As a trail user, you’ve probably noticed that the Capital Crescent Trail (CCT) between Bethesda and Georgetown is overdue for repaving. In fact, the trail was originally paved over 25 years ago (between 1992 and 1995). With only spot repaving since then, much of the trail has its original asphalt. As one of the most heavily used trails in metropolitan Washington, DC, our well-loved CCT is showing its age with wear and deterioration that degrades the integrity of the trail and the experience for everyone who uses it.
The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail (the Coalition) has long been advocating for repaving in discussions with the National Park Service (NPS), which owns the DC section of the trail (as part of the C&O Canal National Historic park), and with the Montgomery County Parks Department, which manages the Montgomery County section. Both park authorities acknowledge the need for repaving, and note the challenges associated with funding a project of this scale. Along with repaving, the Coalition also strongly recommends widening the trail for safety and ease of use.
Here’s a breakdown and progress report on that recommended work:
The DC section of CCT is clearly showing wear and age, with a lot of bumps from roots and frost heaves, and many dips due to subsidence, making for a rough surface and increasing the risk of accidents.
While the Montgomery County section is in better shape, it’s reached an age where the remaining original asphalt needs replacement to ensure its integrity, and the shoulders need regrading and widening back to 2 feet. There are also several portions that have significant heaving, such as between the Bradley Blvd. overpass and Weiner Plaza south of the Ourisman Plaza.
In addition, although the Montgomery County section has dirt and gravel shoulders over much of its length, the shoulder on one side is missing, rough or narrow at many points. There are also sections with no shoulders, such as just south of the bridge over River Rd, and just south of the bridge that passes over the Dalecarlia Reservoir grounds.
The DC section has no shoulders in most places, and where it does, those shoulders are usually on just one side of the trail.
Coalition records report that the original cost to pave the Montgomery County section was about $50 per linear foot, while the section in Washington DC was about $25 per linear foot. That cost difference explains why the DC section is in poorer shape—it was paved with thinner asphalt that is more easily damaged.
The Coalition has been trying for years to persuade the NPS to rehabilitate and resurface its section of the CCT. In the past, the limiting factor has been the annual major under-funding of maintenance for National Parks. However, in 2020 Congress passed, and the President signed, the Great American Outdoor Act, from which funds will be available for improving the NPS parks and trails. As a result, the NPS will have a source of funding to resurface the CCT and we understand that the NPS is considering how it can now address the needs of the CCT. However, it will take a couple of years for the NPS to develop the plans, complete environmental assessments, invite bids and complete the project. Consequently, under the best of circumstances, we likely won’t see significant improvements to the surface of the DC section until 2024.
The NPS has been working to resolve some more immediate serious trail problems, such as the recently completed repair work in the Palisades where the slopes both above and below the CCT had eroded due to rainwater runoff and threatened the integrity of the trail.
The Coalition has also been in touch with the Montgomery County Parks Department regarding the condition of their section of the CCT. The Parks Department is aware of the need for trail improvements and has said they are working on a plan to accomplish this, including how they intend to fund this project. However, as with the NPS section improvements, it will take years to be achieved.
Widening the trail
Repaving the CCT provides a perfect opportunity to widen it, which the Coalition strongly favors to improve safety and ease of use. A wider trail would also align with best practices for heavily used trails like the CCT, which sees over one million users per year.
The current pavement is 10 feet wide, while current design guidance for a trail as busy as the CCT calls for a minimum of 12 feet paved width with 2 foot unpaved shoulders on both sides.* Note that 12 feet is minimum, not optimum - 14 feet would be better for the peak usage the CCT carries. It would also be particularly helpful to have shoulders on both sides along as much of the trail as possible, to provide adequate space for walkers and runners who choose not to be on the asphalt, and to reduce plant overgrowth onto the pavement that can become difficult to remove, which has been endemic in parts of the DC/NPS section.
In addition, three future trail milestones will increase use and bring users from new areas. First, in the summer of 2021, the Capital Crescent Surface Trail (CCST) will be completed to provide protected bike-only lanes across Wisconsin Ave, connecting the current CCT trailhead at Ourisman Plaza to Elm Street park and to the alternate detour routes to Silver Spring, courtesy of WABA. Second, completion with the Purple Line of a paved, almost completely grade separated CCT from Elm Street park in Bethesda to downtown Silver Spring will bring direct access to Chevy Chase, Lyttonsville, Silver Spring and beyond, increasing both recreational and commuter usage. Third, the later completion of the planned replacement trail tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue will provide safer passage for all, attracting those hesitant to use the CCST to cross Wisconsin Ave. Each of these enhancements will most certainly increase recreational and commuter traffic on the trail.
The CCT between Bethesda and Silver Spring will be "a 12-foot paved trail with 2-foot buffers", when constructed as part of the Purple Line project. This strongly supports widening the rest of the CCT to match.
Arguments for widening the trail
The first 4 points are based on section "5.2.1 Width and Clearance" on page 5-3 of the AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition (2012). The Guide's starting statement on width is: "The minimum paved width for a two-directional shared use path is 10 ft (3.0 m). Typically, widths range from 10 to 14 ft (3.0 to 4.3 m), with the wider values applicable to areas with high use and/or a wider variety of user groups."
1) The Guide says "Wider pathways, 11 to 14 ft (3.4 to 4.2 m) are recommended in locations that are anticipated to serve a high percentage of pedestrians (30 percent or more of the total pathway volume) and high user volumes (more than 300 total users in the peak hour)." Pedestrians are at least 30% of users everywhere on the CCT, and are commonly over 50% near the Bethesda trailhead. CCT peak hour user counts are definitely over 300/hour - that is an average of 5 users per minute, which observation will show is exceeded in late afternoon or early evening on many days.
2) The Guide says "Eleven foot (3.4 m) wide pathways are needed to enable a bicyclist to pass another path user going the same direction, at the same time a path user is approaching from the opposite direction." This kind of "passing between" happens regularly on the CCT, regardless of the safety guidance against it. It most commonly involves a bicyclist passing a pedestrian, with a pedestrian or bicyclist on the other side. When there is a pair of pedestrians on one side, which also happen regularly on the CCT, another 2 feet of width is needed for comparable safety, so 13 feet. Passing widths also need to increase when "city bikes" or bikeshare bikes are involved, since those most often have handlebars 25" to 28" wide. The average width of bicycles (handlebars) has increased since the CCT was originally paved.
3) The Guide says "Wider paths are also advisable in the following situations: Where there is significant use by inline skaters, adult tricycles, children, or other users that need more operating width". The CCT definitely has significant use by children, especially on nice weekend days when the trail is busiest. Among "other users that need more operating width", count the increasing numbers of class 2 and 3 electric bikes, electric scooters (both stand-up and the larger sit-on ones), and mopeds (regardless of rules against them.) Some of these powered vehicle users show less caution about passing and pass at higher speeds than than is normal and desirable, treating the CCT more like a commuting route than a shared-use path. Without enforcement, these trail users are there to stay.
4) The Guide says "Wider paths are also advisable in the following situations: Where the path is used by larger maintenance vehicles". Recall the major ruts and muddy messes caused by tree removal trucks on the NPS CCT section during 2020. On a 12 foot wide paved trail, their tires could have stayed entirely on the pavement. Given the large numbers of trees along the CCT and the number of trees that fall across the trail, occasional visits by tree removal trucks will be required to try to stay ahead of the decaying tree problem.
5) Personal observation shows that a somewhat common occurrence on the CCT is pairs of bicyclists riding side by side. When both of those riders are on "city bikes" or bikeshare bikes, their total riding width (with needed clearance between them) is often 5 feet or more, which can leave no clearance to the trail centerline. A wider trail would accommodate this more safely.
6) As noted above: The CCT between Bethesda and Silver Spring will be "a 12-foot paved trail with 2-foot buffers", when constructed as part of the Purple Line project. This strongly supports widening the rest of the CCT to match.
*References for shared-use path design:
- Chapter 5: Design of Shared Use Paths, in: 2012 AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities
Link to AASHTO store to purchase: AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition (2012)
- Sections 7.3: Path Cross Section and 7.6: Shoulders, in: 2015 Maryland State Highway Administration Bicycle Policy & Design Guidelines
- FHWA-HRT-05-138 - Shared-Use Path Level of Service Calculator - A User's Guide - July 2006
The Coalition will continue to advocate for trail repaving and widening, and provide updates here on the plans and progress made by the National Park Service and Montgomery County Parks Department for these and other improvements to the CCT.