The scenic Washington & Old Dominion Trail that courses through the City of Falls Church is undergoing a serious facelift, with a host of benefits expected to boost the City’s transportation infrastructure and the region’s environment when the project is completed by the Fall of 2020.
Approved last year by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), the “Falls Church Enhanced Regional Bike Routes” Plan for the W&OD Trail will create separate paths for pedestrians and bikers, replacing the existing 10-foot wide shared-use trail with an 11-foot wide bicycle trail and an 8-foot wide pedestrian trail separated by a 2-foot median, and extending east from Broad Street (Route 7) to east of Little Falls Street. A Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) project to build a 20-foot wide, two-lane, pedestrian/bicycle bridge over and across the hazardous five lanes of traffic at N. Washington Street (Route 29) and east into Arlington is also proceeding. According to VDOT, the bridge will provide a safer crossing for up to 2,000 people per day on peak days.
“The double path on the W&OD will be a big improvement for everyone’s safety and enjoyment. Bicyclists and pedestrians can go at their own speed and enjoy the trail,” Danny Schlitt, City of Falls Church Recreation and Parks Department director, said. “[It’s] the most popular park in Northern Virginia, and smart, creative solutions like the double path will benefit all who use the trail.”
According to the NVTA report, the “parallel-trails” project will provide greater capacity, increase safety for users and encourage bicyclists and pedestrians who may avoid the trail due to overcrowding to return. The plan is designed to help reduce regional car traffic congestion as well as to increase patronage to the City’s businesses. Six curve ramps will also be replaced in the City’s section of the trail, along with several crossing areas improved for safety and landscaping designed to accentuate the 100-foot wide W&OD parkland featured. Lighting along the pathway will be extended through commuter hours until 9 p.m., facilitating greater commuter access to the East and West Falls Church Metro stops, multiple connecting MetroBus stops and various bike-sharing stations in the City.
The W&OD trail expansion project is the only multi-modal trail transportation initiative to be approved for funding by the NVTA last year. To complete the project, $3.7 million dollars has been funded overall — $3.2 million from the NVTA and the remaining from the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, now known as Nova Parks, supplemented by a $500,000 VDOT grant. According to Paul Gilbert, the executive director of Nova Parks, VDOT seems to have turned a corner on how it analyzes transportation needs.
“The NTVA does not normally fund trail projects,” he said. “However, their decision really speaks to how vital the W&OD Trail is and that it’s a transportation thoroughfare that they looked at like a road. They analyzed the flow of traffic during rush hour and the trail really ranked as a major artery in need of significant improvements. So, that’s a really big shift.”
In addition to improving traffic flow, however, the project will improve the environment, per Gilbert. Climate impacts will be reduced by decreasing traffic congestion and stormwater run-off will be better managed. Despite adding more hardscape to the path, Gilbert said the new trail design will have groundwater filter pods that will be submerged in designated areas to clean run-off to streams and rivers, and high-grass meadows and swails will be landscaped to improve water management and natural habitat value. It’s a big change from a simple asphalt path paved over the old W&OD Railway 30 years ago.
There’s little doubt that the many detours and construction sites along the W&OD Trail in Falls Church are worth it.
“We were very excited to advance a project such as this,” said Monica Backmon, the executive director of the NVTA, “We are multi-modal and this project is multi-modal and it speaks to the one-size-not-fitting-all solutions to transportation investments and improvements here in Northern Virginia… If this one trail can provide several modes of transportation then we’re really proud that we can help.”
The City of Falls Church has played a key role in the story of the W&OD Trail as well as the founding of what is now known as Nova Parks. The City banded together with Arlington and Fairfax County, 60 years ago in October 1959, to form Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and the very first leg of the trail was constructed in the City of Falls Church in 1974.
Gilbert predicts that the remodeled trail through Falls Church will serve as a “W&OD 2.0” example for improvements along the rest of the trail. “That’s pretty awesome stuff,” Gilbert said.