning sign with the same message (see pdf). That sign is called W16-1(3) and will probably be Tom Hicks’ final contribution to bicycle safety in Maryland. I wish they would call it W4-11, but that designation already belongs to a soft shoulder warning sign.
The decision to use both use full lane signs was made by SHA Administrator Melinda Peters, and appears to have been prompted by an email that I sent her just before Bike-to-Work Day. Last fall, SHA approved the regulatory R4-11 sign by adopting it into the Maryland Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The guidance tracks the language in the federal MUTCD: It explains what the sign means, but does not provide any specifics about where the sign can be placed. Now SHA has more detailed guidance.
Guidance for the “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs
The new guidance for the yellow use full lane sign says that these signs “should” be posted along roads where the narrow lane or other condition causes an extraordinary hazard. It’s noteworthy that we have the term “should” as guidance for this sign. That means that there is a presumption that the sign will be posted if local cyclists can make a reasonably good showing that there is a narrow-lane hazard. The guidance for the white R4-11 sign says “may.” I think that the purpose of “may” is to establish the preferences between the R4-11 and the yellow use full lane warning sign.
How does SHA define the narrow-lane hazard? The guidance for the R4-11 sign provides a lot more detail than either the federal or state MUTCD: “signs may be placed at intervals of about ½ mile through the length of a lane effectively 13 feet or less wide in urban areas. So virtually every highway with standard lanes and no shoulder is eligible for an R4-11 sign. Aside from defining the narrow-lane hazard, the guidance provides several different situations where the R4-11 signs “may” be posted.
The guidance also calls for R4-11 signs to be used along roads with parking if the usable space is less than 13 feet. Given the door zone hazard, I am trying to persuade SHA that this means that the sign may be posted if the right most lane has no more than 23 feet to the pavement edge.
One thing that is still a bit unclear is whether SHA will be willing to post these signs along roads with lanes wider than 13 feet (or 23 feet with parking) with high traffic volumes or a lot of bus or truck traffic. Under the existing guidelines for bicycle facilities, bike lanes have 4 feet of pavement with low traffic volumes, speeds, and truck/bus traffic. But with higher speeds, volumes, or trucks and buses, the bike lanes are a foot or two wider. That approach recognizes that the required operating space increases with traffic; that is, SHA recognizes that those factors increase the lane width necessary for safe side-by-side passage. The same logic would apply as well to the “use full lane” signs.
Conversation with Cedric Ward about the new guidance
Jim Titus: Let’s start out by clarifying what we mean by “signs may be placed where the lane is no wider than 13 feet”. Does that mean from the left-lane stripe to the curb, the edge of the pavement, or to the fog line?
Cedric Ward: The guidance means 13 feet to the edge of the pavement to the center of the line.
Jim Titus: At the meeting last fall in Greenbelt about the R4-11 sign, which Michael Jackson also attended, we agreed that signs would be posted for roads up to 14 feet plus gutter.
Cedric Ward: Actually, 14-foot lanes are problematic. If you find any, please let me know.
Jim Titus: Getting back to the first bullet [in the guidance]: What about where roads with wide shoulders cross jurisdictional boundaries. We don’t really need the R4-11 sign there.
Cedric Ward: We would still post the R4-11 signs there if there is not a bike lane, but those shoulders will eventually be marked as bike lanes.
Jim Titus: Then the guidance talks about places where there are a lot of bikes turning left. Why would you need an R4-11 sign there?
Cedric Ward: I follow your point.
Jim Titus: Let’s come back to the third bullet: “At the beginning of a section of roadway where curbside parking or other encroachments narrow the width usable for travel to 13 feet or less.” What does usable width of 13 feet mean?
Cedric Ward: If there are parked cars, and the cars extend 7 feet from the pavement edge, then 13 feet of usable width would mean 13 feet to the left of the parked cars.
Jim Titus: So if the edge of the parked cars might be along a parking line that is 8 feet from the curb, then usable width of 13 feet means that the lane is 21 feet from the curb, or 20 feet from the edge of the pavement. [If] we have 14 feet of pavement to the left of the car, I think that the cyclist still needs to use the full lane.
Cedric Ward: How would you phrase the guidance?
Jim Titus: I would change the "13 feet" to "16 feet".
Cedric Ward: A 16-foot lane could cause other problems, such as drivers passing other cars within the lane.
Jim Titus: We are not talking about how wide we want the lanes. We are talking about the lanes we have, and where to post the signs….Parked cars reduce usable space more for a bike than for a car. A driver may be willing to drive 1 or 2 feet from a parked car, because the worst that could happen is that someone opens their door, and that open door gets knocked off the car. But for the cyclist, the worst that can happen is that the door opens, the cyclist is deflected 20 degrees to the left as she falls, and then she is run over by a car. So usable roadway needs to be measured from the edge of the open door, or 16 feet from the parking stripe.
Cedric Ward: I follow your point.
(Jim Titus is on WABA's Board of Directors and lives in Glenn Dale, Maryland. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the official views of WABA.)
Three different people at SHA have told me that staff have examined more than a dozen state highways for the initial batch of R4-11 (Bicycles may use full lane) signs for Prince Georges and Montgomery counties. In response to a letter from the Prince Georges County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BTAG) , the efforts will focus on highways leading out of the District of Columbia, although portions of MD-193 and a few segments that connect trails to Metro are also under consideration. (The BTAG list is indicative but SHA is looking at similar highways in Montgomery County.) Funding for the signs appears to be available for this year. SHA is not sure whether any of the signs will be up before Bike to Work Day, but they plan to try,
(Jim Titus is on the board of directors of WABA from Prince Georges County, The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of WABA.)
Ballston will get its first CaBi station sometime next week. "The station will have 19 docks, and will be set up on N. Stuart Street at 9th Street, in front of Welburn Square. The station is scheduled to be installed from noon to 2:00 p.m. next Monday, with a ribbon cutting event to follow."
Legislation approved yesterday in Prince George's County "would require most new developments in the county to calculate not only the amount of car traffic they would generate but also whether the projects are safe for cyclists and walkers. For those that are not, the developer would be asked to improve the area within a half mile of the project."
NYC floats some of the possible locations for its future bike share stations. "Jonathan Schnipper, co-owner of Schnipper Restaurant Group, said he hoped the kiosk in front of his restaurant, in the Times Building, would draw even more business to his restaurant, which he said did not benefit fully from the traffic one block north."
Maryland’s 3-foot passing law is unusual. Like the DC law, the general rule is that cars must leave a 3-foot clearance when passing a bike, §21-1209(a)(2). But unlike the DC law, there are several exceptions. And in some situations, bicycles are also subject to the 3-foot rule.
The statute explicitly lists four situations when drivers do not have to leave a 3-foot clearance
If the cyclist is failing to maintain a steady course.
If there is an adjacent bike lane and the cyclist is violating the legal requirement to be in the bike lane. The requirement to be in a bike lane has so many exceptions that only a well-versed cyclist who happens to be driving will know whether a cyclist has the legal right to be outside of the bike lane. Nor does anyone know what it means to be outside the bike lane. Does it mean that the car needs to be 3 feet to the left of the bike lane, and if the cyclist’s shoulder intrudes a foot into the bike lane, then the buffer is only two feet. Or maybe it means that as long as the bike’s tire is in the bike lane, one must give the cyclist three feet.
If the cyclist is violating the legal requirement to ride as far to the right as practicable and safe. This requirement has even more exceptions, so a driver is very unlikely to know if the requirement is met.
If the highway is too narrow for the driver to legally pass with the required clearance. This probably only applies to narrow highways, such as one-lane bridges and narrow roads where cars must slow and pull partly off the road to pass in opposite directions. But Bike Maryland believes that it also applies to no-passing zones (double yellow lines) on standard 2-lane roadways , because it thinks that the legislature inserted the word “highway” when it meant “lane”. This assumption prompted Bike Maryland to sponsor HB 1397 which would have allowed cars to cross the double yellow line to pass bikes. That way, our Baltimore allies reasoned, the exception to the 3-foot rule will no longer apply because it will be legal to pass with the required clearance. Previous posts on this blog have discussed why many cyclists did not support that bill. MDOT also opposed the bill, albeit for different reasons. After the session, some of the advocates had an email colloquy with MDOT on whether the three-foot bill does or does not apply to the typical 2-lane road. I asked MDOT for its position on that question, but so far, MDOT has not responded,
These four exceptions have been widely publicized, though few drivers probably undestand what they mean and no one knows what the final one means. But the statute also imposes two requirements on cyclists. First, §21-1209(a)(2)(ii) applies to any vehicle passing a bike, so a bike passing another bike is required to leave a 3-foot clearance.
The law also prohibits bikes from overtaking cars on the right within a standard travel lane on a 2-lane road, although they may pass on the left within such a lane. § 21-304 prohibits overtaking on the right if the highway is not wide enough for two or more lines of traffic moving lawfully in a given direction. Given the 3-foot passing law, there has to be room for the cyclist and 3 feet of clearance, for two lines of traffic to move lawfully. Therefore, if the lane is too narrow for cars and bikes to travel side-by-side with a 3-foot clearance, bikes may not pass on the right. This is not an issue for 4-lane (and wider) roads which have room for two lines of traffic. So a cyclist can legally squeeze between the curb and cars slowing for a traffic light on US-1 or Georgia Avenue, but not along the typical 2-lane road unless it is wide enough for side-by-side sharing (i.e. at least 13-14 feet) or has a shoulder into which the cyclist can pass.
Between the ambiguous exceptions, and the exceptions to(the (bike lane and keep right) exceptions, Maryland has a law that is too confusing to explain to student drivers. Fortunately, the Motor Vehicle Administration appears to be sticking to the simplest approach: Drivers should pass cyclists with at least three feet. This was always MVA's recommended best practice, and the fact that a court can not convict a driver for passing with less clearance in some situations does not change the clearance with which a reasonable driver will pass.
(Jim Titus is on the board of directors of WABA from Prince Georges County, The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of WABA.)
In Anne Arundel County’s long-running saga on whether to extend the WB&A Trail into Prince Georges County or build the northern detour suggested by the late Buz Meyer, people often bolster their case by talking about who owns the right of way. Those who favor extending the WB&A often point out that Anne Arundel County owns the right of way along the Meyer property. Those who favor the Buz Meyer trail usually say that the Meyers own the WB&A right-of-way. When I recently suggested paying the Meyers at least $1 million for the WB&A right of way, one member of the Meyers family told me that he would not want to make such a deal; another Anne Arundel resident who favors the WB&A extension admonished me for suggesting that the Meyers should be paid anything, because "they don’t even own the right of way. "
Only a court can finally resolve the question of ownership. But the Anne Arundel County land records tell enough of the story for WB&A advocates to take seriously the Meyers claim to owning that land. They also help show why that claim—while strong—should not necessarily prevent building a trail along the WB&A right of way.
The story is typical: The owners sell the railroad an easment, and gradually forget that they still own the land under the tracks. The railroad closes, and those who buy the right of way come to think they own the land, or at least come to think that they can have it because the true owners have gone. They sell their claim to a locality that has already built trails on land with similarly cloudy titles. But in this case, we have a surprise ending: Some of the owners are still around, they realize that they are still part owners, and they tell the government to get off their land!
Jacob and Bertha Meyer bought their six-hundred acre farm on October 26, 1900. On November 20, 1901, the Meyers conveyed to the Washington and Annapolis Electric Railway an easement 66 feet wide for a railroad. The deed is in cursive writing and not easily decipherable. (I am grateful to Aaron Marcavitch for help in preparing a print version that has most of the text, although there are still a few phrases we were unable to translate.) The deed included a payment of 50 cents for each grape vine removed. It also referred to the sale of some gravel lands, but their locations are unspecified.
The company changed its name to the Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Electric Railway in 1902, and began running trains from Baltimore to Washington via Odenton in 1908. In November 1906, before the line opened, the railroad paid Jacob and Bertha Meyer $774 for a 15-year license to mine earth and gravel within a clearly specified 10.24 acre portion of the Meyer property, along the rail line. But in 1915, the railway agreed to terminate the mining lease; in return the Meyers conveyed 0.6 acres in fee simple to the WB&A railroad on the northwest side of the tracks.
How the Meyers forgot they owned the land under the tracks
Jacob Meyer died in 1926 about a month shy of his 68th birthday. Following the wishes of her late husband, Bertha Meyer divided the land into six parcels, as shown in the left map, which I’ve annotated to make some of the smaller letters visible on the screen. The six parcels were conveyed on April 24, 1928.
Lot 1 went to Martin Meyer and his wife Hedwig Sophia Meyer
Lot 2 went to Paul Henry Meyer and his wife Emma Wilhemina Meyer
Lot 3 went to Charles Dewey Meyer
Lot 4 went to Joubert Russell Meyer and his wife Gertrude Anna Meyer. Joubert (also known as Schubert) was the father of Buz Meyer.
Lot 5 went to Emma Meyer Simpson and her husband John Thomas Simpson
Lot 6 went to Otto Jacob Meyer and his wife Anna Frederika Meyer .
For reference, the map to the right superimposes the lot boundaries over the site plan of the Preserve at Two Rivers. The rail line was the border between lots 4 and 6. If you zoom into the original (or read subsequent conveyances of these lots) you can see that Bertha Meyer did not convey the land under the railbed to either Joubert or Otto. So she continued to own that land, subject to the easement for rail line. (Perhaps by mistake, she conveyed the 0.6 acre parcel to Otto, even though it had already been conveyed to the WB&A in 1915.)
As far as I know, Bertha Meyer and her children never thought about who owned the land under the tracks. The railroad was still running so it did not really matter. If it wasn’t mentioned in anyone’s will—which seems likely—then the ownership may have been split between her children, then her grandchildren, and lately to her great grand children. But they didn’t know it.
How the easement holders came to think they owned the land too
The WB&A ceased operating in 1935, and filed for bankruptcy. The bondholders formed the WB&A Realty Corporation and bought most of the real property for $16,100. The next year they sold right of way between Odenton and Bowie to the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington Railroad Company, which was a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The WB&A Realty Corporation reserved for itself the right to convey utility easements. In the case of the roadbed along the Meyer property, WB&A Realty had no right to convey utility easements, because all it owned was an easement to build a railroad line. So for that parcel it was actually reserving a right it did not have. But it still sold an easement to Consolidated Gas Electric Light and Power Company for a power line a year later, and those power lines are used by Baltimore Gas and Electric even today.
A series of railroad mergers created the Penn Central, which sold its interest in the old WB&A lands to Peppercorn Realty in 1988. After building the Piney Orchards Development, Peppercorn Realty conveyed the right of way to Anne Arundel County for $10, reserving for itself various utility rights that it did not really have (because WB&A Realty had already reserved such rights, which it probably did not have either) and including a covenant against using the right of way for a rail line.
Anne Arundel County understood that it was not buying clear title to the land. The deed was called a “quitclaim deed” with all sorts of disclaimers. But that did not stop the County from building the WB&A Trail. This is a fairly standard practice: Localities build rail trails on land for which they do not have clear title, because the actual owners have abandoned their interest. Neither the common law nor common sense wants property tied up forever just because it is technically owned by the descendants of an original owner when those descendants are uninterested in behaving like owners. In the rare case when these owners do step forward, the locality pays them for their property. As with the Meyer property, many old farms have been subdivided with lots that go up to—but do not include—a rail line. By the time the railroad closes, often the original owners have sold all the parcels to strangers, and forgotten about their underlying ownership in the rail bed. After the trail has been operating a few decades, the locality will have clear title through the doctrine of adverse possession.
These owners of the underlying land usually do not get a tax bill either. At first, when the railroad is operating, the value of the land subject to the railroad easement is trivial, while the roadbed itself is valuable. So the county focuses on taxing the railroad. If the underlying landowners got a tax bill, they would realize they own the land (and the county would collect more money). After a few generations, without even getting a tax bill, the descendants have no idea they own the land. The owners of the easement end up getting taxed as if they own the land in fee simple, which they may be willing to pay because they are happy to own the land in fee simple. If they sell their interest to the county, then the county has no one to tax. The tax assessment office generally does not do title research to ascertain the actual ownership.
Just in time, the Meyers realized they still own the land
That typical pattern is pretty much what happened to the Meyer parcel for the first 65 years after the rail line closed. Bertha Meyer and her children did not reclaim their land. They could have objected to the electric company putting power lines across their land without permission, but they allowed it as if the abandonned rail line was not their land. Some highway maps showed the roadbed as a public road.
But then in 2000, the prospect of the WB&A Trail got the Meyers interested in the old right of way. Buz Meyer (co-owner of lot 4) opposed the trail. Press accounts suggest almost a “Eureka” moment for Meyer when, after launching a campaign to stop the WB&A Trail from crossing the Patuxent, he realized that he was a part owner of the right of way. An article in the Baltimore Sun said that the lawyers for Anne Arundel were sloppy and failed to do a title search before starting court proceedings to obtain clear title to the right of way. I’m not sure that’s the case—it seems possible that the county lawyers were simply following a standard procedure for settling title and paying valid claims in this type of a situation.
Before a court had the opportunity to decide the question, County Executive Janet Owens directed county staff to abandon plans for a bridge across the Patuxent along the old right-of-way, and drop the court proceedings. I cannot rule out the possibility that the county has an arguable case for being the owner of the right of way; but I am not sure what that case is. Adverse possession is possible; but it seems that if anyone had a claim for adverse possession it was the WB&A Realty Corporation for selling easements on the land, not the Pennsylvania Railroad which seems to have done nothing with the right of way. But the county never bought the interests of WB&A Reality. Of course, Anne Arundel has a strong case for owning the 0.6 acre parcel within lot 6, now part of the Preserve at Two Rivers.
The land records support the assertion that the descendants of Jacob Meyer own the WB&A right of way near the Patuxent River. Anne Arundel owns a 0.6 acre parcel within lot 6, and would have an easement by necessity along the right of way if it wanted to make that small parcel a park. But such a park seems unlikely. Although most of the Meyer descendants are still in the area, a few have moved out of town and it is possible that some of them either like trails or would sell their share if offered a fair price. If a trail conservancy or government agency became a part owner of the rail bed, it could probably negotiate a partition of the land to facilitate a compromise trail: for example, a trail that crosses the Patuxent along the old right of way, but stays away from those areas where a trail would be most problematic to the Meyers.
To be sure: It currently seems administratively easier to build a bridge connecting the Buz Meyer detour trail to the Patuxent River Trail near Bowie State University, than to work out an arrangement with the Meyers for a bridge along the WB&A right of way. But the direct trail is worth more and costs less. How much less? We don't know, so no one really knows whether the better trail is worth the hassle of pursuing it. That's why we need a study.
(Jim TItus lives in a house in Glenn Dale, Maryland, whose main floor is supported by salvaged rails from the WB&A electric railway, with the inscription "Carnegie 1901".)
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.)