This post is a follow on to an earlier post, drawn entirely from "Rock Creek Park - Adminstrative History" which has a section on bicycling and covers the period from the 1960's to 1985 [this is the 50th anniversary of the first weekend closure of part of Beach Drive for cars to create space for cyclists, but then it was only on Sunday morning and only from Joyce Road to Broad Branch Road]. It's sort of a companion piece to this one GreaterGreaterWashington about the attempts and failures to close that part of Beach Drive to automobiles and how an upcoming 4-8 month closure to rebuild the road gives us a chance to test the claims of both sides. This post goes in to much more detail about the history.
NPS, under the leadership of Superintendent Jim Redmond - who was the catalyst behind all of the biking initiatives in the Park at the time, had in 1981 closed the section of Beach Drive between Joyce and Broad Branch for the entire weekend. They even had a ribbon cutting to do it. In 1983, NPS announced that after the Red Line was completed beyond Van Ness and reconstruction work on 16th Street was finished, a gate would be placed near Boulder Bridge permanently barring the section of Beach Drive north of there to Joyce to automobiles; but 3 months later, under pressure from automobile groups, commuters, and the D.C. Department of Public Works and Transportation, they reversed themselves and decided to build 2.5 miles of trail through that section instead. But then, when National Parks and Conservation Association opposed the trail as "unduly destructive of park scenery" they backed off from that too.
In 1988, the FHWA produced a report on the roads in Rock Creek Park. They determined that Beach road got far more traffic than it could handle and that it would be impossible to widen it.
Since it was impossible to upgrade the roadway to accommodate existing and future traffic, the FHA advised that the best alternative would be to reverse the traditional construction-oriented approach and reduce the traffic flow on Beach Drive to the point that only minimal road improvements would be necessary to satisfy NPS standards. Even this would be impossible in some places, the FHA acknowledged, in which case scenic preservation goals should prevail. The FHA suggested several strategies for reducing traffic on the park's main drive. These included eliminating the one-way rush hour traffic pattern on Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, strictly enforcing park speed limits, establishing policies to promote or require car-pooling, and the institution of user fees for vehicles entering the park. In order to meet the NPS standard of 8,000 vehicles per day for a two-lane park road, traffic on Piney Branch Parkway would have to be cut in half and the number of vehicles using Beach Drive between Tilden Street and the zoo tunnel reduced to a third of its current volume. The permanent closure of all or part of Beach Drive was also suggested as a possible option. The FHA study observed that the Washington Metro system could easily absorb the displaced motorists, but noted "none of these measures would be popular with existing commuters in the Park and no doubt there would be a great deal of public opposition."
Adding evidence to their claim, in 1990 the Zoo Tunnel was closed for 10 weeks without the devastating traffic predicted.
Emboldened by the report and results of the closure of the Zoo Tunnel, a group of activists called "Auto-Free DC" began to again call for closures of Beach Drive to through traffic, when their proposals were ignored, they instigated "rolling road blocks"
In 1994 they instituted a series of protests centered around "rolling road blocks," in which packs of cyclists clogged Beach Drive during rush hour to disrupt commuter traffic and call attention to their cause. Most of these protests were generally peaceable, with park police providing motorized escorts and the number ofriders limited to twenty-four in order to circumvent D.C. regulations that required formal permits for demonstrations involving more than twenty-five participants. Tempers flared on occasion, however, and several altercations and arrests occurred.
In June 1996, NPS began work on a General Management Plan. The People's Alliance for Rock Creek Park (which included WABA) once again got involved. The original proposals, released in June 1997, included one scenario that would close three sections of Beach Drive (Sherrill to Wise; West Beach to MD line; and Broad Branch to Joyce, including Boulder Bridge) and convert Wise Road, Sherrill Drive, Bingham Drive, Grant Road, and Blagden Avenue to paved trails. But the scenario also included the closure of the stables, golf course, community gardens, Carter Barron Amphitheater and more. Of the four scenarios it was the third most popular. One of the reasons it was opposed was concern of spillover traffic.
WABA and PARC protested and made a more modest proposal, scenario 2.5, to close the section of Beach Drive between Broad Branch and Joyce Road, since an alternate route existed in Ross Road. When the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) came out it included four new alternatives. Alternative C would permanently eliminate automobile traffic along the three segments of Beach mentioned above and Alternative D would close them between the hours of 9:30 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. each weekday.
Alternative D was the National Park Service's preferred alternative. Following issuance of the DEIS/GMP, the National Park Service considered a proposal to create a variation called D-1, which would close Beach Drive from Broad Branch Road to Joyce Road during the same time as in Alternative D, but concluded this new variation was not needed since it was essentially contained in the existing Alternative D.
As a result of the comments received from the public and government agencies as well as analysis of the scientific and regulatory components and review of the conclusions of the DEIS/GMP, the National Park Service's preferred alternative is now Alternative A.
Alternative A: Improved Management of Established Park Uses, is the NPS' preferred alternative. It would improve visitor safety, better control traffic volumes and speeds through the park, enhance interpretation and education opportunities, and improve the use of park resources, especially cultural resources. It would retain the current scope of visitor uses.
"Adrienne A. Coleman, Rock Creek's superintendent, said the Park Service had determined that most of the general public, as well as a host of civic and elected officials, favored keeping the road open during the week." They instead decided to lower the speed limit on that section to 20 mph and add speed bumps of speed tables (they have done none of these things).
They also promised to rebuild the trail and to study expanding it to cover the Broad Branch to Joyce gap. Most of the improvements promised were first proposed by WABA in 1997. They include a wider trail, a better bridge over Rock Creek south of the Zoo and an improved trail surface. The trail was already a troublesome bike facility in 2002, when Chris Core (Yeah, that Chris Core) wrote to Dr. Gridlock to complain about cyclists using the road when there was a "very nice bicycle path through Rock Creek Park" only two feet away.
Getting to the improved trail has taken more than 10 years, and suffered many delays. A draft Environmental Assessment (EA) was completed in November 2011, but the Final was not released until June of 2014, at the same time a FONSI was released. DDOT has since completed a 30% design and hopes to have a final design done in the Fall of 2016, with work to start in 2017. More immediately NPS/FHWA, which is doing a complimentary project, has already advertised the work and expects to start soon (though not as soon as previously thought). Work on the FHWA project which will rebuild the Shoreham Drive intersection, build a new trail bridge next to the Zoo Tunnel Bridge, reconfigure the Zoo Tunnel and rebuild 1.5 miles of trail could start as soon as the summer of 2016.