Biking in Hyattsville. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Prince George’s County’s parks department plans to triple the amount of paved trails in the next 25 years. But it’s unclear whether the trails will take people where they need to go.

“I read the County’s draft Formula 2040 plan for 200 more miles of paved trails,” said a senior official of the Maryland Department of Transportation, whose staff makes decisions about which trails get federal and state transportation funding. “Nowhere does the plan seem to mention transportation.”

Prince George’s County has great parks, largely because they are managed by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC). Although the county government has limited funds for infrastructure, the Commission has the authority to levy a 0.23% property tax for parks and recreation. The trails, however, leave much to be desired.

The county lacks a trail network

Major trails lead out of the District of Columbia in almost every direction: The Mount Vernon Trail to the south, the Custis/W&OD Trail to the west, Capital Crescent to the northwest, and Rock Creek to the north. But there’s nothing going east.

I created this map for WABA’s oral testimony at M-NCPPC’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget hearing to help the commissioners visualize the county’s lack of major trails into Washington and how they might cure the problem.

Map by the author on Google Maps. Click for interactive map.

In Prince George’s County, most trails are very short. The few longer trails generally lack connections to transit, and they stop just before their destinations. The WB&A Trail starts 2.5 miles from the New Carrollton Metro station and stops at the Patuxent River. The Henson Creek Trail stops across the Beltway from the Branch Avenue Metro Station.

Neither trail has an interim on-road bike route. You just have to turn around. For several years, the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) has urged M-NCPPC to extend the WB&A Trail west to the New Carrollton Metro station, but to no avail.

One exception is the Anacostia Tributary Trail System, which runs from College Park to Bladensburg and west to Langley Park. Soon, it will extend south to the Anacostia Trail along the east side of the Anacostia River in DC.

No agency is trying to create a trail network

M-NCPPC’s transportation planners have created a master plan for what the ultimate network should be by the year 2100. But no entity is responsible for actually creating it. Certain segments are simply built when convenient.

Several government offices are responsible for some aspect of the bicycle infrastructure in Prince George’s. M-NCPPC’s Parks Department builds trails in parks. Its Planning Department often requires developers to build trails through new neighborhoods, if a trail appears on the county’s master plan. Transportation planners at M-NCPPC occasionally conduct feasibility and preliminary design studies of trails useful for transportation.

The State Highway Administration sometimes builds sidepaths along state highways. Although the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) has not built trails, it is responsible for most of the bicycle network that actually exists: the county roads.

No one coordinates these disparate activities. So rather than a network, the county has a set of standalone trails: Short, disconnected segments through new developments and a few reasonably long trails.

Residents ask for more trails, Parks Department responds

M-NCPPC is revising its master plan for parks and recreation for the first time since 1982, and trails have become a big part of it. In a poll that asked residents which park amenities they use, more residents listed trails than any other M-NCPPC facility.

In response, the Parks Department proposed adding 200 miles of paved trails, along with almost 100 miles in unpaved trails. About 20 percent of its capital budget would be dedicated to trails, according to Chuck Montrie, the park planning supervisor.

The plan emphasizes trails that “connect urban centers and neighborhoods with existing trails facilities; employment centers; Metro stations; historic, environmental, and cultural resources,” along with “neighborhood anchors including schools, libraries, and parks.”

The County Council is now reviewing the plan. At a hearing last month, WABA enthusiastically endorsed the increased emphasis on trails. WABA also recommends an interim goal of 40 miles by 2020, and connecting trails to designated transit-oriented districts, such as New Carrollton. (I spoke on behalf of WABA.)

Will M-NCPPC take the lead?

The draft plan prioritizes connecting trails to other trails and Metro, but M-NCPPC doesn’t always own the land necessary for those connections. So what will have the higher priority: a difficult crossing over the Beltway to a Metro station, or connecting two trails on park property in a low-density area?

Is M-NCPPC proposing to take the lead on creating a trail network designed for both transportation and recreation? Or is it merely saying that if two possible trails on park property are equally challenging, it will build the one that goes somewhere? The plan does not say.

Montrie has indicated that M-NCPPC may be ready to move beyond park boundaries. “Stream valley trails can only take us so far,” he recently told a meeting of local advocates. “We are going to have to build other types of trails.”

M-NCPPC planners think that this plan might get agencies to start taking responsibility for bicycle transportation. I recently suggested to Fred Shaffer, a transportation planner who also chairs the county bicycle advisory group, that the county seems unwilling to even consider cycle tracks on county roads. “That may change,” Shaffer responded. “Parks and DPW&T may soon start working together to achieve the 200-mile goal.”

Is M-NCPPC ready?

Every June, the Maryland Bikeways Program solicits proposals from local governments for bike lanes and trails that are useful for transportation. Proposals have the greatest chance for funding if they connect existing trails to rail transit stations or other population centers.

With the new plan’s emphasis on trails to Metro, one might expect that M-NCPPC would propose to connect the Henson Creek or WB&A trail across the Beltway to the planned transit districts, which County Executive Rushern Baker hopes can help jump-start the county’s economy. But no: The Parks Department intends to seek funds to connect the Henson Creek trail to a recreation center. And its focus is not extending the WB&A trail west to New Carrollton and on to the Anacostia Trail, but east into Anne Arundel County.

Last week the Planning Department started to think about how to extend the WB&A trail west accross the Beltway. But lately its transportation planners have had their hands full with the Purple Line and a new policy requiring developers to build more sidewalks.

Creating functionally useful trails will probably take more staff, and a change in how park planners view their mission.

Jim Titus lived aboard a 75-foot coast guard cutter at Buzzards Point boatyard in southwest Washington until he was 2. Since then he has lived in Prince George’s County, going to school in Ft. Washington, Accokeek, and College Park before moving to Glenn Dale. He represents Prince George’s on the state of Maryland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and is on the emeritus board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Professionally, he works for a federal agency, which asks not to be identified.