The Battle of Klingle Road

In 1991, a three-quarter-mile segment of Klingle Road, just west of Rock Creek Park, was washed out by stormwater, and the road closed to traffic. That event triggered a bitter battle that has gone on for years, with extraordinary intensity. It appears to be approaching a conclusion, in 2008, 17 years after the closing of the road. We'll see. But here, as briefly as I can do it, is the story, and why it has been such a battle.

East-of-the-Park lifestyles

Map showing Klingle passing under Connecticut For years after the 1968 Martin Luther King riots, all of DC east of Rock Creek Park was in decline and not very desirable. Mount Pleasant for some years consisted of inexpensive rooming houses. In time, the residential areas closest to the Park began to recover, middle-class people (like yours truly) buying houses in Mount Pleasant and Crestwood. But this recovery extended only a few blocks to the east of the Park. Columbia Heights remained, for years, a rough neighborhood, with some of the highest crime rates in the District. Schools were poor, and shops catered to a low-income clientele. Residents looking for better shops and schools quite naturally zipped across the Park to the wealthier neighborhoods to our west, Cleveland Park, Woodley Park, Tenleytown, Georgetown, et cetera. Even Mayor Marion Barry, a prototypical urban-black politician, sent his children to Murch Elementary, west of Rock Creek Park (all the way from Southeast DC). For us residents of Mount Pleasant and Crestwood, our homes were east of the Park, but our shops, restaurants, and schools were west of the Park.

That placed a premium on travel from east to west, especially in the morning, when rushing one's children to school, then hurrying off to work. Here in Mount Pleasant, there was a heavy rush every morning of cars heading west, to those "better" west-of-the-Park schools, such as Murch and Eaton. Few professional-class residents of Mount Pleasant were willing to send their children to our neighborhood school, Bancroft. (As of 2003, Bancroft was just 2% white non-Hispanic, in a neighborhood that was at least 35% white non-Hispanic.)

This is where Klingle Road was such a great convenience. The map shows how one gets from Mount Pleasant, on the far right, to Eaton Elementary, the starred location on the left. Klingle Road was a nicely direct, virtually traffic-free route. The alternative route is on Porter Street (Klingle undetectably becoming Porter, as "real" Klingle turns off just west of the Park). The Porter crossing of Connecticut Avenue is notorious for its congestion and long traffic delays. As is invariably the case in the District, the north-south "commuter" routes are given favorable green-light times at these intersections, while the east-west traffic waits. Hence, the time difference for the Porter Street route, versus Klingle, can easily be 5 or 10 minutes.

Taft Bridge over Klingle Road Thus, the abrupt closing of Klingle in 1991 was upsetting to many residents of Mount Pleasant and Crestwood. Drivers stuck in traffic at the Porter Street crossing of Connecticut longed for the return of their quick and convenient Klingle route.

The battles begin

OK, so, why wasn't the road simply rebuilt, right away? I know that the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) was reluctant to put more money into repairs for this troublesome road, afflicted with underground springs and torrents of water during summer rainstorms. According to a City Paper report in 2000, "City officials were sick of paying to repair it". The Klingle Road Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) says this: "As the watershed became more urbanized and developed, stormwater loads increased to levels that began to cause excessive erosion in Klingle Valley and irreversible damage to Klingle Road prompting the road's closure." That is, it was the paving and buildup in the area that led to increasing maintenance difficulty on this valley road.

There are further reasons against the rebuilding of the road. For one thing, the residents of Woodley Park, on the west end of Klingle Road, were not unhappy to have the road closed. Like everyone else in the District, they want to be able to drive easily to whereever they want to go, but they don't want any traffic on the roads in front of their own houses. Klingle Road emerges on Woodley Road, a residential street, so residents in that high-income neighborhood were treated to little rush hours of Klingle Road commuters every morning. (Some residents of Mount Pleasant want our "minor arterial" streets converted to "local traffic only" residential streets, preventing drivers from passing through the neighborhood on their east-west routes. These same residents want Klingle Road opened, failing to perceive the irony in their willingness to impose on Woodley Park precisely that traffic that they object to in Mount Pleasant.)

sunlit woodland But the crucial fact that makes Klingle Road different from other such traffic-NIMBY situations is that it is in Rock Creek National Park. More than that, it's in an exceptionally beautiful part of the park, a deep valley of dense woods, and Klingle Creek at the bottom. The city was given a 50-foot right-of-way for the "highway" in 1885, five years before Rock Creek National Park was established. At the time, it was a gravel road descending to a ford across Rock Creek. (Today, road advocates leap upon that "highway" designation as justification for the reconstruction of the road. But no one in 1885 imagined fleets of SUVs on a hard-paved surface. Their "highway" carried horse-drawn wagons down to the streambed, where the horses waded across the creek.)

The Park was already suffering for having become a heavy-traffic commuter route in 1966, upon the opening of the tunnel connecting Beach Drive to Rock Creek Parkway. A phenomenal 25,000 vehicles per day now use Beach Drive through the tunnel, and these automobile drivers aren't there to enjoy the park scenery. The National Park has become little more than a host for a freeway. Park management has become resigned to this unpleasant use of their park on Beach Drive, but isn't happy about it, and is considering methods of reducing the commuter traffic burden. When Klingle Road, another busy commuter route through parkland, was closed, the management of Rock Creek National Park was content to leave it closed, preferring quiet parkland to a traffic-laden road.

That's a lot of arguments against the rebuilding of the road, but the east-side residents who wanted their quick route to the west were unpersuaded, and have been relentless in demanding the return of their road. Leading the charge to reopen the road was Mount Pleasant resident Laurie Collins, who built a Web site, Repair Klingle Road, just for this purpose, and who put unrelenting pressure on politicians for the return of the road, even as the years passed. Leading the opposition to the road was an ad hoc group, the Klingle Valley Park Association , supported by the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Berger Study

The District seems to have taken a "hope it goes away" approach to the issue, perhaps thinking that if nothing was done, and the road remained closed, the advocates would lose interest and move on to other matters. But they underestimated the intensity of the road advocates. Green "Repair Klingle Road" popped up all over Mount Pleasant. Laurie Collins created her Web site, and made her Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance a loud voice for reopening the road. Collins raised money and organized meet-and-greet gatherings for politicians who favored the road, and made reopening the road a "litmus test" for any candidate. Ward One Councilmember Jim Graham became a proponent of the road, and received Collins' fund-raising support (as did Fenty, in his campaign for Mayor in 2006). At-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson did not support the road, and found himself under steady attack by Collins and her allies.

The pro-road forces were so vocal and demanding that the District was driven to undertake in 1999 a detailed study of the road, and the various alternatives proposed for it:

? Option A: No Action -- do nothing, a choice mandated for such studies

? Option B: No Build -- repair retaining walls, rebuild drainage

? Option C: Green Space -- as B, but remove the roadbed, allowing the area "to return to a natural state"

? Option D: Bicycle, Recreation and Facility Management -- as C, but repave the road as a bike path (capable of supporting utility trucks for servicing)

? Option E: Rebuild Klingle Road to its Original Alignment -- rebuild the road, as it was before

? Option F: Build Klingle Road to Accommodate Vehicular, Pedestrian and Bicycle Uses -- widen the road, for a two-lane road plus bike/hike path

? Option G: Build Klingle Road as a One-Lane (One-Way) Road with a Pedestrian/Bicycle Lane -- one lane for cars, one lane for bicyclists and pedestrians

Options A, B, and C were simply nonstarters. Option D had the support of the Sierra Club, and Washington bicyclist organizations. Option E is what the "Repair Klingle Road" people wanted. Option F was ruled out by the narrow right-of-way possessed by the District through the National Park. Option G was a fair compromise, but the road advocates refused to settle for anything less than the full return of their road, for cars only, two-way, all the time. Because the road is narrow -- the 50-foot right-of-way does not allow even for shoulders, much less any adjacent sidewalk or bike path -- Option E would render the road nearly unusable by bicyclists and pedestrians (similar to the situation on Park Road, east of Beach Drive). As was the case before the closing of the road in 1991, Klingle Road could be used in safety only by automobile drivers. Perhaps that is why this was such a bitter battle; the only acceptable outcomes were everything for cars, nothing for bicyclists and pedestrians on the one hand, and nothing for cars, everything for bicyclists and pedestrians, on the other. There was no middle ground.

The Berger study, released in 2001, resolved nothing. Traffic benefits of the road were found to be modest: ". . . any reopening of Klingle Road would lead to significant delay reduction  on Porter Street and moderate delay reduction on Cleveland Avenue and Garfield Street. However, most of the already failed approaches at the study intersections will continue to operate with an unacceptable level of service." In short, all the benefit of the road accrues to the drivers who could use it, instead of Porter Street, to reach their destinations.

Road advocates wanted their road, despite its high cost, and the Berger study conclusion that the road would yield little benefit to traffic flows elsewhere in the area. Road opponents wanted the bike/hike/recreation option, no cars. The arguments flew back and forth, persuading no one.

Among the perverse uses of the Berger report was an absurd analysis of traffic delays by the MCV Associates, claiming enormous traffic benefits on other roads if Klingle Road should be reopened, despite the clear conclusion of the Report. This claim was utter nonsense, even fraudulent, as I showed, and as any competent traffic engineer would see. My conclusion: "Consequently the time savings predicted for Porter Street eastbound is not credible. Since that is the bulk of the overall time savings predicted, the total time savings is also not credible. Consequently the MCVcalculations, which hinge on this calculation of time savings, are not valid." This bogus traffic analysis was commissioned by Peter McGee, husband of Laurie Collins, and equally vociferous advocate of rebuilding Klingle Road. The Collins-McGee pair were aggressive in making such claims, eliciting this response by DDOT to Councilmember Mendelson.

The District Council acts

Early in 2003, the District Government took up the Klingle Road issue again, now with the Berger study in hand. Mayor Williams declared his opposition to the road, summarizing the arguments against it: high cost, small benefits. The District Council was unpersuaded, and inserted a line item in the District budget bill (thus immune to veto), the "Klingle Road Restoration Act of 2003", requiring the restoration of the automobile road:

"Sec. 2402. The portion of Klingle Road, N.W., between Porter Street, N.W., on the east to Cortland Place, N.W., on the west shall be re-opened to the public for motor vehicle traffic, with the repair and reconstruction of Klingle Road, which shall include the establishment of a District Department of Transportation storm water management plan, to commence no later than 180 days following the effective date of this title."

Enacted in June, 2003, and becoming law in November, 2003 (after the Congressional review period required for all District laws), the road advocates considered their victory complete. The District prepared an implementation schedule, planning for road construction to begin in 2006, and the road to be reopened to traffic in 2007.

Endless delays

ruined road pavement Every level of government, other than the Council, has tacitly opposed the road, considering it too expensive to build, too expensive to maintain, in too sensitive a location, for too little traffic-flow benefit. I recall being told by a DDOT employee that, whatever the Council did, the road would not be built, because the agencies tasked to build the road would simply drag their feet and let the job gather dust on some back shelf. I am certain that the National Park Service, for one, disliked the road, preferring that the area revert to parkland, and not become just another commuter route, and I predicted that the NPS would prevent the construction of the road, even if no one else did. Meanwhile, the road crumbled to ruins, under the nonstop attack of rainwater and erosion.

In the event, it hasn't gotten as far as the Park Service. It has been the Federal Highway Administration (FHwA) that has delayed the job for months, stretching into years. The District's plan was to have the Federal Government pay for 80% of the job, which in the beginning would have amounted to $4M. An Environmental Impact Study was required for Federal funding of this roadway through parkland, so the District set to work on that in 2003. The (first) draft EIS was completed in mid-2005. The draft EIS was itself subject to severe criticism, because it considered only the construction of the road as an acceptable option, utterly rejecting the recreational and natural-state options, on the grounds that they did not meet the legal requirement specified in the District Council's 2003 act for a road "for motor vehicle traffic". The DEIS considered only the one-way, one-lane, and two-way, two-lane options. "Green Space" and "Bicycle, Recreation and Facility Management", clearly the most environmentally sound options, were discarded without consideration.

It did come to this conclusion: "The proposed project would be beneficial to residents and local commuters by improving safety, and enhancing local circulation. Erosion throughout Klingle Valley would be abated, which would have longterm beneficial impacts to local vegetation, water quality, and aquatic organisms. To some, however, the implementation of any of the build alternatives would not be beneficial. Opening the road would diminish the park experience of those people who currently use the area for jogging, bicycling, dog walking, and to enjoy quiet and solitude of a closed Klingle Road. "

Indeed, none of the "build alternatives" considered were thought acceptable to road opponents. But more significantly, the FHwA found the DEIS unacceptable, and sent it back for revision, not once, but repeatedly. Nothing the District did was quite satisfactory, and in January, 2008, more than four years after the EIS process was begun, the FHwA sent the DEIS back to the District yet again, calling for extensive revisions.

A Councilmember reacts

property ownership along Klingle Road It isn't hard to see these endless demands for revisions to the DEIS as a pattern of intentional obstructionism. In March, 2008, Councilmember Graham, with support from now-Mayor Fenty, attempted to have the District pay the entire cost of rebuilding the road, forfeiting the 80% Federal contribution, but avoiding the endless negotiations with the FHwA for the EIS. As had been done in 2003, this was attempted by means of a line item in the District budget act, not as a self-standing Council act.

CM Graham made this attempt through a line item in the Public Works budget, prepared by the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, chaired by the Councilmember. That proposal did not get far; if Klingle Road was controversial at a cost of $2M to the District, it was a nonstarter at $11M. But this proposal in Graham's committee opened the door to Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, also on that committee, to offer her line item that a recreation trail be built instead of the road. At-large Councilmember Kwame Brown is quoted as saying that "if Jim [Graham] had never moved this bill through his committee, we wouldn't be having this conversation. He gave Council Member [Mary] Cheh her opening."

CM Cheh offered this text for the budget bill:
"(a) Of the funds authorized to be spent in the fiscal year 2009 budget of the Department of Transportation, $2 million, from federal funds specifically identified as available to the District to be spent in FY 2009 on Klingle Road, shall be allocated and used as follows:
"(1) For the environmental remediation of Klingle Valley and construction of a recreational trail, subject to the following restrictions:
"(A) Existing pavement on Klingle Road, N.W., along the portion between Porter Street, N.W., on the east to Cortland Place,N.W., on the west, shall be removed; "(B) Existing storm water and sewage pipes shall be repaired, if necessary, to reduce or eliminate the runoff or discharge of storm water or sewage water into Klingle Valley;
"(C) The recreational trail shall be constructed along the portion of Klingle Road, N.W., between Porter Street, N.W. on the east to Cortland Place, N.W., on the west;
"(D)The right-of-way shall remain closed to motorized vehicular traffic;
"(E) The recreational trail shall not exceed 10 feet in width; and
"(F) The recreational trail shall be surfaced with a water-permeable material."

Cheh's recreation-trail proposal was approved in the committee by a three to two vote, Cheh, Brown, and Councilmember Alexander voting for the trail, and against the road, over the votes of Graham and Councilmember Bowser.

On May 8, 2008, CM Graham held a public roundtable on Klingle Road, attempting to revive support for the road, versus the Cheh redirection to a recreation trail. In fact, supporters of the bike/hike trail outnumbered supporters of the automobile road at Graham's hearing. One surprise at this hearing was the revelation that the building of the road would lead also to the construction of five expensive houses along the currently-closed portion of Klingle Road, completing the conversion of this wooded valley to residential roadway. As the property ownership map shows, the north side of Klingle Road is privately owned, by the Washington International School, and is thus susceptible to development, directly across Klingle Road from national parkland. The best summary of this development proposal will be found in this 2006 decision of the Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation.

On May 13, the full Council undertook a first review of the Fiscal 2008 Budget. Graham took that opportunity to move that the Cheh amendment be deleted from the budget bill. Astonishingly, he and Bowser could win the support of only one other Councilmember, CM Schwartz. Graham's motion went down to a lopsided defeat, 10 to 3. Even Councilmember David Catania, who had voted for the road in 2003, voted against it now, observing that this issue had consumed far too much of their time and energy, and it was time to give it up.

Why the change?

One might ask what changed between 2003 and 2008, that the support for the rebuilt road had so greatly changed. Perhaps it is simply exhaustion, as Councilmembers (except perhaps CM Graham) are tired of spending so much time and energy on such a small matter, while far more important city issues are neglected. No doubt the Councilmembers from distant parts of the city resent the spending of District funds for a road that will serve only a handful of residents in one part of the city. Certainly the arrival of Councilmember Cheh in Ward Three (in which the road lies), an unequivocal opponent of the road, has made a difference. Perhaps also in the past five years people have become less willing to surrender greenspace and parkland to automobilies. A minor note in the disputation was a pair of unanimous votes by the Mount Pleasant ANC in opposition to Klingle Road, first objecting to CM Graham's proposal for full District funding of the road, then supporting CM Cheh's motion to replace the road with a recreational trail. That would not have happened in 2003. I believe everyone is becoming more sensitive to preservation of greenspace, and more willing to support bicycles instead of cars for travel around the District.

In 2003, the vote for the line item in the budget for Klingle Road was 8 to 5. Five years later, the attempt by Councilmember Graham to remove Cheh's item to replace the road with a bicycle-pedestrian path went down to defeat, 10 to 3. Of those 10 votes against the road, only one was from a Councilmember who had voted for the road in 2003 (Catania). The other votes were from Councilmembers who were not on the Council in 2003. No doubt, like Councilmember Barry, they object to spending so much money on a minor road in Ward Three that would serve only a modest number of residents in Wards One and Four, and which was strenuously opposed by the Councilmember for Ward Three.

This combination of factors has led to these events in 2008, culminating in the item in the budget bill overturning the item in 2003 that called for restoration of the road.

The Klingle Valley Trail Environmental Assessment

The 2008 (FY2009) budget bill took the road possibility off the table, allowing only the construction of a "valley trail" for walking and bicycling, with vehicular access limited to emergency and maintenance trucks. Instead of an Environmental Impact Statement, the valley required only an Environmental Assessment, a significantly easier accomplishment. The final draft of this Assessment was released in December, 2010. The Klingle Valley Trail Environmental Assessment recommendations are as follows:

"Following the public comment period on the EA, DDOT identified the following as the preferred alternative and preferred options. A complete description of each alternative and option is provided in Section 2.2 of the Final EA. Responses to public and agency comments are provided in Appendices A and B, respectively.

Alternative 2 - 10-Foot Multi-Use Trail (Permeable) (Preferred Alternative)

"The preferred trail alternative is Alternative 2, the 10-foot multi-use trail, which would be constructed using permeable pavement or materials within the existing DDOT right-of-way. The trail would include 2-foot shoulders on either side of the trail. The trail would slope slightly to the opposite side of Klingle Creek toward a 2-foot wide, 1-foot deep flat bottom drainage swale. This drainage swale would include check dams and capture runoff from the steep sideslopes on the north side of Klingle Valley and slow stormwater flow.

Klingle Creek Restoration Option B (Preferred Option)

"The Klingle Creek Restoration Option B - Full Stream Channel and Bank Stabilization is the preferred option. Under this option, DDOT will repair targeted channel and bank stability problems throughout the project area, for a total of 1,595 linear feet of stream channel restoration.

Access to Rock Creek Trail Option C-Modified (Preferred Option)

"DDOT decided on a combination of Option B - Shared-Use Connection and Option C - Multi-Use Trail Connection, referred to as Access to Rock Creek Trail Option C-Modified, as the preferred option to allow access to Rock Creek Trails. This modified option would include a trailhead to Klingle Valley. Under this option, a multi-use trail 6 to 8 feet in width would be constructed along the south side of Klingle Road and continue along the ramp before connecting with the Rock Creek Trail below Porter Street, NW. The existing 20-foot wide vehicle travel lane will be redesigned to 12 to 14 feet wide, and the trail would be separated from the existing vehicular travel lane by a curb. The trail would be constructed within the existing footprint of the existing roadway, and no new impervious surface would be added. Option C-Modified would contribute approximately $1,216,228 to the total construction cost for each Action Alternative.

Lighting Option B (Preferred Option)

"The preferred lighting option is Lighting Option B - Pole or Bollard Lighting. Under Lighting Option B low impact pole lighting would be incorporated into the proposed multi-use trail design. Low impact lighting techniques, such as solar cells, which are powered by converting sunlight into electricity, LEDs would be considered under this Option. The lighting of the proposed multi-use trail would be timed to correspond with commuter use of the facility to limit the hours of illumination.

"The total cost of the Preferred Alternative and options will be approximately $6,763,823. The annual cost of maintaining the trail will be approximately $5,840. The duration of construction is anticipated to be 8 to 12 months."

The public review period for this Environmental Assessment closes on February 15, 2011. Perhaps the end to this controversy is in sight, 20 years after the road was closed due to stormwater damage.

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Page created May 15, 2008; modified February 13, 2011