Greenway Champion: Brenner builds bridges — or at least access to them

Eric Brenner is a government administrator — after a long career as grants director for the Maryland governor’s office, he consults now on federal grants — and he’s a recreational cyclist. Those two worlds often need help talking to each other.

“I’ll be at meetings and one night I’m getting yelled at, ‘You bikers!’ by some lady because she almost hit a cyclist with her car in the dark, and the biker didn’t have lights. So in her mind that becomes all cyclists. The next meeting I’ll hear about ‘those highway engineers’ from the bike group, because they’ve had one bad experience. These issues aren’t that hard to deal with, unless you stereotype a whole group of people.”

A lifelong cyclist, Brenner grew up in Philadelphia. In the 1980s, he and his wife, Gail Melson, took a year to ride their bikes around the world, “before the kids came along.” He lives in Silver Spring, MD, a suburb to the north of Washington, DC, and chairs the East Coast Greenway committee for the capital city. And Maryland Governor Larry Hogan appointed Brenner to chair the state’s Bicyclist-Pedestrian Advisory Committee for 2017.

Sometimes Brenner builds literal bridges, or at least bridge bike lanes. He attributes a key recent East Coast Greenway success in Maryland — allowing cyclists to use the Hatem Bridge across the Susquehanna Bridge, approved last summer — to the fact that Maryland’s new transportation secretary has experience working in New Mexico. “That’s a big Libertarian state. He’s not a bike guy at all, but he saw [opening a bike lane on the bridge] as kind of a free-choice thing,” Brenner says. “And it’s one of the few transportation projects that wasn’t expensive.”

“I’m an inside-government guy. It’s not traditional advocacy work, it’s just keeping everyone in the room talking to each other,” Brenner says.

Recently he set up a meeting between Virginia cycling advocates and Maryland Department of Transportation planners to discuss design of the bike lane on a new bridge over the Potomac River, on Route 301. “The DOT guys suggested putting the bike lane on the south side of the bridge, where any snow will melt sooner. The bike guys would never have thought of that. And the bike guys knew where the existing bike routes are for the lane to connect with,” he says.

Brenner has watched many aspects of cycling grow. “In Maryland, distance riding is seen as a tourism boon. We’ve got lots of bike events and tours in western Maryland, so there’s traffic coming through these little towns and people spending well over $100 a day, it’s a wealthy demographic,” he says. The economics of bicycle tourism have become clearer, he says, and the East Coast Greenway has helped.

“The East Coast Greenway makes it a big deal. You have a lot of local pride for your little trail where you walk your dog in the morning, then you see people coming through it on long-distance trips,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you want to be part of that, a piece of something bigger?”

 

Read more of our April 2017 newsletter, On the Greenway