Our River: The Anacostia

Learning Lessons From A Bridge

Proposed New Anacostia Bridge at the Arboretum. Photo: National Park Service

We have all made great progress working together to bring back the Anacostia River as an asset to the City.  The water quality is improving, the fish are returning, the parklands along the shorelines are better kept; there is much to be proud of.  The solutions are complex and expensive, but folks have generally stepped up to the plate, taken on the tasks and helped pay for the results.

This high level of cooperation among agencies at all levels, facility owners, environmental groups and the public is impressive and is a result of a major on-going effort to keep everyone informed and engaged under the leadership of the DC Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) and the Maryland Department of the Environment.  How important and difficult that effort is occasionally becomes apparent when the system breaks down.

This seems to have happened with respect to a pedestrian bridge being proposed by the National Park Service and the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) that would cross the River at the southern end of the National Arboretum.  The bridge would serve many valid purposes.  It would provide access to the Arboretum from the existing trail system on the Anacostia side of the River.  It would connect the Arboretum and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens for hikers and bikers.  It would aid access for bike commuters living in neighborhoods on the Arboretum side of the River. This access would be enhanced by adding trails to the north and south from Benning Road to New York Avenue and beyond.

The Park Service and DDOT developed their proposal as follow-on to an earlier “re-alignment” effort, which included an “Environmental Assessment” (EA) that dealt with the banks and trails along the River.  Neither the proposal nor the EA included the bridge or changes to the nearby banks, which are comprised of fill for the most part.  Depending on these documents rather than initiating a new Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement, the partners moved forward to modify the existing Assessment and to complete the design document for the bridge.

Boaters Needs Left Out
Unfortunately this approach failed to seek out and engage the full range of public interests, as would have happened with a new proposal and environmental analysis, especially if it were to lead to a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement for public review.  While sometimes this does not create a problem, here we had a separate group of interests that was left out – the boaters.

Those working on the bridge proposal for the Park Service and DDOT were apparently unaware of the number of colleges and high schools and others who have found the upper tidal Anacostia the perfect place to practice rowing and racing skills in shells and kayaks and other craft.  One reason for this is the absence of motor craft in the area, due in large part to the low-level rail bridge that crosses the River above Pennsylvania Avenue, and keeps nearly all boats to the south.  Another is the array of boat rentals and services available at Bladensburg Waterfront Park.

On a typical day there are dozens of college crew members on the upper River before dawn, and hundreds of high school students learning and practicing rowing in the late afternoon.  Most are part of their college and school teams.   They store their vessels and operate out of the Boathouse at the Bladensburg Marina. In addition to the near-absence of motor craft, the reason this part of the River is so popular is that there is now only one place between Bladensburg and Benning Road that has crossings with support piers in the River – where New York Avenue and Amtrak cross over at the Maryland/DC line.

The proposed bridge to the Arboretum would add another crossing with piers.  According to the project team, a clear span alternative would be difficult to build because of the soils along the riverbanks and the distance to cross.  Also, a clear span would require a higher arch, which would visually interfere more with the views of the natural landscape.  The main concern of the schools, parents and others supporting the rowing community is the increased exposure of the youth to the chances of hitting one of the piers. In addition, they find the arguments against a free-span crossing at the Arboretum unconvincing since there is a crossing of just such a pedestrian bridge over a wide area of the River right above the boathouses in the Bladensburg Marina.  Finally, some simply regret that the open, natural look and feel of the River at that point would be lost.

A Solution
There is one solution that could meet everyone’s objectives, but it would require some backing off by the parties.  That would be to build a bridge with piers, but locate it immediately downstream of the New York Avenue highway and railroad crossings.  The added danger to boaters would be minimal, since the existing piers are enormous and the ways to navigate around them well-known.  And little or none of the advantages of the existing proposal – Arboretum access, connecting the Arboretum to the Aquatic Gardens, new trails and biker access from the west – would be harmed; in fact the connection between the Aquatic Gardens and the Arboretum would be enhanced, since the entrance to the former from the trail system is located right below the existing bridges.   The Park Service and DDOT would need to do some additional design and site testing, and the boating interests would need to be involved in the design and precise location of a new bridge with piers.

So we can anticipate learning some lessons from this bridge.  Can we work together on a satisfactory solution?  Can we repair relations between key players in the Anacostia clean-up?  Or will people dig in their heels and stick to their guns?  The first way is the best way, and the way we have made the Anacostia recovery such a success so far.  Are we “building bridges” or “burning bridges”?  Let’s hope it’s the former.

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River.  He is the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, on the Boards of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Friends of the National Arboretum,  a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.