By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
A potential change to Interstate 395’s High Occupancy Vehicle ramp onto Seminary Road could add more cars to an already congested major city roadway.
The proposed change, which is under consideration by Transurban and the Virginia Department of Transportation, would involve converting the south-facing ramp from I-395 to Seminary Road from an HOV exit to a High Occupancy Toll exit. Essentially, vehicles could pay to exit onto Seminary Road, regardless of how many passengers are in the vehicle, which could increase traffic on Seminary Road.
Seminary Road has already been a hot-button topic in recent months. The road has been undergoing repaving and restructuring since city council voted at the Sept. 14 public hearing to reduce a section of the road from four to two driving lanes, with a center turning lane. The vote also added bike lanes and pedestrian crossing signals.
The controversial topic has not fizzled since council’s tense 4-3 vote that followed 110 people speaking for and against the so-called “road diet.” The more than 1,000 members in a Facebook group called Alexandria Residents Against the Seminary Road Diet have been especially vocal about increased congestion on Seminary since the changes.
Allegedly inspired by the Facebook group – and much to the chagrin of her fellow councilors – Councilor Amy Jackson proposed that council reverse the decision during the Dec. 10 legislative meeting. Some councilors were upset at being asked to reconsider the recent decision, and all expressed dismay at the manner in which Jackson introduced it – during oral reports several hours into the meeting. Jackson ultimately withdrew her motion so it could be scheduled for a later legislative meeting.
On the other side of the issue, during the public discussion period at the beginning of council’s public hearing last Saturday, 14 people spoke in support of the changes that had been made to Seminary Road, while only three spoke against them.
(Read more: Council approves Seminary Road lane reduction)
In the midst of this Seminary Road drama, the public comment period for the potential HOV to HOT ramp shift is well underway. Despite city and resident input, the decision is ultimately up to the state, according to Bob Garbacz, division chief of Alexandria’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.
“It’s a VDOT roadway, so they will make the decision,” Garbacz said. “The mayor or council, they can adopt a resolution … but ultimately it’s [the state’s] decision.”
The ramp opened as an HOV exit three years ago. In October 2018, Transurban, the company managing the implementation of I-395 express lanes in Northern Virginia, informed the city and VDOT that it was interested in converting the south-facing Seminary Road exit from HOV to HOT, according to the city website.
While the north-facing exit onto Seminary Road, which opened to HOT vehicles on Nov. 17, had always been intended to serve both HOV and HOT vehicles, the south-facing ramp was not supposed to shift, according to the city website.
“Our initial reaction was somewhat concerned because we had an agreement with VDOT that that ramp would be HOV-only,” Garbacz said. “We were concerned because VDOT seemed to be [going back] on their agreement.”
Garbacz said the agreement took place around 2012 when the city was contemplating the HOV ramp.
When asked about Transurban’s reasoning for requesting the change, Brent McKenzie, Transurban’s government relations and community outreach manager, listed various projected benefits.
“As we prepared for the opening of the 395 Express Lanes, we heard from people asking why this ramp wasn’t part of the conversion,” McKenzie said in an email. “With the city experiencing cut-through traffic problems, this is a logical change that will reduce congestion on the 395 regular lanes, make minor reductions in cut-through traffic on the local roads and it will improve safety by reducing the number of crashes at the Seminary Road/395 interchange.”
McKenzie, city representatives and VDOT representatives all declined to comment when asked how much money the HOT exit is projected to generate and where that money would go.
Transurban recently released findings from a study called the Interchange Modification Report on projected traffic changes that could result from the HOV to HOT change.
The report states that the south-facing HOV ramp onto Seminary Road is currently underutilized. If it were to open up to HOT vehicles, it would result in enhanced traffic flow along I-395 and “no adverse impacts to arterials and intersections,” according to the report.
“It’s not an overwhelmingly significant improvement. It’s a slight improvement based on the traffic study that we did,” Susan Shaw, megaprojects director for VDOT, said.
Shaw said the traffic study took the new Seminary Road configuration into consideration.
Following the release of the traffic report, Hillary Orr, deputy director of T&ES, issued an official city response to VDOT stating the city found no compelling reason for the conversion.
“Based on the results of the [Interchange Modification Report], the City finds no compelling reason to convert the Seminary ramp for … HOV to HOT,” Orr wrote in the Dec. 6 response. “There are still many unknowns and the City does not believe the risk is worth the minimal benefit.”
In line with the city’s response, several residents have expressed concerns about the proposed change.
“With the south ramp, I think this is another case where we were told, ‘You have nothing to worry about,’ … and then they say, ‘Well, actually, we’re gonna take a look at this,’” Alexis Sargent, a resident who regularly travels on I-395 and Seminary Road, said. “I think right now there’s just a general distrust of the City of Alexandria – and maybe the state as well – with what they’re telling us we need to worry about and what we don’t.”
There was a community meeting in Alexandria detailing the findings of the traffic report on Dec. 9 that was attended by about 50 people, according to Michelle Holland, megaprojects communications manager for VDOT. The public input period is open through Dec. 31. To submit comments, email [email protected].
Regardless of the city’s stance and resident input, the state has the final say. The Commonwealth Transportation Board, which is composed of 17 members appointed by the governor, will vote on the project after the public comment period closes, Shaw said.
“We’re just still in that information gathering phase, especially since we want to have a chance to have everybody comment,” Shaw said. “It does go through the end of the year, and we want to have a chance to review all of that in the context of the study that was done.”
If the Commonwealth Transportation Board ultimately chooses to convert the ramp to HOT, the change would be implemented in summer 2020, according to the project page on VDOT’s website.