Planning advocates take aim at a well-traveled shortcut.

People like shortcuts.

On a Friday afternoon in late June, a steady caravan of foot traffic, making its way to and from the Rhode Island Avenue Metro stop in Brentwood, shaves a minute or two off the commute by cutting across the railroad tracks beside the station.

Years ago, employees of CSX, the transportation corporation that owns and operates the tracks, erected two chain-link fences, topped with barbed wire and slung with “No Trespassing” signs, to deter the peripatetic scofflaws. No matter.

On either side of the tracks, someone has cut rectangular openings through the wire. Intermittently, teenagers, businessmen, and moms with children reach the fence, duck through the openings single file, and keep going. They emerge in a rustic setting, a corridor of the city usually reserved for freight trains.

Old-fashioned railroad tracks, the kind with wooden ties and metal rails, stretch out to the north and south. A patch of Queen Anne’s lace waves in the breeze. The sun shines. Birds chatter. It’s a refreshing little stroll—approximately 30 yards of bucolic terrain—before you reach the gritty sidewalks.

“It’s just better,” says Michael Coates, a 12-year-old resident of Southwest who comes to the neighborhood twice a week to visit his grandmother. Day or night, Michael says, he always walks across the tracks. Why? He shrugs: “This way makes more sense.”

Bob Sullivan, a spokesperson for CSX, disagrees. “It’s dangerous to cross railroad tracks, anytime and anywhere,” says Sullivan. “A train can’t stop on a dime. They’re gambling with their lives.”

You don’t have to be a liability-minded corporation to worry that sooner or later the situation could result in more than squashed pennies. Even a freshman taking his first planning seminar knows better than to allow a pedestrian thoroughfare across a set of train tracks.

When city officials designed the Rhode Island Metro Plaza, in the mid-’70s, they came up with a system to help pedestrians avoid the freight rails. An overpass crosses Rhode Island Avenue, then feeds into an underpass that goes beneath the CSX tracks. The route is slightly circuitous, safe from cars and locomotives alike—and joyless.

The underpass is particularly dreary. Shadows engulf the sidewalk. Car exhaust fills the air. The concrete ceiling seems to push down. It feels like a probable spot for an ambush.

Ralph Bennett, a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park, says that during the ’60s and ’70s overpasses and underpasses were the rage among planners. But the structures never caught on with the pedestrians who were supposed to use them. Bennett says their futility has become a planning cliche.

“Underpasses are poorly used because all sorts of misbehavior tends to occur in them,” says Bennett. “They seem seedy and unsafe, so people avoid them.”

In recent months, planning advocates from the Washington Regional Network for Livable Communities (WRN), a nonprofit organization that promotes community planning throughout the region, have embarked on a quest to cut short the life of the Rhode Island Avenue shortcut.

With runaway redevelopment chugging through the neighborhood, members of the WRN are hoping to hitch a new pedestrian-access scheme to all the building that’s going on. Already, there’s a new Home Depot; there’s a soon-to-be-completed Giant supermarket. And there are plans to put a mixed-use shopping center just east of the Metro platform—a site now occupied by a parking lot.

“While we’re talking about spending millions of dollars to reconfigure the parking lot at the Rhode Island [Avenue] Metro station, we have neglected the surrounding pedestrian environment there and at so many other Metro stops throughout the city,” says Cheryl Cort, executive director of the WRN. “In this country, people spend so much time and money planning for cars and so little time planning for pedestrians.”

Cort says she is particularly concerned about the kids who attend the nearby Hyde Leadership Public Charter School. During the academic year, many of the kids amble across the tracks on their way to and from school.

So what’s the solution, according to members of the WRN?

Another overpass.

WRN leaders are pushing a proposal to build a new hiker-and-biker bridge that would reach from the Metro platform over the train tracks and eventually hook up with the Metropolitan Branch Trail bike path. Cort says that the original overpass system didn’t work because it was inefficient. Building a better overpass, she says, would render the shortcut obsolete.

Figuring from similar pedestrian bridges in Prince George’s County and in Florida, Cort guesses it would cost about $1.5 million to $2 million to complete the project. Who would pay for the walkway remains unclear.

Officials from the D.C. Office of Planning remain noncommittal. Monacheri McCoy, a community planner with the city, calls the pedestrian bridge a “work in progress” that has yet to evolve beyond the incipient stage of planning. Before any construction takes place, the bridge advocates would also have to convince CSX, which owns the land, of the project’s merits.

Bennett is skeptical of any plan promoting an overpass. Though he is unfamiliar with the site in question, Bennett says he’s seen plenty of overpasses fail before. “All of Rosslyn, for example, was built on the assumption that pedestrian traffic would happily go to an upper level and avoid the streets,” Bennett says. “And now they’ve essentially abandoned the whole network.

“Overpasses require a large amount of work on the part of pedestrians,” he adds. “They might look fine to the planner, but pedestrians tend to resist them and to find a more direct way. Especially kids: To save a couple minutes, they’re willing to vault over a wall or duck through some traffic.”

Or, perhaps, walk across some train tracks, even if there’s a $2 million bridge glistening overhead.

While the planners plan, the public keeps cutting across the rail bed. Pedestrians say they are open to the possibility of an overpass, but they remain wary about giving up their favorite shortcut. “Don’t even think about exposing this in your paper,” says a 40-something man, as he jogs across the tracks on his way to the Metro. “I’m already late enough as it is.” CP