County officials say a long-planned bike trail in the northeastern part of Montgomery County could be completed within about five years — after a public debate about the project’s funding erupted last month.
Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Burtonsville) took to Twitter in late July to complain about the County Council not using $1.5 million in approved state funding to accelerate the Bowie Mill Bikeway project – a 3.3-mile sidepath that would be 8 to 10 feet wide and run along Bowie Mill Road to Muncaster Mill Road. It would continue along Muncaster Mill Road to Needwood Road, according to the county’s approved capital budget for fiscal year 2023.
Luedtke tweeted that he and other members of the District 14 legislative team in Annapolis secured $1.5 million in state funding this past session in order to accelerate the completion of the project by a year. But after lobbying the County Council for the acceleration, he said he was told it wouldn’t happen.
He called out the council for not moving forward. However, in recent interviews, he and council members said that a deal could be struck to incorporate the $1.5 million in state funding through an amendment to the capital budget in September.
County Council President Gabe Albornoz said earlier this week the state funding will help pay for the overall design of the project, which has been discussed by county officials for several years. If the council is able to secure funding to pay for the final design and land acquisition, the project completion date can be moved up from fiscal 2029 to fiscal 2028, he said.
Glenn Orlin, a senior analyst for the council who specializes in transportation issues, wrote in an email that the design of the bikeway will cost about $2.25 million.
“If final design had been budgeted to start at the beginning of [fiscal year 2023], then the project could conceivably be completed by the end of [fiscal year 2028],” Orlin wrote in an email. “That was the Council’s desire as it was developing the CIP, but at the end its draft CIP was $156M over its spending affordability limits, so many projects had to be delayed—or in this case, more accurately, not accelerated.”
Both Albornoz and Council Member Nancy Navarro said they believe the council will approve an amendment appropriating the $1.5 million in state aid to help advance the project one year. Navarro said the new County Council in December likely will need to work through its capital budget amendments process in January to finalize that work in conjunction with state officials.
Albornoz and Navarro both noted the capital project process is competitive, and that funding for many projects gets cut through the reconciliation process.
Navarro, who chairs the council’s Government Operations and Fiscal Policy committee, said balancing the budget for capital improvements is important so that the council can pay off its debt service, noting that the council had to cut $156 million in proposed spending.
Historically, the council has tried to invest in capital improvements for county schools so that students have safe facilities to attend, she said.
“In my experience on the council, we have a very large and very competitive [capital improvement program] budget, and oftentimes schools are prioritized because we have had such an increase in enrollment, and we are so far behind [in projects] … [and] a lot of very important school projects have been delayed,” Navarro said.
Luedtke is optimistic about the project timeline moving forward, and he’s been in discussions with council members and council staff since his initial tweets.
“I think a series of things helped, I don’t know the extent of my venting on Twitter, and how much that helped, but I know the council has been serious about … accelerating the timeline,” Luedtke said.
The bikeway plan
The Bowie Mill Bikeway would connect the Olney area to near a northern part of Rock Creek Park, close to the Intercounty Connector. Lawmakers and supporters of the project say it would help connect Olney to important transportation corridors in the county, including serving as a pathway for those whose destination is the Shady Grove Metro station near Rockville.
Orlin said the proposed 3.3-mile bikeway would be one of the longest in county history, a reason why it would take about six years from project start to final construction.
One of the main challenges to building the project is utility relocation along the route, according to Tim Cuppels, acting deputy director for transportation policy for the county Department of Transportation. He said the project was included in the county’s 2018 Bikeway Master Plan and is a good example of how bikeway infrastructure can connect older developments to transportation corridors in the county.
It’s difficult to say how many people would use the completed bikeway, but Cuppels noted that any sort of infrastructure would be used by cyclists in the area.
“There is a bicycle level and pedestrian level of comfort, and when you design a space for people who are safe and feel safe, they use it more than they would versus a road that has no real space,” Cuppels said.
Peter Gray, Maryland adviser to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said there is demand from the Olney area to have the project built. Ten years ago, there were skeptics in the Bethesda and Silver Spring areas about the need to create bike infrastructure — but demand in those communities has shown the investment is worth it, Gray said.
The bikeway would connect Olney to the Intercounty Connector Trail and be a valuable route upcounty, Gray said. The council just needs to muster the will to advance funding for the project forward one year, he added.
“It’s not harder to construct these things in the upcounty and it might be easier in places where there’s really wide roads,” Gray said. “The real question is: Is there enough political weight to get the council as a whole to change its mind on this thing? Nothing is going to happen until that happens.”