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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 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
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.