Seminary Road showdown approaches

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(Photo credit: Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected] 

Fall weekends are made for youth soccer tournaments, high school sports games and Sunday night football. But this weekend in Alexandria, a different kind of matchup is in the spotlight.

At the first public hearing of the fall this Saturday, city council will consider the restructuring of Seminary Road. And with a major roadway and traffic involved, Alexandrians are gearing up for a showdown.

On one side of the issue are the 13 civic associations that have banded together to ensure Seminary Road remains four lanes wide – the first time in years that so many civic associations have joined forces to speak out on a single city issue.

On the other side are the safety, biking and pedestrian advocacy organizations – both local and regional – that have come out en masse to fight for reducing Seminary to three lanes: one eastbound, one westbound and one center turn lane.

Accusations have been made, insults have been hurled and voices have been raised on both sides of the issue throughout the contentious community engagement process. But the excitement will come to a climax this Saturday, when city council will hear the various alternatives and be asked to make a final decision.

The issue

With Seminary Road scheduled for resurfacing this fall, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services has been considering whether to also restructure the road at the time of the repaving.

T&ES began to gather community input for the Seminary Road Complete Streets Project in spring 2018. In spring 2019, the department brought forward three concept alternatives for the 0.9mile stretch of Seminary Road between North Quaker Lane and North Howard Street.

After another bout of community input, T&ES presented a recommendation – which involved narrowing lane widths and reducing the number of lanes on a portion of Seminary from four to three – to the Traffic and Parking Board on June 24.

Declining to move forward with staff’s recommendation, the TPB voted 3-2 to recommend that Seminary remain four lanes, with the addition of two HAWK pedestrian crossing signals.

Typically, the Director of T&ES would take the TPB’s recommendation into consideration and then make the final call on a Complete Streets project. Even before this project went before TPB, however, T&ES Director Yon Lambert announced he’d be appealing the decision to city council.

“We knew that there were strong feelings from the community on both sides of this and a lot of people were involved,” Hillary Orr, deputy director of T&ES, said. “To be very transparent, before we even went to the Traffic and Parking Board, we said that whatever recommendation the Traffic and Parking Board made to the director, the city would automatically appeal that. We knew either way we went there would be an appeal, so basically, we’re saving the community from having to go through the appeals process.”

Throughout the community engagement process for the project, two alternatives have risen above the others: maintaining four lanes, as proposed in the TPB recommendation, or implementing T&ES’ original “alternative three,” also commonly referred to as a road diet.

(Read more: Seminary Road project en route to council)

The road diet advocates

Specifically, a road diet would involve reducing the 0.9 mile stretch of Seminary between North Quaker and North Howard from four lanes – two in each direction – to one driving lane in each direction, a center turning lane and a six-foot biking lane in each direction.

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 favor of the road diet say a reduction from four to three lanes would be safer for all users.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, benefits of road diets may include an overall crash reduction of 19 to 47 percent, reduced rear-end and left-turn crashes, fewer lanes for pedestrians to cross and “a more community-focused, ‘Complete Streets’ environment that better accommodates the needs of all road users.”

When researching the different alternatives, staff used traffic models to investigate the average delays at different intersections during peak traffic hours. An additional 7.6 second delay at the intersection of Seminary and St. Stephens roads during the worst 15 minutes of morning peak traffic was the greatest projected increase from the road diet, according to a staff report.

The primary advocate of a road diet appears to be the Alexandria Bicycle & Pedestrian Advocacy Committee, a local nonprofit volunteer organization. Other organizations that have written city staff in favor of alternative three include the Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria Families for Safe Streets, the Alexandria Environmental Policy Commission and the Alexandria Transportation Commission.

As the hearing approaches, various regional and national organizations have also been soliciting support for the road diet. Organizations that have shared a petition in support of the road diet and requested signatures on Twitter include the Washington Area Bicyclist Association; Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling; Coalition for Smarter Growth, a D.C.-based advocacy group; and Phoenix Bikes, an Arlington nonprofit bicycling program and bike shop.

Notably, BPAC, which originally tweeted the petition, has about 223 Twitter followers. Meanwhile, WABA has about 12,300 followers, CSG has about 6,400 followers, FABB has about 2,500 followers and Phoenix Bikes has about 1,400 followers.

In addition, national e-scooter company Lime allegedly sent a message to its area users in May urging them to contact city council regarding the Seminary Road issue.

On May 28, resident Peter Turner sent an email to the Clover College Park Civic Association listserv with a screenshot of the message from Lime, according to emails the Times obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The message reads:

“At Lime, we care deeply about the networks and infrastructure needed to keep bicyclists, scooter riders and pedestrians safe from cars. Our friends at Alexandria Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee need your voice to make Seminary Road (east of N. Howard St.) safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. Send a message to Mayor Wilson and City Council in support of bringing center left turn lanes, pedestrian refuge islands, and bike lanes to Seminary Road.”

Despite the regional solicitation for the online petition, Jim Durham, chair of the BPAC, told the Times he would deliver only Alexandria signatures to council prior to the vote.

The petition in favor of the road diet had more than 1,000 signatures from Alexandrians as of press time, according to Carolyn Griglione, a Seminary Hill resident. Griglione said close to two-thirds of the signatures were a result of face-to-face conversations with residents.

The civic associations

Those against a road diet, including various civic associations and central Alexandria residents, have alleged that BPAC’s regional support is making the road diet appear more popular than it actually is.

They’ve also pointed out that while many are using safety to promote the road diet, the 0.9 stretch of Seminary Road in question isn’t necessarily unsafe.

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

State traffic records show that since 2015, there have been 22 accidents, nine of them resulting in injury, on Seminary Road from North Howard Street to North Quaker Lane. In that same span of time, the stretch of Seminary Road from Kenmore Avenue to North Howard Street, which is not being considered for restructuring, had 68 accidents, 24 of them resulting in injury.

In addition, those who live in central Alexandria and are against a road diet allege that such a restructuring would create delays and congestion, as well as increase cut-through traffic on neighboring streets.

While the city traffic studies allegedly found that the greatest delay would be an average of 7.6 seconds, a Michigan State University study says otherwise.

The 2012 study, performed by Michigan State University and submitted to the Michigan Department of Transportation, found that “4-to-3 lane conversions result in significant delay when average daily traffic (ADT) exceeds 10,000 and, more importantly, when peak hour volumes exceed 1,000.”

Seminary Road’s ADT between North Howard Street and North Quaker Lane is about 17,100, according to city data from November 2018.

Like the local and regional road diet advocates, Alexandria’s civic associations have kicked into high gear to gain support for their stance on the issue as the public hearing approaches.

A petition on www.ipetitions.com in support of maintaining four lanes on Seminary Road had garnered 1,684 signatures as of press time.

Thirteen civic associations representing more than 9,000 households have banded together to advocate for four lanes. In addition, the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations, a nonprofit organization composed of leaders from various civic associations, voted in favor of four lanes at a special meeting last week.

The AFCA meeting took place on Sept. 4. At the time the meeting was held, the organization had 17 members, according to treasurer Judy Cooper. Eleven were present at the meeting to form a quorum and vote.

Of those 11, 10 civic association leaders voted to support the TPB’s four-lane recommendation. The leaders were representatives of Clover-College Park Civic Association, North Ridge Citizens’ Association, Potomac Yard Civic Association, Seminary Civic Association, Seminary Hill Association, Seminary West Civic Association, Strawberry Hill Civic Association, Stone Ridge Civic Association, Wakefield Tarleton Civic Association and West Old Town Citizens Association.

Jeff Lipsky, a representative of the Founders Park Community Association, abstained from voting. Lipsky, along with Anh Tran, a representative from the Braddock Metro Citizens’ Coalition, said they didn’t want to take a stance on the issue because it fell outside of the area of concern of their respective associations. Tran was unable to vote since the BMCC hadn’t paid its dues to AFCA at the time of the meeting.

The decision

Prior to the AFCA meeting, the group of 13 civic associations that had banded together in favor of four lanes had met with each of the six members of council and Mayor Justin Wilson, according to Carter Flemming, president of the Seminary Hill Association.

Flemming reported that during those discussions with the mayor and council, most councilors said they weren’t going to commit to one alternative or the other prior to the public hearing.

Bryan Kirkes, co-chair of the AFCA, said that in a July meeting with Wilson, Wilson gave the impression that he was in favor of a road diet.

When asked about the claim, Wilson said that was not true, and that he would not take a final view until after he has heard public testimony on Saturday.

However, Wilson said he has perspectives on the issue.

“Ultimately, my principles for looking at something like this, I’m always trying to improve safety, I’m always trying to improve the ability for all users to get around our city, particularly pedestrians,” Wilson said. “As it relates to Seminary, one of my largest priorities citywide as it relates to infrastructure is around sidewalks. … One of the issues that’s been surfaced on Seminary is you have a missing sidewalk section, and I think that’s a problem.”

On Saturday, staff will present the TPB four-lane proposal as its recommendation. In addition, because a group of residents submitted an appeal requesting that the road diet be presented as well, staff will also detail that alternative for council.

“I think the point is that staff is presenting alternative one [the TPB recommendation] and alternative three [the road diet],” Orr said. “The recommendation is for one, but council can do whatever they want. They can make whatever decision.”

As the contentious, yearlong community engagement showdown nears a climax, supporters on both sides are gathering the final signatures on their petitions and polishing their three-minute testimonies. When the two sides go head-to-head on Saturday, the final decision will be up to council.

“It is a very polarized discussion and it’s unfortunate, and unfortunately, I think it’s gotten very personal for a lot of folks on both sides,” Wilson said. “But I’m hopeful that on Saturday we’re going to have a respectful hearing and make sure everyone’s heard and council will figure out where the right place to be is.”

(Our view: Seminary Road touches on bigger issues)

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