by Elizabeth Wiener
Copyright Current Staff Writer
October 7, 2009
Nearly two decades after a short stretch of Klingle Road was closed to car traffic, the city is deciding exactly how to turn the eroded pavement that runs through Rock Creek Park into a hiker-biker trail.
The Department of Transportation will host a "public scoping" meeting tonight at the National Zoo's Visitor Center. The purpose is to take comments on a pending environmental assessment of the project, required before the federal government approves and helps fund what is now being called the "Klingle Valley multipurpose trail."
The assessment must consider alternative uses for the trail and their impacts on land use, historic resources, storm water, erosion, and -- of course -- transportation.
If the review is accepted by the Federal Highway Administration, the federal government will pony up 80 percent of the project's cost. The federal government could also decide to require a more detailed environmental impact statement, according to local transportation officials.
The environmental assessment is the latest chapter in a saga that has had more twists and turns than the short 0.7-mile stretch of road, which once linked motorists in wards 1 and 4 with schools, stores and jobs in Ward 3.
That stretch of Klingle, between Porter Street on the east and Cortland Place on the west, was blocked off because of severe erosion in 1991, a time when the city lacked funds to fix it. It has been the subject of controversy ever since.
Proponents of reopening the road said it provided a vital link between neighborhoods east and west of the park and that its closure increased congestion on other east-west roads. Opponents said the stretch of road carried little traffic and that an environmentally sensitive stream valley through a national park was neither a safe nor sensible place for cars.
The politicians also weighed in. In 2001, then-Mayor Anthony Williams recommended converting the roadbed into a trail. In 2003, the DC Council voted to reopen the road. Then, in May 2008, Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh got her colleagues to reverse themselves, and they voted to spend funds only on a hiker-biker trail and sorely needed erosion control.
In the meantime, the federal government -- and especially the National Park Service -- made clear its reluctance to approve an environmental impact statement that would have allowed cars back onto that stretch of Klingle. A draft statement was written, debated, rewritten and even "reformatted" at the federal government's behest, but it was never formally approved.
The process for the environmental impact statement "was not completed because of council legislation to build a trail," Transportation Department spokesperson John Lisle said in an e-mail. "The development of a trail is a different type of transportation facility with potentially different impacts (than a road), but data collected for the EIS will be used for the assessment of the trail where possible."
Whether the "multipurpose trail" is really the end of the road remains to be seen.
Laurie Collins, a leader of the Coalition to Repair and Reopen Klingle Road, said a service road might still be required to service utilities in the park, and that any hiker-biker trail should be "side enough to allow for pedestrians, bikes, rollerblades, joggers, strollers, and wheelchairs."
"If it costs multimillions for a neighborhood hike bike trail, there is an opportunity for the council to rethink the road," Collins said in an e-mail to The Current. And since the federal government can fund only 80 percent of the costs, she noted, the project will have to go back to the council to appropriate the other 20 percent.
There are also questions Collins wants answered. Since the land was given to the District in 1885 to be used as a "highway", she wonders whether it is legal to convert it to a trail. And five houses that were approved for construction on the Tregaron estate that borders the closed portion of Klingle cannot be built without road access, Collins noted.
Lisle said work on the Klingle Valley Trail environmental assessment began in July. He said the department hopes to release the document for public review in the spring and comment for public review in the spring and complete the assessment process by next summer.
More information and a complete schedule can be found at klingletrail.com.