My View | Frank Putzu: ‘Hold to that talking point’

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The new Seminary Road configuration with bike lanes. (Photo/Missy Schrott)
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By Frank Putzu

As revealed last week, FOIA documents indicate that the Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services officials confused the position of the Alexandria Fire Department, including department safety concerns over lane reductions and other changes to Seminary Road.

It is also clear that following the Traffic and Parking Board’s June 24 vote to support maintaining four driving lanes on Seminary Road, the campaign to spin these concerns continued. All documents referenced in this series have been shared with the Alexandria Times.

In the aftermath of the TPB vote, and before the Sept. 14 city council hearing where the final vote on Seminary Road took place, T&ES Director Yon Lambert pressed AFD to “ensur[e] that our departments are unified as we address issues that are of strategic importance to the city.” T&ES seemed preoccupied with presenting a unified message in the run-up to the Sept. 14 hearing.

Meanwhile, Local 2141, the firefighters’ union, was correcting statements implying that they were on board with the road diet for Seminary Road. In one email, Union President Megan Ellzy wrote “[t]he Local does not support any traffic pattern that would hinder emergency vehicle traffic.” Ellzy further stated that Local 2141 had “not been given or reviewed any research on the traffic patterns and how these options might effect emergency vehicles,” and that her position precluded her from testifying at the council hearing.

AFD officials sent an unprompted email to T&ES on Aug. 16 saying it “was a part of the Complete Streets Program and discussions surrounding the Seminary Road project,” and it was willing “to consider” the road diet.

In late August, the Alexandria Times was preparing a story on Seminary Road, including trying to publicly clarify the position of the fire department. On Aug. 27, T&ES Deputy Director Hillary Orr told AFD that T&ES wanted to use the Aug. 16 statement for the Times as AFD’s public position and characterized it as AFD’s choice of the road diet as the preferred alternative. Orr also requested AFD testify at the public hearing.

Newly named Acting Fire Chief Corey Smedley quickly responded that “we need to sit down prior with DCMs, Yon/myself, you and [Michael] Cross first.” In this context, DCM likely stands for “Deputy City Managers,” and no reason is given for why DCMs needed to be at such a meeting.

In a response two minutes later, Orr fired back at Smedley that “we are going with the [Aug. 16] email response you sent to me, so we need to all just hold to that talking point since it is out there now.”

Despite this rebuke, AFD did not sign off on simply releasing the Aug. 16 statement, and continued with internal edits.

The next day, Aug. 28, AFD forwarded its overhauled version of the Aug. 16 statement to city hall. In the revised version, AFD said its Complete Streets involvement was a narrow “limited discussion of Fire and Emergency Lanes,” and deleted reference to fire department discussions with T&ES on the Seminary Road Complete Streets project. AFD also insisted that any changes had to meet lane width requirements for emergency vehicles.

The passage stating that AFD was willing “to consider” a road diet remained. The city characterized this cautious and qualified phrase as an endorsement of the road diet.

AFD leaders were apparently so alarmed at this exchange that they prepared a detailed internal memorandum before the Sept. 14 hearing defending its stance. It further verifies that AFD leadership consistently stood its ground on the seriousness and validity of safety impacts from changes to Seminary Road.

When the issue was brought before city council on Sept. 14, attachment 8 in the public materials purported to represent AFD “Comments on Seminary Road Project.” It was the initial Aug. 16 email only, not the amended and correct statement the department had submitted on Aug. 28.

During the council public hearing, Smedley offered a statement that appears confined to a choice between the road diet and hybrid road diet, and not the four-lane configuration the TPB recommended as an option.

Smedley testified that any configuration must meet necessary criteria, including “turning radius, obstructions that prevent traffic from yielding to us or from us taking over a lane” and lane widths. However, the myopic approach provided the façade of support T&ES needed from the fire department to push the road diet.

It appears that the city’s efforts to present a “unified” message to the public and “hold to that talking point” were successful.

After the split 4-3 council vote to adopt the road diet, work on Seminary Road began almost immediately. Concrete islands and pedestrian roadway barriers were installed. As recently as October, Smedley told the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations that none of the fire department’s equipment is built to mount concrete barriers, resulting in potential harm to equipment and heightened risk for the safety of first responders and patients. Despite these concerns – which AFD had raised since the TPB chair first informed it of a potential road diet – these hazards remain.

In the next and final piece in this series: Records disclose how the city dismissed additional public safety concerns.

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

(Read more: My View | Frank Putzu: Fire Department lacked input on Seminary Road)

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