Your Views: City lacks transparency on Seminary Road

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Intersection of Seminary Road and Greenwood Place. (Photo credit: Missy Schrott)
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To the editor:

On June 24, 2019, the Alexandria Traffic and Parking Board held a public hearing on the misguided proposal to reduce road capacity on a stretch of Seminary Road by up to 50 percent. Fortunately, cooler heads and good sense prevailed and the TPB recommended that Seminary Road remain four lanes with important safety improvements. However, there were three examples of a significant lack of trans- parency in the process.

First, a TPB member read a letter from the Deputy Fire Chief, dated June 12, 2019, stating that the Fire Department considers maintaining four lanes on Seminary Road an important safety measure to assure access to Alexandria Inova Hospital. Later, the director of Transportation and Environmental Services claimed that an email he received on June 21, 2019, overruled the June 12 letter.

The director characterized the email as saying that the fire department supports cutting road capacity by 50 percent and restricting access to the hospital. There was a robust and tense discussion between two TPB members and the director on the letter and email – which was not disclosed to the TPB – neither of which were available for public review before the meeting. The documents became available about a week after the vote.

This is important since the June 12 letter stated that “[n]arrowing the road from 4 lanes to 3 lanes, by making only 1 eastbound sharrow lane will negatively impact emergency responses along a heavily used emergency response route for hospital and fire station travel” and requested that the city “maintain 4 lanes.” At the hearing, the city led the public and TPB to believe that the fire department abruptly changed its mind and supported cutting road capacity despite the deputy fire chief’s letter. The June 21 email said no such thing.

The city apparently gave the fire department only options with two lanes in response to the deputy fire chief’s letter. The June 21 email from an assistant fire chief objected that the city “mischaracterizes” the fire department’s  views, and the fire department’s “concerns were not satisfied. …” The email further stated that the city told the fire department that it removed Option 3 – cutting the lanes in half – from consideration at the request of Alexandria Inova Hospital because of the risks in choking access to the hospital. So it was unclear why we are even discussing Option 3.

Incredibly, the email also disclosed that the fire department “had limited input on the Complete Streets Design Guidelines” and raised serious concerns with Complete Streets. At the June 24 TPB hearing, the June 21 email was twisted by the city to lead the public and TPB to believe it said things it did not. The fire department deserves our full support and respect, and the efforts to fracture its position and undermine its credibility is a poor reflection of city hall.

Second, at the May 24 TPB meeting, a citizen who supports retaining four lanes was returning quietly to his seat in council chambers after his remarks, and was greeted by a loud vulgarity from an active member of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, a bike lane advocacy group, who also serves as an appointed member of the Transportation Commission. When brought to the attention of the mayor, council and city manager, they investigated and confirmed the incident occurred and each agreed that it was unacceptable. We suggested that he be removed from the Transportation Commission because of this highly inappropriate behavior.

After a month of repeated inquiries into actions the city planned to take, we were informed that the person apologized to the mayor, council and the TPB, though they did not say what he was apologizing for. To date, he has not apologized to the speaker or the public and remains on the Transportation Commission. The city clearly does not feel that vulgar public behavior by a BPAC member who represents the city in an official capacity warrants any disciplinary action.

Third, in an April 23, 2019 letter, the North Ridge Civic Association asked council to direct two TPB members who were also active in BPAC to recuse themselves from voting on the proposal to cut road capacity on Seminary Road. I raised this issue in my remarks before the TPB as well. BPAC mobilized to pressure the TPB and council, including regional bike lobbying organizations, which explains the presence of so many out of town speakers at the June 24 TPB hearing.

While that is their right, the Alexandria Code of Ethics and Conduct calls “Alexandria officials to the highest levels of ethical behavior,” including avoiding even the appearance of partiality. We asked the TPB members at issue to explain why the public should have confidence in their ability to act impartially if their organization had already committed to a specific outcome. The only response was a non-sequitur that under the pathetic Virginia Conflict of Interest laws there was no legal requirement to recuse. This is an example of why city staff and council members fought so hard against establishing an Ethics Commission that was supported by then-Mayor Allison Silberberg in 2016.

In the end, the TPB recommended correctly to maintain four lanes with safety improvements. The case for cutting road capacity by up to 50 percent on that stretch of Seminary Road is weak for many reasons in addition to the fire department and hospital’s objections. But the process exposed disturbing flaws in transparency and raises significant concerns with how the city plans to conduct itself in September when the issue comes before council.

-Frank Putzu, Alexandria

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