A push to make the restriction permanent has divided the community. Park users and some city leaders have lobbied to keep cars off the route, citing benefits to the environment and the community’s health. But some park neighbors and commuters say the extended closures have resulted in more cars cutting through neighborhood roads and has exacerbated traffic congestion in parallel routes.
Now the Park Service said it has come up with a compromise that addresses both sides: Keep Beach Drive car-free every summer and open to cars the rest of the year, except on weekends and holidays.
“It allows for the continuation of commuting during the fall, winter, spring; and then in the summer when traffic is lighter, it allows for full recreational use,” Rock Creek Park Superintendent Julia Washburn said Monday. “I think it’s a very good compromise.”
An environmental assessment unveiled Monday identified the seasonal closure as the preferred solution, citing “greater park access” for people on foot and in cars. And it notes this option would decrease the “effects to the local transportation network during the period when traffic volumes are highest.”
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The proposal would keep cars off Beach Drive from Memorial Day through Labor Day every year, in addition to the continuing closures on weekends and holidays.
The road is expected to remain closed through Sept. 5, or until a decision is finalized, Washburn said. But it could be open to cars this fall. A 30-day public comment period opened Monday on the proposal, and the Park Service will hold a virtual public meeting about it at 6:30 p.m. on July 18.
The closures extend from the Maryland state line to Broad Branch Road NW. The car-free stretches are separated by areas for drivers to cross through the park or reach picnic areas.
The Park Service has reviewed more than 4,100 public comments since last year as it weighs whether to make the closure to cars permanent, revert to the weekend-only setup or find some other plan. The agency also considered whether to keep the park car-free some days of the week or at certain times of the day. But those configurations were dismissed because they would have presented “considerable operational and communication challenges” and potentially create more confusion for drivers that would lead to safety concerns, the Park Service said.
Washburn said the seasonal closure is the safer alternative. It will establish a clear time frame for when the route will be closed to cars, reducing chances of drivers being confused about when to enter the road. She said the option also addresses growing concerns during the past two years about people creating trails where there aren’t any, which affects wildlife.
“Reduced traffic in the closed section during the warmer months when forest vegetation is densest provides protection and preservation of wildlife and habitat for several park species because dense vegetation prohibits visitors’ desire and ability to create and use unofficial trails that impact forest habitat,” the environmental assessment says.
The vehicle-less section has become a popular destination for bike riders, joggers and families with children and dogs. The D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) have called for making the closure permanent.
The Park Service said 5,000 to 8,000 cars a day would drive the closed stretch before the pandemic. The Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, the main commuter thoroughfare through the park, remains open and averaged about 50,000 vehicles daily before the pandemic, according to the Park Service.