By Arya Hodjat | [email protected]
The Alexandria Traffic and Parking Board voted 3-2 on Monday night to recommend that Seminary Road remain a four-lane street, with the addition of two new traffic lights.
Board chair William Schuyler, vice chair Jim Lewis and board member Ann Tucker voted in favor of the four-lane proposal. Board members Kevin Beekman and Casey Kane voted against the proposal. Members Randy Cole and Jason Osborne were absent.
“This appears to be more controversial than we expected,” Schuyler said to a full room of attendees at the beginning of the meeting.
The Seminary Road Complete Streets Project has been in the works since July 2018, with the street scheduled to be repaved and potentially restructured in the fall.
City staff’s recommendation to the board involved removing a vehicular lane from a stretch of the road spanning from Saint Stephens Road to Zabriskie Drive. That lane would be replaced by a new median, and a crosswalk would be added.
Before coming to that recommendation, staff had been considering three alternative measures: maintaining four vehicular lanes, narrowing to three vehicular lanes and adding two bike lanes or implementing a road diet by narrowing the stretch to two vehicular lanes and a center turn lane.
The Traffic and Parking Board’s recommendation most closely aligns with city staff’s first alternative.
“When we came out with our staff recommendation, we came with a recommendation that we felt we could professionally justify, because it moves forward with some of our existing city plans, but also acknowledged the significant public interest on this project,” Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said Tuesday.
Of about 70 speakers Monday night, none were in favor of the staff recommendation. About 50 speakers were in favor of the city’s third alternative plan – the road diet – which would remove a lane from the road entirely, converting it to two through lanes and a center turning lane.
About 20 speakers called for maintaining the road as four lanes.
A survey conducted in spring 2019 found that 56 percent of respondents favored maintaining four lanes, whereas 38 percent favored the road diet.
“I think this is an issue where there are very strong feelings on both sides,” Lambert said Tuesday. “What the Traffic and Parking Board approved last night was also a compromise. Finding some middle ground … in my experience is not an unusual place to be.”
Longtime city residents, as well as city civic association representatives, argued that safety concerns were overblown.
“Why disturb what works?” Bill Goff, a member of the Seminary West Civic Association, said. “There has never been a sidewalk at North Seminary Road. The roads are safe, so why bother?”
According to data from Virginia’s TREDS database, which goes back to 2015, there have been 22 accidents on the stretch of Seminary Road that is scheduled to be repaved — from North Howard Street to North Quaker Lane. Nine of those accidents resulted in injury, according to TREDS.
The section of Seminary Road from Kenmore Avenue to North Howard Street saw 68 accidents in that same span of time, 24 of which resulted in injury, according to TREDS.
That stretch is on hold for staff consideration until the fall, pending communication from the Virginia Department of Transportation, Complete Streets Coordinator Christine Mayeur said.
Bicycling and pedestrian advocacy groups have criticized both the city staff’s compromise plan and the four-lane plan, arguing that the city should implement a road diet similar to that implemented on King Street in 2017.
According to data provided by the city, the first year following the implementation of the King Street road diet saw zero pedestrian fatalities and a decrease of average vehicular speed, while traffic delays at one intersection increased.
Lambert said Tuesday it was a “false choice” to compare the two, saying that there were “key differences” in the circumstances of the two roads, including the presence of Inova Alexandria on Seminary Road.
“We certainly heard concerns from residents about access to the hospital,” Lambert said.
However, Cory Smedley, the city’s acting fire chief and emergency management coordinator, said in an email that the city fire department preferred the road diet.
“This option actually provides the 11’ travel lanes preferred by the fire department, yielding space for emergency vehicles by pulling to the right in the bike lanes, and the center lane can be used for emergency vehicle passing without crossing into oncoming traffic,” Smedley wrote in the email.
Lewis took issue with staff’s failure to disclose a letter from the Alexandria Fire Department that expressed support for a road diet.
“Stop jamming us,” Lewis told staff. “That’s simple. We’ve asked you before, and you continue to jam us.”
Lambert said Tuesday that staff had not been trying to withhold information.
“We provided 477 pages worth of input from the public to the board,” Lambert said. “There was no intent to not share something with the board.”
During the public hearing period, resident Mary-Jane Roth said she felt unsafe walking down Seminary Road because the sidewalks were too narrow, and speeding was a problem on the road.
In 2016, council voted to decrease the speed limit on Seminary Road from 35 to 25 miles per hour. But Roth said that hadn’t helped.
“When a bus or a car whizzed by, the pressure was enough to move me,” she said.
Michael Curry, a former member of the board, spoke in favor of maintaining four lanes.
“If Seminary Road is as bad as they say it is, I might move, because I’m worried I’ll die on my way home… but the reality is, Seminary Road is safe,” Curry said. “I don’t want to sit in endless traffic. I’m getting older, and I don’t want to spend all my time left there.”
Carter Flemming, the president of the Seminary Hill Association, argued that the speed limits on Seminary Road needed to be enforced more strictly.
Data from the Alexandria Police Department recorded 1410 traffic stops on Seminary Road during 2018, with 945 of them occurring between North Howard Street and North Quaker Lane.
“55.3% of the citations issued for Seminary Rd in 2018 were in the N. Quaker Lane to the N. Howard stretch,” according to a police report. “This corridor is 33.3% of the length of Seminary Rd. in Alexandria.”
Corey Ballantine, a lieutenant in the Alexandria Police Department, wrote in an email that “all traffic violations are enforced” on the road and that it is patrolled by officers.
Ella Knight, who spoke in favor of a road diet, said she regularly walks half a mile alongside Seminary Road and feels unsafe given the presence of a hill on the road, as well as lack of crosswalks.
“I would much rather have more traffic than dead pedestrians,” Knight said.
Bishop Jim Mathes, the dean of students at Virginia Theological Seminary — for which the road is named — voiced similar concerns about the hill, speaking in favor of a road diet.
“I see bikers coming up that hill, and I first admire their stamina, but then I fear for their safety,” he said. “It seems like a small price to pay, a few minutes … for a safe space for all residents.”
Others argued that the plan would serve to further congest Seminary Road, and pushed back against the addition of a sidewalk with the road diet.
The sidewalk would cost $1.5 million, according to estimates from city staff.
City council’s final vote on the project remains tentatively scheduled for September.