Alexandria Times analysis of Seminary Road FOIA documents

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Trucks dispatched from Fire Station 206, located at 4609 Seminary Road, regularly use Seminary Road when responding to calls. (Photo/Missy Schrott)
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By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]

Despite repeated claims by Department of Transportation and Environmental Services staff that the Alexandria Fire Department had significant input into the Complete Streets Design Guidelines and whether to narrow Seminary Road, documents obtained by city residents under the Freedom of Information Act reveal otherwise.

The public safety importance of the fire department having input into whether, not just how, to narrow this particular stretch of Seminary Road – which runs from Quaker Lane westward to INOVA Alexandria Hospital – seems clear, given the potential impact on emergency response times.

That appeared to be the concern of Traffic and Parking Board Chair William Schuyler when he alerted AFD Deputy Chief Michael Cross to the proposed changes.

“We of course, want to make sure we understand how this change might affect the City’s ability to respond to medical emergencies,” Schuyler said in a June 10, 2019 email to Cross.

This initial contact came not from T&ES but from the TPB, which is chaired by a volunteer.

In the FOIA request, the residents asked for all communications between AFD and T&ES staff for a six-month period beginning May 1, 2019. No correspondence was provided in the city’s response indicating that there was communication between T&ES staff and AFD between May 1 and June 12, the date Cross reached out to T&ES Complete Streets Director Christine Mayeur outlining his concerns with the proposed narrowing of Seminary Road.

Further, the first date listed on an internal AFD timeline that details AFD discussions with city officials on the Seminary Road project is June 10, 2019.

In addition, the documents show T&ES staff, including Director Yon Lambert, Deputy Director Hillary Orr and Mayeur, wanted to project a message of AFD buy-in. They repeatedly asked AFD to issue statements saying they were significantly involved with Complete Streets and plans for Seminary Road, when AFD representatives said they were not.

Complete Streets

The Complete Streets Design Guidelines are a primary justification T&ES gives for advocating the street narrowing program commonly known as a “road diet” for Alexandria streets. The guidelines were developed in 2016 with a stated mission “… to ensure that Alexandria’s streets meet the needs of all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, drivers, residents, workers, visitors, and business owners.”

A seven-page overview of the Complete Streets Design Guidelines on the city’s website lists Maurice Jones as the AFD member on the Complete Streets Technical Advisory Committee. There is no record of anyone from AFD other than Jones being linked to Complete Streets planning.

According to documents FOIAed by the Seminary Hill Association, Mayeur claimed in a June 19 email that AFD played a significant role in developing Complete Streets, and therefore should support street narrowing on Seminary Road:

“Per our discussion, I’m confident that the Fire Department has no issue with the Staff Recommendation as it was designed per the Complete Streets Design Guidelines. Fire/EMS was a key team member in crafting the Complete Streets Design Guidelines document, which has guided the design of City projects since 2016,” Mayeur wrote.

Mayeur’s email provoked a response from then Deputy Fire Chief Corey Smedley, an initial draft of which was written by Deputy Fire Chief Michael Cross. Smedley wrote in a June 21 email, “Deputy Chief Cross has advised that your response mischaracterizes the agreement from Monday’s meeting.”

Smedley stated that T&ES did not have AFD’s signoff because of Complete Streets: “The Fire Department’s concerns were not satisfied because it was designed per the Complete Streets Design Guidelines.”

Smedley went on to say that Mayeur was incorrect, stating AFD had minimal input on Complete Streets.

“Maurice Jones advises that he had limited input on the Complete Streets Design Guidelines. He attended a couple of meeting [sic] and provided focused input on turning radius and emergency vehicle easements issues,” Smedley wrote.

In emails with an advisory committee colleague and in AFD internal communications, Jones himself went further in denying significant involvement in Complete Streets.

In an email dated June 20, 2019 that Jones sent to Planning and Zoning staff member Nathan Imm, who was also listed as a member of the Complete Streets Technical Advisory Committee, Jones said:

“Weird question but do you remember me being involved in the complete streets plan? At meetings? Reviewing designs? Apparently I was heavily involved and approved some things but I cannot remember being that involved or being consulted about much of anything,” Jones wrote.

About an hour before sending the above email to Imm, Jones emailed then Deputy Chief Smedley and also pushed back on Mayeur’s assertion that he was “a key team member” in drafting Complete Streets:

“As I told Chief Cross, if I provided input that was inaccurate, I will own it but I do not believe that I was deeply involved at all and only had brief and cursory conversations or was asked about a very specific location,” Jones wrote.

Seminary Road narrowing

By June 2019, T&ES staff had been holding community meetings for more than a year and had developed plans for narrowing Seminary Road.

An internal timeline prepared by the AFD that was acquired as part of the FOIA request has a section titled “Discussion & Opinion on Seminary Road with City Officials (through August 2019).” The first date on that timeline is June 10, 2019.

Even then, T&ES staff did not seek out AFD input. Instead, AFD was alerted to the Seminary Road issue on June 6 when an Alexandria resident sent an email to then Fire Chief Robert Dube asking for a meeting.

Later that day, Dube emailed Smedley, saying, “May be a good thing for Cross to do.”

On June 9, a Sunday, Smedley forwarded the email chain to Cross saying, “Please reach out.”

Cross met with the resident, but before that meeting took place, TPB Chair William Schuyler reached out to Cross in an email on June 10 asking if he was aware of plans to change Seminary Road lanes:

“As you may be aware, this month the TPB will hear about some proposed changes to the lane configurations on Seminary Road. Jay [Johnson, former TPB chair] pointed out that a large number of your emergency medical vehicles are dispatched from the nearby hospital and might be affected by this proposal. I wanted to reach out to you to ask.

• Were you aware of this proposal?
• Do you have any concerns with the elimination of one travel lane in the direction of Quaker Lane from the hospital?

We of course, want to make sure we understand how this change might affect the City’s ability to respond to medical emergencies. Thank you in advance for your help here as we seek to make the best decision on this matter,” Schuyler wrote.

Cross responded to Schuyler the next day, on June 11, that he had no knowledge of the T&ES plan for Seminary Road.

“I have not seen the proposal for changing lane configuration along Seminary Rd between N. Howard Street and N. Quaker Lane. I’ll certainly be interested in reviewing the proposal. The few concerns the fire department will have focuses on: 1) the width of the proposal travel lanes; 2) the number and configuration of lanes at N. Quaker Lane; and, 3) the number and configuration of lanes at N. Howard St.,” Cross wrote.

Cross copied Bob Garbacz, a division chief in T&ES, on his reply to Schuyler, then five minutes later sent Garbacz a separate email reiterating that AFD was not aware of and had no input into the Seminary Road plan:

“… We are not aware of this plan. Can we get some information on this plan so we can provide input on any concerns? I’d like for T&ES to know about our concerns prior to discussing anything publicly,” Cross wrote.

Garbacz expressed surprise in his response about three hours later, at 1:23 p.m., that AFD had not been involved in planning for Seminary Road lane reconfiguration.

“I thought you guys were looped in on this project. Let me see if I can get you some information and get it to you,” Garbacz wrote.

Garbacz followed up less than 15 minutes later with a link to the plans T&ES had developed.

“Mike – Click on this link: https://www.alexandriava.gov/tes/info/default.aspx?id=103393
To learn more about the Seminary Road project. For the most part Seminary will remain four lanes except for the WB section coming up the hill from Quaker Lane. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks, Bob”

The T&ES website shows the various dates the community had been involved. The T&ES website indicates a community walkabout took place on May 12, 2018 and a community meeting on May 29, 2018.

Concept development took place in the summer into fall 2018 before the project was put on hold for a few months due to issues with HOT Lanes. Another community meeting was held on March 25, 2019, according to the website.

Emphasizing the message

After reviewing the T&ES proposals for Seminary Road on the city website, Cross sent Mayeur an email on June 12 describing four concerns with the plans: 1) the proposed 10 foot travel lane width, 2) the six-foot median at bus stops from St. Stephens to Zabriskie, 3) one eastbound travel lane from St. Stephens to Zabriskie and 4) lack of a left turn lane from westbound Seminary Road to southbound North Howard Street.

Cross proposed various solutions, including keeping around half of the .9 mile stretch of Seminary Road under consideration as four lanes. In the email, he also told Mayeur:

“I’d like to point out that this section of Seminary Road is a heavily used road for emergency vehicles for transporting patients to Alexandria Hospital Emergency Department and responding to calls in the east end and downtown sections of the City from Alexandria Hospital at 4320 Seminary Rd and Fire Station 206 at 4609 Seminary Rd.,” Cross wrote.

Mayeur responded six minutes later requesting an in-person meeting.
“I think it would be best to meet about these issues you’ve brought up to discuss the reasoning behind the widths and limitations from a design and ADA access perspective,” Mayeur wrote.

That meeting took place on June 17 and Mayeur followed it up with the June 19 email cited above, in which she stated her confidence that AFD supported T&ES staff recommendations.

After the TPB voted to maintain four lanes on Seminary Road at its June 24 meeting, Lambert wrote Smedley the next day detailing his concern with the public perception that public safety had not been involved.

“Could we find some time to talk in the next 1-2 weeks? My main concern is the appearance that our team has not coordinated with public safety, which I believe to be untrue. … I know we share the goal of ensuring that our departments are unified as we address issues that are of strategic importance to the city,” Lambert wrote.

Smedley responded in less than an hour, “Yes – Sir. I will have Cameron [Hall] work to get he [sic] team together.”

On Aug. 16, by which time Smedley had been named acting fire chief after Dube’s resignation, Smedley sent an email to Orr, Jones, Hall, Cross, Chris Thompson and Dan McMaster with Lambert cc’d stating that AFD had coordinated fully with T&ES. There were no internal AFD emails in the FOIA surrounding the crafting of this statement:

“Thank you and your staff for working with AFD. AFD was a part of the complete street program and discussions surrounding the Seminary Road project. Internally, we have discussed our position on the Seminary Road Complete Streets after additional briefings provided by your staff. Therefore, the Fire Department could accept the elements of the proposal over the entire span of the project. For Optimal fire department operations and response efficiencies, it is AFD’s position to consider Option 3,” Smedley wrote.

Orr from T&ES then sent Smedley an email on Aug. 27 – on which she copied Deputy City Managers Emily Baker and Debra Collins as well as Lambert and T&ES Public Information Officer Sarah Godfrey – asking to release the above statement to the Alexandria Times.

In an Aug. 28 email, Cross provided edits to the Aug. 16 statement. He deleted reference to AFD being part of “discussions surrounding the Seminary Road project” and significantly qualified AFD’s involvement in Complete Streets. Cross stated that AFD was a part of the complete streets program “for a limited discussion Fire and Emergency Lanes (page 4-14).”

Cross also modified the statement “… the Fire Department could accept the elements of the proposal over the entire span of the project” and added the qualifier “provided travel lanes are at 11’ width.”

In his response to Orr an hour later, Smedley included Cross’ first edit but modified the reference to lane width to read “… provided that the travel lanes could accommodate fire department apparatus that are 10’ wide to include maneuverability within the lane.”
T&ES provided Smedley’s revised statement to the Times on Aug. 28.

On Aug. 27, Orr also asked Smedley whether an AFD representative would attend the Sept. 14 public hearing on Seminary Road.

Smedley responded yes, but that there first needed to be a meeting between himself, the deputy city managers, AFD’s Cross, and Lambert and Orr from T&ES.

Orr responded two minutes later with a statement about remaining on message.

“Happy to sit down, but we are going with the email response you sent to me so we need to all just hold to that talking point since it is out there now,” Orr wrote.

Talking points that Lambert sent to Mayor Justin Wilson and members of city council on Sept. 12, two days before the public hearing, included the AFD statement with Cross and Smedley’s edits eliminating mention of AFD involvement in Seminary Road planning.

However, in the staff presentation at the public hearing itself, Attachment 8 includes the statement without Cross and Smedley’s edits and reads, “AFD was a part of the Complete Streets Program and discussions surrounding the Seminary Road project.”

It is not clear why or how different versions of the statement were provided to council and to the public.

Frank Putzu contributed the FOIA documents for this piece.

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

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Re-attack: What is the width of the lanes now? Does the Fire Department consider the new configuration unsafe and untenable? The position of this paper has been anti modification. The thrust of this article was the process and not necessarily the result. While it was a process foul, you mention that NOVA and the Station sortie vehicles onto Seminary. You provide no analysis or justification for how the new configuration impacts that. As I mentioned before, during the rush, you have more space on the road with the turn lane. The rest of the day Seminary is WIDE open. Many extended periods where I could do zig zags from curb to curb.
    The lengthy blow by blow driving home the point the FD wasn’t completely read into the project got tedious.

  2. THank you for an excellent piece of journalism and a riveting analysis. It is well sourced and educates Alexandrians on the shoddy way this decision was made. It is important for people to understand what happened here and the enormity of the corrupted decision. Ignore those who are mad that you shed light on what they were really doing and the relegation of public safety to political messaging. We rely on an independent media holding government officials accountable (because we know they no hold themselves accountable).

    Keep digging!

  3. The AFD letter verifies what the Times reported. AFD does not challenge the facts or the Times’ analysis. All AFD says is there is material outside the FOIA from May through November that shows it had “input” (AFD never says what that input was) and verified that they looked only at road diet options, and not what was recommended. Classic government spin and response when exposed via FOIA — despite the records, there are all these materials showing we did it right but we won’t show you those documents.

    Please open your mind to the quite real possibility that the city pulled a fast one to get the road diet.

  4. Please open your mind to the fact the Alextimes was borderline alarmist and irresponsible. When I saw the AFD was allegedly omitted from the process resulting in a hazard to the community it did cause me to question my position. I’m not happy about a road diet close to me. I do ride on Seminary and have looked at the map. I also am a parent. I think the street is patently safer for pedestrians and students transiting to school. Perhaps it is a very vocal minority whose justifications I find on examination to be invalid.
    This publication has only presented one side of this issue and is clearly anti City Hall for whatever reason. This obsessions with maintaining maximum speed during rush hours is silly. The remainder of the day, the road is low volume. Having to adjust for rush…fact of life in the DMV.