My View | Frank Putzu: Fire Department lacked input on Seminary Road

My View | Frank Putzu: Fire Department lacked input on Seminary Road
(Photo/Alexandria Fire Department Facebook)

By Frank Putzu

This is the first of three My Views that will examine the role of the Alexandria Fire Department in planning prior to city council’s Sept. 14 vote to implement a road diet on Seminary Road. Seeking transparency, the Seminary Hill Association submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all communications between the Fire Department and city staff regarding Seminary Road.

After reviewing more than 600 pages of emails from the FOIA request, we have discovered the following disturbing facts:

1) The AFD was not asked by city staff for its opinion on whether Seminary Road should be narrowed in the leadup to the June 24 Traffic and Parking Board hearing. It was the TPB chair who alerted the fire department what was afoot.

2) The AFD was not involved in any meaningful way in the development of the Complete Streets program.

3) The FOIAed emails make clear that staffers from the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services were preoccupied with presenting a unified city voice at the Sept. 14 public hearing on Seminary Road.

All materials referenced in this series have been shared with the Alexandria Times.

FOIA records reveal that T&ES staff did not consult with AFD about the potential road diet, despite the fact that Fire Station 206 houses heavy rescue equipment for the entire city, and all emergency services providers potentially need to use Seminary Road for emergency transport of patients to Alexandria’s only city hospital.

In a June 10 email sent shortly before the TPB’s hearing on the Seminary Road reconfiguration, TPB Chairman Bill Schuyler emailed Deputy Fire Chief Michael Cross asking whether he was aware of the city’s proposal and what feedback they had received. In response, the deputy chief said it was the first time AFD had heard about it and added that it raised serious concerns.

Two days later on June 12, Cross submitted a detailed department analysis, remarking that reducing the road by 50 percent would “negatively impact emergency responses along a heavily used emergency route for hospital and fire station travel.” The AFD strongly recommended maintaining all four travel lanes. The report cited city code as defining an emergency vehicle easement as “22” for the purpose of providing two 11-foot lanes for emergency vehicles to safely pass.

The analysis also objected to median islands, noting that such obstructions would create unacceptable “pinch points” that would prohibit “traffic from yielding and emergency vehicles from safely passing during emergency responses.”

Schuyler thanked AFD for its comprehensive and objective report – recognizing that department input could assure that “no preventable mistakes are made.” Yet instead of responding appropriately to these serious concerns, records show that city traffic planners at T&ES instead asked for a face-to-face meeting.

While there are no notes from the discussion itself, T&ES officials sent a follow-up email to AFD on June 19 in an apparent attempt to affirm that the department had “no issue” with the Seminary Road lane reconfigurations, and that AFD was one of the key proponents of the Complete Streets plan more broadly.

The AFD response was fast and furious. On June 21, then Interim Fire Chief Corey Smedley emailed back, complaining that T&ES mischaracterized the department’s views from the meeting, adding that “concerns were not satisfied …” Smedley’s email notes that T&ES told AFD that it had removed the road diet from consideration at the request of Alexandria INOVA Hospital. His email also objects to T&ES claims that AFD played a meaningful role in the Complete Streets design guidelines.

A second AFD memo prepared shortly before the Sept. 14 hearing where city council voted 4-3 to approve the road diet also references these exchanges. In addition, it cites the department’s preference for an early version of the road diet with no medians and wide lanes over the hybrid option and the department’s need to correct the record.

Despite the obvious discord between city agencies, T&ES representatives tried to spin the public about the fire department’s position. At the June 24 TPB hearing where Seminary Road was discussed, T&ES Director Yon Lambert and Complete Streets Program Manager Christine Mayeur told the TPB in its presentation that AFD “signed off on our Complete Street Design Guidelines, which is [sic] being used to develop these alternatives and the staff recommendation.”

Lambert also testified that AFD preferred the road diet over the other alternatives.

FOIAed documents show that the T&ES presentation and testimony on this point was incorrect. No representatives of AFD were present at the hearing and TPB members raised concerns about the conflicting interpretations of the department’s position. After expressing disapproval of these so-called “jamming” tactics, and considering the overwhelming opposition from residents and civic associations, the TPB ultimately voted to maintain four lanes on Seminary.

In the next installment, we will examine the reluctance of the local firefighters’ union to take a public position on the road diet and city staff’s repeated attempts to portray the AFD as supporting Complete Streets.

The writer is Representative of Area 8 of the Seminary Hill Association designated to review
the FOIA.