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Arlington's Cyclists: Still Stuck With Snow

Almost three years after a major snow storm closed Arlington's main commuter trails for more than a week, the county still doesn't have a plan to deal with snow on our trails.

Clearing snow from Arlington's primary trails became a topic of public conversation again last week. Arlington County's Department of Environmental Services (i.e., the department of transportation) hosted a public chat on Facebook about Arlington's snow plowing and removal plans. Among other things, DES staff explained how they prioritized streets, who was responsible for sidewalks, and which streets depend on VDOT for plowing. When a number of Arlington residents — myself among them — asked about Arlington's plans to clear trails, DES said they had no plans to clear trails, and that in any event, it was the responsibility of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

In other words, we've had zero progress on the matter since . 

This is frustrating. Fortunately, it's mostly been a theoretical frustration, as Arlington hasn't yet suffered any debilitating snow events on par with 2010. However, given the inevitability of another big snow storm, this doesn't excuse the county from its failure to plan to accommodate Arlington's ever-growing population that commutes along the Custis, Washington & Old Dominion, and Four Mile Run trails.

Let's be clear up front — Nobody is arguing that the Custis should be the first priority for clearing after a snowstorm. Clear Wilson Boulevard, clear Glebe Road, clear Columbia Pike. Get the major secondaries, hospital and school routes, and other important connector routes cleared. Make sure Metro stations are accessible for pedestrians. But the county's primary commuting trails — with thousands of users a day — should come well before residential side streets, cul-de-sacs and plaza clearing.

So why hasn't the county sorted this out? My view is that it's a matter of the trails falling through the gap between DES and Parks and Recreation. DES is responsible for all transportation facilities in the county — besides trails — and Parks and Recreation isn't responsible for any transportation facilities — besides trails. The unwillingness of Parks and Recreation to treat the Custis, for example, as a transportation artery is one of the primary reasons I've called for DES to take over responsibility for Arlington's commuter trails.

This isn't a question of resource availability, but rather one of resource prioritization. While the most efficient trail clearing might require the purchase of an attachment or two, Arlington County already has the vehicles it needs to clear the trails. It's more an issue of dedicating manpower. As I wrote in 2011, DES is in charge of clearing county-controlled streets and has a force of 150 workers to clear them. In contrast, Parks and Recreation has a single trail crew that is responsible for almost all of the trails within the county borders.

Arlington County should stand behind its oft-repeated claim that walking and cycling is a viable transportation choice. County leaders need to ensure that the most frequently used walking and cycling corridors aren’t left under a sheet of ice while county crews are out making sure that not one square inch of residential street has been left unplowed. As I'm sure county leadership can recall from the last time we had a major public conversation about snow removal, it's a lot more productive to have it ahead of time than in the aftermath.

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A transcript of the DES chat, with updates, can be found here. While I was unimpressed with DES's reaction when asked questions that departed from the canned nature of the "public chat," the department deserves credit for posting a transcript and following up on the trail-specific issues.

You can still report trail problems by writing to trails (at) arlingtonva.us. Writers should take care to be as specific about the location as possible. 

Arlington’s snow reporting tool — two years after it debuted — still can’t address trail problems, but you can use it to report issues on streets. 

You can reach all of the Arlington County Board members at countyboard (at) arlingtonva.us. 

Great local analysis of the issue can also be found at Along the Pike and Windy Run.

Mark Blacknell is a member of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.

rcannon100 December 17, 2012 at 02:35 PM
Arlington has a long standing campaign designed to convince people to get out of their cars and onto bicycles in order to commute to work. And they have succeeded. 1000s of us now commute to work by bicycle. Having succeeded with their words, Arlington needs to follow this up with actions.... and treat the bicycle trails as transportation arteries upon which 1000s rely to get to work. Mark's work engaging the county on this issue is greatly appreciated.
Susan Kalish December 18, 2012 at 01:25 PM
I'm Susan Kalish and I work for Arlington County Parks and Recreation. County staff have been strategizing for a while to find a viable solution to improve bike commuting in winter weather. Trails don't have gutters or drainage, so snow pushed to one side will continue to melt, run on or along the trails and refreeze. A thin layer of ice can be difficult for cars to maneuver on streets and is also an important safety concern for bikes on trails where it could potentially be a greater hazard. After past snows, staff has been practicing to find solutions both to do a good job and to use our resources wisely. Salt can aid with refreezing and treatment for light precipitation events, but it’s toxic to most vegetation and landscaping along bike trails, most of which run through County parkland. Any non-dissolved salt would also become a safety concern as a potential skid hazard. The County is still in the process of identifying resources to make trail plowing possible. This includes procuring properly sized equipment that would be capable of plowing narrow trails and bridges that could not withstand the weight of a heavy pickup truck as well as identifying and training additional staff. We are dedicated to finding the best solution, including coordinating with area agencies who are also responsible for maintaining trails that run through Arlington County.
Jason Spencer (Editor) December 18, 2012 at 10:47 PM
Thanks for the response, Susan!
Alicia Browder September 05, 2013 at 03:40 AM
Thank you for sharing this post and your comment, Susan is really very informative as well. Moreover, I believe that riding our bike during winter season can be so dangerous because the road is so slippery. Accidents can happen that would put our lives at risk. I really do hope that they can find a great solution and resources in trail plowing. -http://www.howardsnursery.com/

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