Council approves Seminary Road lane reduction

Council approves Seminary Road lane reduction
(Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

City council voted 4-3 to reduce a portion of Seminary Road from four to three lanes and add bike lanes during the public hearing on Saturday.

The vote was the culmination of a year-long process, one that has bitterly divided neighbors over the future of Seminary Road.

Community members and a group of 13 civic associations have joined together on one side to support keeping the road at four lanes and adding additional safety features.

Meanwhile, other community members, local bike and pedestrian advocates and regional and national organizations have banded together to support reducing the road from four to three lanes – one lane in each direction with a center turn lane – and adding bike lanes.

(Read more: Seminary Road showdown approaches)

In the middle sits the 0.9-mile portion of Seminary Road between North Howard Street and North Quaker Lane.

The debate began in 2018, when the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services started considering whether to restructure the road when performing routine resurfacing this fall.

The Traffic and Parking Board’s recommendation involves maintaining four lanes and adding two HAWK pedestrian crossing signals. (Image/City of Alexandria)

T&ES started to gather community input for the project in spring 2018, and, based on the input, presented design options in 2019. On June 24, T&ES recommended a new option – narrowing lane widths and reducing a smaller segment of Seminary Road from four to three lanes – to the Traffic and Parking Board.

The TPB did not approve staff’s recommendation and instead voted 3-2 in favor of keeping Seminary Road four lanes and adding two HAWK pedestrian crossing signals. Instead of taking the TPB recommendation under consideration and then making a final decision, as would typically be the case, T&ES Director Yon Lambert decided, even before the project went before the TPB, to appeal the decision to city council.

The intent, according to staff, was to save community members from having to appeal the decision themselves. Community members who supported the lane reduction option – known as alternative three or a “road diet” – filed a separate appeal requesting that staff present the road diet to council.

At Saturday’s hearing, T&ES staff recommended council approve the TPB’s four-lane option and reject the residents’ appeal. Community members on both sides of the issue also turned out, 110 people speaking during the public comments section.

Those in favor of the road diet say a reduction from four to three lanes would be safer for all users. (Image/City of Alexandria)

Those in support of the road diet expressed concerns around Seminary Road’s safety.

“Every time I travel along that road, whether by walking or biking, I don’t feel safe,” Anna Strauss, a 12-year-old St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School student, said.

During the staff presentation, several members of T&ES outlined that, according to traffic modeling and additional road studies, alternative three could create additional traffic delays, while providing safety benefits for pedestrians and bicyclists. The greatest projected delay was 7.6 seconds at the intersection of Seminary and St. Stephens roads during the worst 15 minutes of morning peak traffic, according to the staff report.

Strauss said that even if the delay was worse than eight seconds, it’d be worth it to some residents.

“Is it worth sitting on the road for 30 seconds in traffic or instead watching someone risk their lives because there is not a safe way to walk or bike along the road?” Strauss said.

Other supporters of the road diet also expressed fear about the prospect of walking or biking along Seminary Road.

Some of the biggest proponents for the road diet alternative that was ultimately passed by council were bike and pedestrian advocates who expressed concerns over the safety of Seminary Road. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

“Too many drivers are speeding, passing too closely or simply not paying attention,” Josephine Liu, vice chair for bicyclists at the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said. “For me, even driving on Seminary Road is frightening because of the excessive speeding and aggressive driving. Biking on Seminary Road? That’s downright terrifying.”

In addition to improving safety for bikers and pedestrians, the road diet could provide a solution to long-standing challenges, according to students and staff at the Virginia Theological Seminary, which is located near the intersection of Seminary Road and North Quaker Lane.

“It does create a major problem in terms of development and program for a graduate school to have a four-lane highway splitting two sides of our campus,” Reverend Ian Markham said. “…We’re very committed to the view that we want to be a destination, not just a thoroughfare for [I]-395 to Old Town.”

(Our view: Seminary Road touches on bigger issues)

Supporters of the TPB recommendation said that safety is also a concern of theirs. Inova Alexandria Hospital is on Seminary Road, and some residents argued that reducing lanes would make it difficult for emergency medical staff to reach those in need.

“For you, the patient, delays might be the difference between life and death,” resident Jack Sullivan said.

Despite controversy leading up to the hearing about which alternative would be best for the fire department, Fire Chief Corey Smedley said at the hearing that both options allow the fire department to do its job.

“Based on the two options of alternative three and alternative four, the fire department has no reservations for either one,” Smedley said.

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

One of the points repeatedly mentioned by the four-lane supporters was congestion.

Kay Stimson, president of the North Ridge Civic Association, talked about the quantity of residents who regularly use Seminary Road.

“Importantly, Seminary Road is a major arterial east-west roadway across our city,” Stimson said. “It leads to our hospital, many of our schools. It’s a key pathway for our safety officers, first responders and commuters too.”

Some supporters argued that the sheer volume of cars that go through Seminary Road – the road’s average daily traffic between North Howard Street and North Quaker Lane is about 17,100, according to city data from November 2018 – should make the road ineligible for a road diet.

“The westbound traffic for Seminary is already up to 18,600 cars,” Lisa Porter, president of the Clover College Park Civic Association, said. “Staff stated this volume is too high for a single westbound lane. The hospital stated that at minimum two westbound lanes would be preferred.”

While several speakers implied that the number of civic associations in support of the TPB recommendation was an indication of the community’s preferred alternative, some argued otherwise.

“Our civic association board – and I completely respect and appreciate all the work they do – they don’t necessarily reflect the view of all of that neighborhood,” William Pfister, a member of both the Seminary Hill and Seminary Ridge civic associations, said.

A few years ago, the city reduced the speed on Seminary Road from 35 to 25 miles per hour. Some residents have complained that it has not been obeyed. (Photo credit: Missy Schrott)

By the time all 110 speakers had an opportunity to speak, the crowd in council chambers had dwindled. But there were still plenty of community members present as council began its deliberations.

Before the public speaker period, Councilor Amy Jackson had made it clear that she was against the road diet. During staff’s presentation, Jackson expressed concerns regarding the impact a lane reduction could have on the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School renovation project. Students will attend the old Patrick Henry K-8 School building during the duration of the three-year project.

“September 2020 to January 2023, 700 students will be going from the Janney’s Lane corridor, around Yale Drive, and trying to get to the old Patrick Henry [building] down on Taney [Avenue].The main thoroughfare for that looks to be Seminary Road,” Jackson said.

Conversations regarding Douglas MacArthur are ongoing, but T&ES and the schools are considering a staggered arrival and dismissal schedule that would have limited impact on traffic, Hillary Orr, T&ES deputy director said.

Once the public hearing was closed, Jackson proposed a motion, seconded by councilor Mo Seifeldein, to affirm staff’s recommendation and deny the appeal from residents.

Contrary to the motion, Councilor Canek Aguirre, who lives on North Howard Street, expressed support for the road diet.

“This isn’t something that any of us up here are going to be taking lightly,” Aguirre said. “Many of you are our neighbors. We know many of you. In my opinion, I see that a lot of this is making sense, and I would be inclined to favor going from four lanes to three.”

He wasn’t the only voice on the dais supporting the road diet.

Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker conducted additional research, surveys and data-collection before voting for the road diet on Seminary Road. (Courtesy Photo)

Before proposing a substitute motion, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker presented data she had collected prior to the hearing. Bennett-Parker, along with her aide, knocked on more than 200 doors in Seminary Hill asking for feedback about the issue, Bennett-Parker said. She received a “split” response, with 41.2 percent in support of alternative three, 35.4 percent in support of the TPB recommendation and 23.4 not having an opinion either way.

Bennett-Parker also spent more than 15 hours walking and driving along Seminary Road at different times and logging her travel time.

“It showed me that intersection timing is really important and how you hit those lights matters,” Bennett-Parker said. “Yes, traffic can back up along the stretch of Seminary – I was one of those people backed up all the way to Fort Williams practically – but you get through it in a light cycle or two.”

Bennett-Parker also acknowledged the concerns around cut-through traffic and safety that each side had expressed.

The vice mayor proposed a substitute motion, seconded by Aguirre, to approve alternative three, with a request that staff return to council with a plan for how to determine the success or failure of the changes.

As part of the proposed motion, staff would return to council in 18 months for review. Lambert later clarified that this is standard procedure for projects of this kind, and that the review is also an opportunity for staff to recommend remedial action. Councilors John Chapman and Mo Seifeldein both expressed opposition to the motion.

Chapman recollected his youth, attending St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School and walking home along Seminary Road, if he missed a ride home from his mother. Chapman said that the stretch of road in question – and the community around it – are not the same as other areas being considered for the city’s more progressive transportation changes, like Old Town and Del Ray.

“I see that neighborhood, that area, that section of Seminary, as a much different area in order for us to bring some of the more progressive traffic changes, and I’m not sure if all of them need to be there as we’re proposing,” Chapman said.

The stretch of Seminary Road between North Howard Street and North Quaker Lane. (Photo credit: Missy Schrott)

Chapman compared the Seminary Road project to a similar redesign on King Street. However, he said that the city’s progressive goals for transportation need to be applied in contextually-appropriate ways.

“The thing that I’m challenged with the most is in that [area] you don’t have a number of activity centers that are going to collect people, are going to have that multi-modal transportation that we like to have,” Chapman said. “Even as I’ve been in that neighborhood, especially around Seminary, I’ve seen that neighborhood as a place where people pass through. Even our own data speaks to that.”

Before the final vote, Mayor Justin Wilson said that, regardless of council’s decision, the city needed to find a more expeditious way to handle similar processes.

“I think everybody was heard and let me just say that, big picture process wise, we can’t do this again. We cannot do this again,” Wilson said, momentarily interrupted by boos from the remaining members of the audience.

“We cannot have this kind of knockdown, drag-out battle on every road in the city,” Wilson said. “We have to build a process where we can collect data, where we can hear from the community and we can quickly make decisions because having a year-long process, it’s going to burn out our staff, it’s going to burn out the community, it’s going to burn out the council.”

In an interview after the hearing, Wilson said that while some residents believed he was suggesting council bypass the democratic process, he was instead recommending that the city make the process more accessible and faster for everyone involved.

“I’ve heard from some residents that felt I was suggesting that we short circuit public input and all that and that’s not what I was suggesting,” Wilson said in an interview. “I think there is a way to make sure people are heard, make sure their input is included but make a decision.”

Wilson did not clarify what steps he and council would take to streamline future processes, although he indicated understanding when and where the city allocates its limited resources is key.

“I think it’s a matter of doing a smaller number of things really well, as opposed to trying to do so many things at the same time because our staff is pulled in so many different directions and our community is then pulled in so many different directions trying to respond to different efforts that are under way,” Wilson said.

Council voted 4-3 in favor of alternative three, the road diet, with Chapman, Jackson and Seifeldein dissenting.

(Read more: City council newcomers reflect on eight months in office)