Summer jobs will help bridge a gap in the Oxon Hill project

Washington Post
Friday, February 18, 2011

By Andrew Waite, The Gazette, Thursday, February 17, 2011 …link


Fast-food cups float into a part of the Oxon Run creek behind Forest Heights Elementary School on Talbert Drive. Beaten-down grass marks a makeshift pedestrian and bike trail. Wooden planks allow people to cross a waterway section.

The green space along Oxon Run, a tributary to the Potomac River that abuts the west side of Forest Heights to the District’s border, might not look like much. But it represents an opportunity for the town, the county and some local students.

“What this could mean to this area is unlimited,” Forest Heights Councilwoman Jacqueline E. Goodall (Ward 1) said.

If everything goes according to plan, Oxon Run will provide jobs for high school students who will spend six summer weeks installing a bridge on the trail that runs along the creek. Forest Heights is coordinating the effort with the District Department of Transportation and the Student Conservation Association, an Arlington-based nonprofit organization.

In 2009, the transportation department identified Oxon Run as a location that would benefit from its Trails Program. The program, in place since 1991, looks to provide safe and convenient bicycle and pedestrian access through the region by creating a network of trails.

Renovating and adding to existing trails along Oxon Run would eventually make it possible for someone to bike from the District to Mount Vernon in Virginia, said Heather Deutsch, a DDOT trail planner overseeing the Oxon Run project.

The plan will take about $10 million and three years to complete and can be paid for with federal tax dollars siphoned to projects such as trails and transportation enhancement, Deutsch said.

Some other planned upgrades along Oxon Run include installing lighting, landscaping, benches and signage, as well as a pond and wetlands aimed at improving water quality, Deutsch said.

Student Conservation Association officials said the organization views the project as an opportunity.

“It can go toward our summer program, where we employ local high school students,” program manager Rachel Lettre said. “They get out, work on trails, work in their communities doing projects that are going to make local parks more user-friendly and help the environment.”

Part of a national organization, SCA has operated in the Washington area for about 20 years and puts 100 students to work on service projects each summer, Lettre said.

Lettre and co-worker Ted Miller spent the morning of Feb. 9 measuring the banks of the waterway where the wooden planks serve as a bridge. This summer, assuming the grant applications are approved, six to 12 area students, ages 15 to 18, will be put to work building a proper bridge.

SCA will reapply for the project next year if it isn’t able to secure funding by this summer, Lettre said.

Students are picked based on a demonstrated interest in public service. Applications are processed in the order they are received. Typically, about 200 students apply for 100 slots, Lettre said.

Nicole Long, a 21-year-old junior at Frostburg State University and a Temple Hills native, worked four summers with SCA. Long helped to restore Fort Washington State Park by building a staircase and clearing weeds. She enjoyed the program so much that she returned a second year and the following two years came back as a crew leader apprentice.

“It’s really a great job… . You get to do so many different fun projects and work together as a team just knowing what you accomplished each day,” Long said.

Lettre estimates that it will cost about $100,000 for the supplies and students’ wages to build the bridge, adding that the nonprofit is seeking donations in addition to applying for grants to cover expenses.

The bridge is a critical piece in the Oxon Run project, Deutsch said.

“If we renovate Oxon Run and the connection trail at Oxon Cove, people can get into Alexandria,” Deutsch said. “That bridge is a missing piece.”

Forest Heights has latched onto the project because its residents would benefit from it, Goodall said. Town volunteers have spent two years cleaning up the site to prepare for the upgrades.

“We utilize this walking trail,” Goodall said. “A lot of our citizens exercise and walk up it. We have citizens who fish at the cove. It comes into our back yard.”