Traffic and Parking Board to consider Seminary Road restructuring

The intersection where Seminary Road meets I-395. (Photo: Missy Schrott)

By Arya Hodjat | [email protected]

The city’s plan to convert a stretch of Seminary Road from four to three lanes has been met with opposition from residents throughout the controversial community engagement process.

The proposed changes are part of the Seminary Road Complete Streets Project. Seminary Road is scheduled for repaving in fall 2019, and per the city’s Complete Streets policy, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services has been studying potential structural changes to occur at the same.

After a community engagement process that began in spring 2018, city staff’s recommendation for the road is to narrow the stretch of Seminary Road from Saint Stephens Road to Zabriskie Drive from four to three lanes – two westbound and one eastbound – and install a new crosswalk and median island. The recommendation needs approval from the Traffic and Parking Board and city council before it can be implemented.

City staff recommended removing a lane from a stretch of Seminary Road, spanning from Saint Stephens Road to Zabriskie Drive, highlighted in yellow above. The lane would be replaced by a sidewalk. (Courtesy map)

During the community engagement process, T&ES established three concept alternatives for potential changes to the stretch of Seminary Road from North Howard Street to North Quaker Lane. Alternative one involved maintaining the existing, four-lane layout. Alternative two proposed altering the stretch to accommodate two westbound lanes, one eastbound lane and two bike lanes. Alternative three suggested narrowing the stretch to just two travel lanes, a center two-way, left-turn lane and buffered bike lanes.

The plan that T&ES ultimately chose to recommend is a modified hybrid of alternatives one and two.

“Staff felt like a compromise plan would at least address some of the safety concerns along the roadway, because we have heard from the community that that was a priority,” T&ES Deputy Director Hillary Orr said.

The recommendation, and most of the community engagement process for the project, has been controversial among commuters, bikers and safety advocates.

Mike Doyle, the founder of nonprofit Alexandria Families for Safe Streets, said he preferred the third alternative to the city’s compromise plan. The city’s plan doesn’t address the issue of speeding on the 25-mph road, he said.

“There are circumstances where … a human being is out on that road and doesn’t have a lot of protection. Speed kills,” Doyle said. “I think they compromised at the risk of safety of road users, for a minimal increase in vehicle mobility.”

[Read more: City council adopts Vision Zero action plan] 

Conversions like option three, which involve changing a four-lane road to two through lanes and a center turning lane, are often called “road diets,” according to the Federal Highway Association. Road diets have “reduced vehicle speed differential, improved mobility and access by all road users, and integration of the roadway into surrounding uses that results in an enhanced quality of life,” according to the FHA’s website.

A road diet was implemented on part of King Street in 2017. City data reports that in the first year following the implementation of the road diet, there were zero pedestrian fatalities, and average vehicular speed decreased. However, traffic delays at one intersection increased.

Doyle said he considered the King Street renovation a success. “What they’ve done is exactly what street engineering is about,” Doyle said. “It changed the speed of the cars. … The safety on the street has been improved for all road users – the pedestrians as well as the cyclists – and it hasn’t had a material effect in people’s drive time.”

Other residents view the King Street road diet as a failure, noting the bike lane is underutilized and the restructuring has made traffic worse.

Carter Flemming, president of the Seminary Hill Association, is among those unhappy with the King Street renovation.

For the Seminary Road project, Seminary Hill Association, along with the Clover College Park Civic Association, Seminary West Civic Association, North Ridge Citizens’ Association, Brookville-Seminary Valley Civic Association and Seminary Civic Association, proposed a fourth alternative, which called for narrowing the existing four vehicular lanes and more strictly enforcing the 25-mph speed limit.

“It’s not about saving five seconds [of traffic]. It’s about changing the dynamic of a major arterial road, and causing drivers to cross over in a short period of time into different lanes of traffic,” Flemming said.

She added that the city should not be removing car lanes in such a high-traffic road, citing a recent survey from The Washington Post that showed a majority of residents in the D.C. metro area used their car as their main form of transit.

“I don’t think that anyone’s opposed to the city encouraging people to use other modes of transportation,” she said. “But, as the article says, the car is still king.”

Jonathan Krall, the former chair of the Alexandria Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, called the city’s plan for Seminary Road “terrible,” and said a road diet would be the best option.

“The plan that they’re putting out doesn’t have bicycle lanes. I mean, there’s a little drawing of bicycles in the plan, but those are bicycles placed smack dab in the middle of a road designed for 35 miles per hour,” he said.

Krall, who is also a member of Grassroots Alexandria, said that it was necessary to foster bike lanes, given the impact of vehicular emissions on climate change.

“We need to shift, in general, to less energy-consuming transportation,” he said.

Joe Sestak, a former Pennsylvania congressman who now lives in Alexandria, questioned whether the city was being forthcoming in its reasons for repaving the road, since a section not slated for road narrowing has had three times as many accidents since 2015 than the one being narrowed.

State traffic records show that since 2015, there have been 22 accidents, with nine of them resulting in injury, on the stretch of road under discussion – Seminary Road from North Howard Street to North Quaker Lane.

In contrast, the stretch of road from Kenmore Ave. to North Howard Street – for which no changes are scheduled, but which is marked by the city to be “considered for short-term and mid-term improvements” – saw 68 accidents in that same span of time, 24 of which resulted in injury.

Sestak also pointed to U.S. Census data, which shows the eastern section of Seminary Road has a higher median income rate than the western section.

“People [with] low income, they never really get a voice. Nobody goes over there to do town hall for them,” Sestak said. “The biggest deficit we have in America today is the lack of trust in government. This is not the way to try to justify something on the issue of safety … if you’re concerned about the safety on Seminary, do it in the part you’re not even doing anything in.”

Orr said the entirety of Seminary Road up to I-395 was originally part of the current repaving plan, but had to be delayed due to complications, including the high level of traffic in the area and existing projects by the state transportation department.

“We felt comfortable proposing something from Howard [Street] to the east, and kind of leaving the lane configuration from Howard to the west alone, with some pedestrian safety modifications at some of those intersections alone, just because of the unknowns with higher traffic volume in that section of the roadway,” Orr said.

She added that potential changes to Seminary Road west of Howard Street would be “a little bit outside of the scope of what we do with a typical resurfacing project,” and city staff is currently considering options for a longterm, standalone project on that stretch of road. There is no timeline yet for when such a project would take place, Orr said.

The staff recommendation is currently scheduled to be considered by the city Traffic and Parking Board on June 24. It would then go before city council for a public hearing and final vote in September.

Repaving would begin shortly afterward if the plan receives final approval, Orr said.

[Read more: Councilors worried about potential Seminary Road transition]