Replacement of the Monroe Street Bridge is a Lost Opportunity for #BikeDC

The Brookland Homecoming Bridge
Image: Author
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) held a meeting at the Luke C. Moore High School in NE regarding the replacement of the Monroe Street Bridge over the Baltimore and Ohio railway and Metrorail Red line in August.The meeting gave about 30 members of the public an opportunity to comment on the structure and the improvements that will be made.

By improvements, the bridge will look identical to how it now appears, maybe less colorful with wider sidewalks, relatively unchanged from the plan presented about a year ago.

This bridge could have been more. The District had the opportunity to build a better bridge that served multiple users and allowed for safer access to the Metropolitan Branch Trail and the Brookland and Edgewood communities. It could have been an attractive structure that provides a symbol of its the past and connects a budding arts district with its future. Unfortunately, what we will have a bridge that crosses tracks, that lacks character and potentially doesn't make crossing it any easier or safer - for the next 75 years.

The bridge connects to Historic District neighborhoods Brookland and Edgewood NE. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1873 created the Metropolitan Branch, which connected Point of Rocks, MD with the District, and the physical barrier that separates Brookland from Edgewood today. Monroe Street connects the old commercial strip of  12th Street NE, Brooks Mansion, and 'downtown' Brookland with the Catholic University of America, Dance Place and the newer residences and businesses and just over the bridge. Between them, the Red line's Brookland Station helps get people around the region, when it runs.

Rendering of New Old Monroe Street Bridge
Image: DDOT

Many in the community see the bridge as a focal point as residents worked with artists to paint and adorn it with artwork. Also, Monroe Street is one of only six streets along a 3.3-mile corridor that provides an east/west connection north of New York Avenue and south of Riggs Road NE, making it important to bicyclists and motorists.
The Monroe Street
Image: Author
The "What Could Have Been" 
Several years ago, DDOT and Toole Design proposed an alternative alignment of the Metropolitan  Branch Trail. Then, the Edgewood side of the bridge was largely undeveloped, consisting of a vacant lot. The planned assumed that when the Monroe Street Bridge was replaced, an opening would be made in the bridge abutment allowing the trail to continue under Monroe in a tunnel, as the rendering below  illustrates.
The "What Could Have Been Trail" tunnel
Image: Toole Design
According to Katie Harris of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), the tunnel option was excluded from consideration. Last year, the DDOT engineering team assigned to the bridge rehabilitation stated that the District neglected to acquire the right-of-way on the south side of the bridge. When design option show above was presented in 2004, the lot at the corner of 8th Street and Monroe Street on the south side of the bridge was unimproved. The Edgewood Art Center now sits too close to the bridge abutment, making it expensive and technically difficult to construct a tunnel.

Planned Replacement
The DDOT states that the existing Monroe Street Bridge was built in 1931 and underwent a major rehabilitation in 1974 and emergency repairs in 2014 and 2015. However, with the bridge’s current condition, DDOT states reconstructing the superstructure and partial substructure of the bridge is more cost effective than repair it or completely replacing it. The replacement bridge will cost approximately $12.7 million and include the major elements above as well as other minor improvements. These include the placement power lines underground, new steel mesh fencing, and improved curb cuts and other streetscape changes.

Figure 1.
Image DDOT
Figure 1 illustrates the typical orientation of the bridge during reconstruction. The reconstruction should begin in August of 2017 and last just under 2 years, ending in March of 2019. The bridge will be replaced in halves, with at least two travel lanes in each direction remaining open at all times. Sidewalk access should be available but alternate on the north and south sides accordingly. DDOT will have personnel to maintain traffic flow.

DDOT proposes that bicyclists share the travel lanes with cars and buses, placing signage along the bridge to inform motorists that bicyclists may use the full lane". Without turning lanes, access to the Metropolitan Branch Trail and 8th Street from or across Monroe could be challenging, especially during rush hour and when buses turn in the the Brookland CUA Metrorail station. Additionally, non-motorist traveling from or to Monroe Market or the Arts' walk may see that during contraction, most of the north side of the street blocked. This would force pedestrians and bicyclists to share the west side crosswalk. As the parking lane would be converted to a travel lane and without a signal, crossing could be difficult.

Figure 2
Image: DDOT
Figure 2 shows that the rebuilt bridge will have a configuration similar to the current bridge, each bike lane will be 5 feet wide, sidewalks 6 feet wide, and vehicular travel lanes 11 feet wide.
While most concluded that the replacement of the bridge was needed, the community voiced concerns regarding something not directly part of the bridge reconstruction, the addition of a traffic signal at 8th and Monroe Street. Motorists were concerned that a signal at that location would create gridlock during rush hour. Bicyclists were also concerned that the when starting from a standing stop, the sharp incline at the foot of the budget at 8th Street be difficult for most bike users traveling eastbound. During construction, the problem would be exacerbated as there would be no stop sign at 8th so motorists would be encouraged to travel at speed through the constriction zone. On the bridge, bicyclists would have curb to the right, on coming traffic to the left, and cars and buses behind them.

DDOT says that after construction, it will evaluate traffic patterns and make a change to signal timing if necessary. The signal will be timed, based on standard rush hour intervals, and will be monitored so that if backups occur, the signal can be controlled manually. There was discussion regarding alternative traffic control methods like a HAWK signal or stop signs; however, the DDOT representative stated that traffic studies recommended a signal. 

The community was also concerned about the planned bridge aesthetics. Currently, a mural exists on the the edges of the bridge, Made by local artists, the community was concerned that this would be removed with nothing created in its place. DDOT stated that the current mural would not be maintained but that the community should contact the Commission on Arts and Humanities to determine if or how some artistic element could be reflected.