Friday, April 18, 2014

Extend the Long Branch Trail to Four Corners

The Long Branch Trail is a paved shared use path that connects to the Anacostia Tributary Trail System.  It currently runs from the confluence of Sligo Creek and Long Branch Creek in Takoma Park to it's terminus at Piney Branch Road in Long Branch; the community of homes and apartments that takes its name from the eponymous creek.  The creek continues north for another mile to its headwaters just south of Franklin Avenue in Indian Spring.  The creek is lined with a thin riparian buffer (woods and undergrowth separating it from adjacent development) for most of its route.  North of Piney Branch Road, the creek does not have any recognized trail running alongside it, though there are some dirt trails that parallel the creek all the way to its origin in Upper Long Branch Park.

Long Branch Creek along Wilmer Street in Indian Spring, just south of its headwaters.  Photo by the author.

I think the current Long Branch Trail should be extended to Franklin Avenue as a paved path, then continued on-street through Indian Spring to a potential pedestrian bridge over the Beltway at Indian Spring Terrace Park, and then through the campus of Blair High School to the intersection of Colesville Road and University Boulevard.  Click on the interactive map below to get a visual reference of the potential extension.

View Long Branch Trail in a larger map

I think this would be a good idea for several reasons.  While Four Corners is in the Anacostia Watershed, and there are several creeks and streams that feed the Anacostia flowing through our community, we are not well served by the Anacostia Tributary Trail System (ATTS).

The Sligo Creek Trail is probably the most well known trail in eastern Montgomery County.  The paved shared-use path skirts the western edge of Four Corners as it runs from Wheaton to Chillum.  The Sligo Creek Trail is a nice place for a leisurely stroll or bike ride, but it's popularity also means it is crowded.  The trail is also difficult to access from Four Corners because it is on the western side of the creek, with the only direct access points being Dennis Avenue and Forest Glen Road.    

The Northwest Branch Trail, which is another shared use paved trail that is part of the ATTS, does not serve Four Corners well either.  It runs from Bladensburg to Oakview, ending south of the Beltway bridge.  There are rustic dirt trails along Northwest Branch north of the Beltway, but they do not connect to the paved trail south of the bridge (unless you feel like climbing over some rocks).  The trail is on the eastern side of the creek, opposite of Four Corners, and the only easy access is from Oakview.  Many Four Corners residents may not even know about this trail since it mostly runs through Prince George's County.

The Long Branch Trail next to the Foxhall Apartments.  A trail like this could be continued all the way to Franklin Avenue.  Photo by the author.

Extending the Long Branch Trail could connect the ATTS to the heart of Four Corners.  Most stream valley trails are on the fringe of neighborhoods and separated from the communities they serve by riparian barriers.  Thanks to the unique geography of Long Branch and its proximity to neighborhoods and commercial districts, it has the potential to be one of the best trails in the area.

Here's the plan (see above map for reference).

Starting at the intersection of Colesville Road and University Boulevard in the commercial district, the Long Branch Trail would first have to travel through the Blair campus.  This could mean either using existing sidewalks around the school, or building a new path around the edge of Blair's property.  M-NCPPC and the county would have to work together to determine which route would be the most convenient for trail users, and more importantly, which route would have the least amount of impact on the school and school activities.  

Upon reaching the southern edge of the Blair campus (by the practice field and tennis courts), the trail would cross a new pedestrian bridge over the Capital Beltway, connecting it to Indian Spring Terrace Park.  The bridge would be one of the most important aspects of the extended trail, since it would be the only pedestrian and bicycle friendly connection to Indian Spring from the rest of Four Corners.  The only way to get to Indian Spring on foot now is to cross either the University Boulevard or Colesville Road Beltway bridges, and their accompanying ramps, which are hostile environments for people on foot or on bike. 

A pedestrian bridge like this one in Bethesda could provide an important link between Indian Spring and the rest of Four Corners.  The bridge in the photo carries the Bethesda Trolley Trail over the Capital Beltway.  A bridge in Four Corners could carry the Long Branch Trail over the Beltway.  Image from Google Street View.   

Once crossing the bridge into Indian Spring Terrace Park, the trail would continue onto Lawndale Drive as an on-street trail.  At the intersection of Lawndale and Flower Avenue, the trail would continue down to Franklin Avenue, where it could use a short sidewalk to get to the beginning of the off-street paved path next to the Church of Christ Silver Spring.  These two roads get very little traffic (this is the stretch of Flower north of Franklin).  Lawndale and Flower could have sharrows painted on the street so drivers expect cyclists, and if no sidewalk is built, maybe a some signage could be added to remind drivers to expect increased pedestrian activity on the street.

The final component would be the construction of a new 10 foot wide paved path alongside the creek from Franklin Avenue south to Piney Branch Road, connecting to the existing trail.  The terrain of the stream valley is conducive to trail building, and is already a dirt path occupying the location next to the stream.  Some trees would have to be destroyed to construct the trail, but I think this is an acceptable loss given how the trail will make it possible for more people to enjoy the stream valley.  I do not think trail construction would have a significant impact on the tree canopy, based on the volume and size of the trees that consist of the riparian barrier.  Many of the large trees are rooted away from the flat ground right next to the creek, and therefore out of the potential trail's right-of-way.  Trees could be planted when construction is completed to replace any that were destroyed. 

Long Branch Creek south of Piney Branch Road.  Photo by the author.

There are a few obstacles to the implementation of this plan.  The biggest is probably the Beltway bridge.  The trail extension will still be nice without it, but it will not serve the broader community as well without the bridge.  The bridge will require collaboration between the county, M-NCPPC, the Maryland State Highway Administration, and probably some other government agency(s).  This could be the most involved and complicated part of the project.  

The on-street portion of the trail shouldn't encounter any issues, since all it would consist of is some signs directing users to the beginning of the off-street portions of the trail.  Since these are both low traffic residential roads, I doubt there will be any serious conflict between pedestrians, cyclists, and cars.  

An issue I see with the construction of the off-street portion of the trail is the connection to Franklin Avenue from the M-NCPPC owned parkland just south of Franklin.  The Silver Spring Church of Christ property is the only thing separating the M-NCPPC owned land from Franklin Avenue.  The trail could run alongside the church's back parking area (there appears to be plenty of space for a 10 foot wide trail) but the church owns the land, so M-NCPPC would have to either buy it or arrange some type of agreement with the church.  

Once this is resolved, the only remaining issue I foresee is getting environmental approval for the trail.  The trail would have to run very close to the creek at some points, but it would be entirely within M-NCPPC property, so there shouldn't be any land conflicts with private property owners besides the church.  I don't imagine a 10 foot wide asphalt path has a large environmental impact, so hopefully the approval process would be straightforward.  If the trail extension does come to fruition, the existing trail south of Piney Branch road will need to be upgraded to accommodate increased traffic.  Like the Sligo Creek Trail, the Long Branch Trail has some sharp curves and narrow bridges which should be altered if more people are to use the trail.  

A narrow bridge on the existing Long Branch Trail .  This bridge is so narrow, two people cannot comfortably pass at the same time (forget two cyclists).  This is the trail equivalent of a one lane bridge, and a bridge like this should be replaced with an 8 or 10 foot wide one.   Photo by the author.   

These curves and bottlenecks should be straightened out and widened as part of the trail extension.  Also, the Long Branch Trail does not directly connect to the Sligo Creek Trail at this time.  There is an on-street connection via neighborhood roads in Takoma Park, but an off-street connection should be built if at all possible so that the connection to the broader ATTS is as seamless as possible.  

This trail extension would be very beneficial to Four Corners.  It would provide a mostly off-street connection between Four Corners and the Long Branch community, which will soon be home to at least one Purple Line station.  If one wants to ride a bike from the Woodmoor Shopping Center to the Long Branch commercial district, they currently have to ride along University Boulevard, or take a circuitous route through neighborhoods.  If this trail were built with a Beltway pedestrian bridge, the only roads that one would have to travel along to make this same journey would be two residential streets in Indian Spring, which are much more comfortable than a six lane highway.  

This trail extension would also provide a direct connection between Four Corners and the rest of the Anacostia Tributary Trail System, which would allow for better bike and pedestrian access to nearby communities in Prince George's County such as Hyattsville, Bladensburg, and College Park, all of which are about the same distance from Four Corners as Bethesda.

As Montgomery County becomes more urbanized, would should be try to encourage getting around the county and the region as a whole via different modes of transportation.  The more connected our communities are by things like better trails and transit, the more choices we have for getting around.   

An extension of the Long Branch Trail would be a step in the right direction.      



  1. I feel like the bridge is the most important part of this plan. Currently crossing the Beltway requires using either Colesville or University and neither is very pleasant. What are the odds a bridge is ever built? I remember you mentioning it was apart of the original plan when Blair was built.

    1. I agree with you.

      There were plans for a bridge back in the 90's when Blair was being proposed. Many supported the idea of bridge, since it would have connected neighborhoods and provided access to Blair's new recreational facilities which where promised to be open to the public when possible (tennis courts, track, etc.) Some residents in Indian Spring who lived near the YMCA opposed the bridge because they thought students would park on their streets to go to school. Woodmoor had the same concerns, but they never materialized due to new parking restrictions and the isolated nature of the school (surrounded by wide unpleasant roads).

      I have no clue what the odds are that this would actually be built. The only way I see it happening is if a county council member pushes for it, or there is overwhelming support from the community, or both.

      I would really like to see this happen, and I plan to write to elected officials, as well as the different agencies that would need to be involved such as M-NCPPC, to see how feasible this would be.

  2. Thanks for the information Sean

  3. Hi. I'm moving to Franklin Knolls and think access to the trail and access over the beltway would greatly improve the area. I'd like to help make this happen. Once we're settled after Memorial Day weekend, I'll be in touch about how to get involved! Thanks. Great blog.