When can we say that right-of-way is truly abandoned? Perhaps when it’s forgotten and ignored by nearly everyone. In Washington, DC, a former trolley line lies neglected by the transit system that owns it, the park service whose land surrounds it, a major Catholic university that abuts it, and the city it runs through. Instead of serving a transportation purpose, it has become a dumping ground for those whom society would prefer to overlook. Is this a transportation failure, or is it a failure of moral leadership?
Recently members of the Capital Trails Coalition (CTC), an umbrella group on organizations seeking better trail connections in the nation’s capital, were given a tour of the former Glen Echo Trolley Line. This rail transit corridor once ran from Georgetown to Glen Echo Park, but was abandoned to nature in 1961. Efforts to turn the right of way (ROW) into a walking and biking trail have been ongoing for years, but progress has been stymied by bureaucratic indifference and paralysis.
As a result, the steel trestles along the route are decaying at an alarming rate. Structura, a structural engineering firm, found that while several of the old trestles are still standing, "they are generally in poor condition.”
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) owns the old ROW, but our guide indicated they would gladly part with it. After all, it’s no longer usable for rail transit. But no other agency seems willing to take over the land, as well as the responsibility that comes with it. The National Park Service owns much of the surrounding acreage, but their sole visible response to the ongoing deterioration has been to close a hiking trail underneath one of the trestles. That closure is routinely ignored by hikers.
The District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) has in recent years embraced safe, separated infrastructure for people who walk and bike, but they’ve shown little movement towards assuming responsibility for converting the trolley route into a multiuser trail.
Perhaps most troubling, though, is the apparent indifference of Georgetown University, the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning, to not only this trail’s potential to boost environmentally sustainable transportation, but also the large homeless encampment now in place on the ROW. According to Georgetown’s website:
Students are challenged to engage in the world and become men and women in the service of others, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community.
Yet contrary to this mission, no apparent effort is underway to provide the residents of this encampment with long-term care and housing. On the day the CTC tour took place, it was snowing and the ground was frozen. Freshly washed underwear hung on clotheslines, frozen from the sub-freezing weather.
If a trail were to be built on the trolley line, it is unlikely that the homeless encampment would remain. When Mayor Charlie Hales of Portland, Oregon, allowed the homeless to set up camp along the popular Springwater Corridor Trail, hostility to both the homeless and bike trails spiked in the surrounding area. Local homeowners blamed the camp for an increase in theft and vandalism, harm to the environment due to the lack of sanitation, and neglect by officials who failed to listen to their concerns. As a result of this political pressure, the camp was dismantled and some former residents ended up on the city’s skid row in Old Town Chinatown. The remainder seriously taxed the resources of the city’s existing aid infrastructure. The neighboring city of Gresham threatened to shelve a bike path connection over fears that their trail would end up like the Springwater Corridor.
Clearly, leaving the homeless to face the elements along a bike trail does nobody any good. Georgetown University, with its ability to raise nearly $2 milliion in one night for scholarships and its stated mission to help the most vulnerable, could offer leadership in providing decent shelter for those on the trail today. As for building the trail, that will require a level of coordination between DDOT, WMATA, and the National Park Service that does not currently exist. For now, it remains neglected and underused.
(All photos by the author)
About the author
Kevin Posey is an advocate for sustainable transportation and urban development practices worldwide. He serves on the Capitol Trails Coalition in Washington, DC and on the board of the Virginia Bicycling Federation. He is also a licensed realtor. Previously, Kevin has written for Greater Greater Washington, the Virginia Bicycling Federation, Patch.com, and his own blog, Trafficsnark.blogspot.com.