By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
One issue looms over all others as the fall city council term approaches: the potential restructuring of a stretch of Seminary Road.
Eleven city civic associations have united to oppose shrinking a heavily traveled stretch of the major city artery, while activists for transportation alternatives to automobiles have risen in support of a “road diet.” Council is slated to consider the issue at the Sept. 14 public hearing.
The project has been a hot-button issue since the city started its community engagement process a little more than a year ago, and a variety of organizations with a range of strong opinions are expected to appear before council next month.
“I have never been aware that this many civic associations have ever banded together on anything,” Carter Flemming, president of the Seminary Hill Association, said. “We all tend to be concerned with things that are relevant to our area. That’s our purpose. But I think what’s happened with this is … Seminary Road is such an important artery to so many people.”
The leaders of 11 civic associations in central Alexandria and the West End plan to meet individually with Mayor Justin Wilson and all six members of city council in the weeks leading up to the vote.
The civic associations are in favor of keeping the stretch of road in question at four lanes wide. Their main opponents appear to be groups and individuals who are in favor of implementing a “road diet” on the road and narrowing it from four lanes to three – one westbound lane, one eastbound lane and a center turning lane.
Regardless of the drama between those on each side of the issue, representatives of various perspectives have called into question the city’s processes, especially when it comes to community engagement. Some have said the city has lacked transparency and misrepresented the community’s response as the project has been developed.
The endeavor, officially dubbed the Seminary Road Complete Streets Project, began in spring 2018 with city staff gathering feedback from the community regarding their concerns with Seminary Road.
Seminary Road has been scheduled for repaving in the fall 2019, and per the city’s Complete Streets Policy, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services is using the repaving as an opportunity to consider road changes that would enhance the safety and convenience of users, according to the project’s webpage.
While staff had originally planned to repave and potentially restructure a larger portion of the road, it narrowed its scope to the 0.9-mile stretch of Seminary Road between North Quaker Lane and North Howard Street. The change came after the Virginia Department of Transportation announced it would be making operational changes to the I-395 high-occupancy vehicle exit ramp to Seminary Road.
In spring of 2019, T&ES brought forward three concept alternatives for the restructuring.
“The criteria that we used to consider design alternatives,” Yon Lambert, director of T&ES said, “were the existing city plans and documents that we have in place and policies that direct us when we are looking at roadways to see if we can introduce new safety and infrastructure improvements for all users so that we can provide some choice for those that use the roads.”
After a public comment period, Lambert presented a hybrid of two of the alternatives – which involved removing a vehicular lane from a stretch of Seminary Road between Saint Stephens Road and Zabriskie Drive – to the Traffic and Parking Board on June 24.
That TPB meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd to council chambers. Of the roughly 70 public speakers, about 50 were in favor of a road diet and about 20 were in favor of maintaining the road as four lanes. No one spoke in support of the T&ES recommendation.
The TPB voted 3-2 to recommend maintaining the four vehicular lanes and adding two pedestrian crossings. Not all members of the board were present.
The next step is for the project to go before council on Sept. 14. T&ES staff will propose the TPB recommendation to council, Lambert said. He said he would also recommend that council deny an appeal to hear a full presentation of the road diet alternative, an appeal brought forward by 25 residents who support the road diet.
Supporters on both sides of the issue, but particularly those in favor of maintaining four lanes on the road, have questioned the city’s process and approach to the potential restructuring.
“The city isn’t focusing on congestion, and they’re not focusing on cut-through traffic, and in central Alexandria, we really don’t think that they’re listening to us,” Bill Rossello, a resident who lives in central Alexandria, said.
T&ES did not do a study to look into potential cut-through traffic impacts, Lambert said, because the traffic study that the department did perform did not anticipate increased congestion.
“Given that the worst delay estimate was eight seconds during the worst 15 minutes of the a.m. peak hour, in our judgement, that amount of delay would not be enough to divert large volumes of traffic to alternate routes,” Lambert said. “If we did decide that we still wanted to do this type of study, it is possible to do it. That type of analysis is fairly technical traffic modeling and that typically requires several months of work that can cost over $100,000.”
Jim Durham, chair of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and a supporter of the road diet alternative, said a small trade-off in time would be worth it for increased safety.
“When the city does analysis that there’s less than 10 seconds of delay … some people tend to say, ‘Hey that’s acceptable and I believe that,’” Durham said. “People who support alternative three [the road diet] accept a small trade-off in their time to get from point A to point B.”
Those who are against eliminating any lanes say using safety concerns as an excuse to reduce the number of lanes is just a red herring.
“It’s a ruse for people to say that they want to put in more bike lanes, they want complete streets, etcetera, because of safety,” Rossello said. “It’s really not about safety. It’s about the transportation revolution and to get cars off the road.”
Lambert defended the safety element and said that was one of the main concerns that came up during the initial call for community input in spring 2018. In addition, he acknowledged that part of the Complete Streets Policy is based on improving safety and convenience for all forms of transit – public transportation, biking and walking included.
“It’s a city goal and a strategic recommendation in our master plan and in our city strategic plan that we encourage multimodal transportation and that we encourage more choices in our transportation system,” Lambert said. “We are asked to consider and introduce a wide variety of safe, connected transportation options that enable access to daily activities and those options include bus, metro, bicycle, automobile and walking.”
The fire department has a different take on what is optimal from a safety perspective. In a June 12 email from Deputy Fire Chief Michael Cross to Christine Mayeur, a complete streets planner with T&ES, Cross said the fire department would prefer to keep the roads at four lanes for safety reasons.
In another email on June 21, Corey Smedley, who is now acting fire chief, wrote to Mayeur, “The Fire Department would have preferred Option 3 configuration [the road diet] to the current proposal.” The proposal at the time was T&ES’ suggestion to narrow the stretch of Seminary Road from four to three lanes.
Road-diet proponents and opponents have gone back and forth on what would be best for the fire department – a road diet or four lanes.
Former Fire Chief Robert Dube, who retired on July 3, declined to speak on the specific stretch of Seminary, but said that in general, more space helped the fire department get places faster.
“Any time we reduce the size of lanes and our ability to get around, it’s problem- atic,” Dube said. “The fire department’s whole job is based on time. The sooner we get somewhere the better off we will be. … I understand there’s competing interests with wanting to do certain things whether it’s bike lanes or narrow travel lanes or whatever, but as the fire chief, anything that slows our response down is problematic.”
In an attempt to appease the community’s alleged safety concerns, the Seminary Hill Association — the civic association region in which the stretch of road falls — proposed a fourth alternative when T&ES staff first came up with three alternatives for potential restructuring.
“We proposed a series of things that would address the safety concerns that people had spoken to us about but kept the four lanes of car traffic, which the overwhelming majority of our residents support,” Flemming said. “At no point in any of the public meetings or anything was the Seminary Hill alternative … mentioned by the city. So it’s like we didn’t exist because we weren’t city staff.”
The notion of not being heard by city staff throughout the process is another concern that has come up repeatedly among civic association representatives.
Lambert countered that the process’ multiple rounds of seeking public input, in addition to the recommendation T&ES will ultimately bring to council, were proof of successful engagement.
“What we have done in this project, particularly in introducing two rounds of feedback and acknowledging the significant public [input] that we’ve received on the design alternatives, did inform our ultimate staff recommendation,” Lambert said. “What we are balancing here is what we have in some existing and adopted city plans and policies and what we are hearing from the public.”
On the other side of the issue are the safety, bicycle and pedestrian advocates who have fought to make heard their preference for a road diet on the stretch of Seminary in question. The road-diet advocates have been equally as loud as their counterparts, even outnumbering them in public speakers at the TBP meeting.
Rossello alleged that those road-diet supporters have been “disproportionately influential on city policy,” by calling for regional groups to participate in city surveys and speak at public hearings.
Durham denied the allegations.
“In terms of soliciting, providing people an opportunity to [sign] a petition in support of alternative three, we are asking that to be done only by Alexandria residents, and we will deliver only Alexandria residents to council,” Durham said.
Durham said the petition in support of alternative three, the road diet, was hosted by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association website because they had the software to collect the addresses of those who signed.
So far, the WABA-hosted petition, along with face-to-face signature soliciting, has gathered more than 1,000 signatures in support of a road diet. A petition on www.ipetitions.com in favor of maintaining four lanes on Seminary Road has collected more than 1,300 signatures.
Regarding city surveys and city input, Lambert said the city allows people outside of Alexandria to take them because of the city’s regionally connected roadways.
“We allow people outside the community to participate in surveys because we are part of a regional network of roads and transit systems and bike trails and pedestrian options,” Lambert said. “We think it’s important to acknowledge that Alexandria is one jurisdiction in a larger region, all of whom make every attempt to consider and plan collaboratively how our transportation system works.”
Council will have the final say on the stretch of Seminary Road, but overall, both sides of the issue agree that the civic engagement process for this road restructuring has been a messy one.
“I think that the process that the city staff tried to employ is a proven one that has worked well in the past,” Durham said. “I think in this case, it was marred by those community members who chose to be disruptive rather than contribute to a productive community engagement process.”
“Seminary Road is a battle ground that has given rise to this whole issue of ‘How do we really make policy in the city?’” Rossello said. “How do we really implement? How should the voice of the community really be measured?”