By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Following months of community turmoil over the narrowing of Seminary Road, city staff went before council Tuesday evening to provide an update on the project and answer questions.
Council voted 4-3 in September to implement a road diet on a .9-mile section of Seminary Road near Inova Alexandria Hospital, reducing it from four to two travel lanes. The changes were put in place later in the fall.
Council requested an update about the project after Councilor Amy Jackson, at a legislative meeting in December, attempted to rescind the decision to narrow the road. At the time, staff and the rest of council said they were not prepared to discuss the topic.
Leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, Jackson said she was considering making another motion to rescind the decision. However, Tuesday evening’s meeting concluded without a motion from Jackson and without any action taken by council. Jackson plans to process the information from the meeting and decide whether she wants to make a motion in the coming weeks, she said at the end of the meeting.
The atmosphere was tense going into the meeting, as concerns about the road diet and how it came about have been circulating throughout the community, largely in a 1,500-member anti-road diet Facebook group. Jackson was the most vocal councilmember throughout the presentation, asking several of the questions that continue to surface in the Facebook group and other community forums.
Council and staff’s discussion touched on various aspects of the Seminary Road project, most notably traffic, medians, the sidewalk and the Alexandria Fire Department’s opinion on the changes. Representatives from AFD, the Alexandria Police Department and the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services were present at the meeting.
The community has questioned AFD’s role in the project, especially after documents obtained by residents under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that AFD staff had expressed reservations about certain road restructuring options.
“I don’t feel that you all were in on the discussion from the beginning with T&ES in terms of communication,” Jackson said to Fire Chief Corey Smedley and Battalion Chief Michael Cross.
In response to a question on timing of AFD involvement, Smedley said an AFD representative was present at an early conceptual meeting in August 2018. AFD got more extensively involved in June 2019.
When asked directly whether they were in consultation and agreement with the road diet plan that was eventually adopted, both Smedley and Cross said, “Absolutely.”
Beyond the fire department’s role in the road’s design, councilors asked questions about AFD members’ thoughts now that the road diet has been implemented. Smedley said he’s asked his department and hasn’t heard any concerns. APD Chief Michael Brown said his officers had not reported concerns either.
Councilor Mo Seifeldein asked whether the fire department had data for response time before the road diet versus response time after the road diet.
While AFD does track how long it takes firefighters to respond to calls, there is no “apples to apples” comparison for this stretch of Seminary, Smedley said.
“The way the times are tracked, we track them by the unit … from wherever they are when they start responding to when they get on the scene,” Cross said. “ … We’re looking at one small segment of roadway, and there’s nothing we can do to track when we come into that segment and go out of it to be able to measure how long it takes to go through that segment.”
Community members have also expressed concerns about the pedestrian medians that have been installed along Seminary Road. Four medians have been added on Seminary Road between North Quaker Lane and North Howard Street.
Two of the medians are mountable, meaning vehicles can drive over them if needed, while the other two are not except in extreme cases, which Smedley said would cause extensive damage to fire trucks. All medians are adjacent to crosswalks and provide refuge for pedestrians crossing the road.
Council had a lengthy discussion about the technicalities of the different median types and whether they were satisfactory for the fire department.
Smedley said the fire department had input when staff was designing the medians. The two standard crossing medians are in locations where cars sitting in traffic can move into the bike lanes to make way for an emergency vehicle, while the mountable medians are in locations where cars cannot get out of the way, Smedley said.
Councilor Canek Aguirre said toward the end of the meeting that he plans to submit an “add” during the budget add/delete period for council to fund the conversion of the standard medians, with signs in the middle, to mountable medians without signs. Converting both standard medians would cost $40,000.
While he wasn’t present at the meeting, Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne sent an email to T&ES Director Yon Lambert expressing concern about the medians.
“First responders have always relied on arterial roads to get them to the scene of an emergency. In my opinion, physical barriers placed on arterial roads will affect that,” Lawhorne said in the email.
Another piece of infrastructure brought into question is the sidewalk that accompanies the project. The city hasn’t built the permanent sidewalk yet and is waiting for state funding.
Councilor Del Pepper, echoing concern from some community members, asked whether council had prioritized funding the sidewalk over funding repairs for Holmes Run Trail, which requires millions of dollars in repairs from flooding in recent years.
City Manager Mark Jinks said that the trail was not eligible for the same funding as the sidewalk.
“[The Virginia Department of Transportation] indicated that the repairs of an existing trail were not eligible for state funding,” Jinks said. “When council got the resolution to apply for the grant in September, and it was the sidewalk, it’s because that was the only item left that was eligible.”
Jinks said his FY2021 budget proposal, to be released next week, includes funding to repair the trail.
The portion of the presentation where staff discussed traffic left council with more questions than answers, as a full traffic study won’t be conducted until 18 months after the project implementation, per standard procedure.
T&ES did have data comparing travel times after the road diet implementation to travel times before. During the worst 15 minutes of peak traffic in the morning, from 8:15 to 8:30 a.m., travel times increased by an average of 30 percent, which equates to about one minute. During the worst 15 minutes of peak traffic in the evening, from 5:45 to 6 p.m., travel times increased by about 14 percent, an average of 30 seconds.
Hillary Orr, deputy director of T&ES, said that delays were worse during road construction, but have been steadily improving.
“I think with every project there are lessons to be learned, and one of the things that we really learned during this process is that setting expectations for the community is really important,” Orr said. “We recognize that during construction … travel times were higher than we had said they were going to be, and as staff I think we probably could have done a better job.”
Staff plans to deliver the full 18-month traffic report with volumes, speeds, crashes and travel times in June 2021.
(Read more: My View | Mark Jinks: Key facts about Seminary Road)