Seminary Road update goes before council next week

Seminary Road update goes before council next week
Photo/Missy Schrott

By Missy Schrott |

City council is slated to hear an update about the controversial restructuring of Seminary Road at its legislative meeting on Feb.11.

The upheaval prompted by council’s 4-3 vote in September to implement a road diet on Seminary Road, which reduced a .9-mile stretch from four to two travel lanes, has yet to die down in the months following the vote.

The city began the restructuring in November. Around that same time, signs of protest began popping up along Seminary Road, along with a Facebook group of residents opposed to the changes, which has since grown to more than 1,500 members.

In December, Councilor Amy Jackson made a motion to rescind council’s approval of the project late into a city council legislative meeting, surprising her fellow councilors and city staff. Eventually, Jackson withdrew her motion and tabled the discussion for a later date. The discussion returns to the docket at next week’s legislative session.

At council’s request, city staff has prepared a presentation on the Seminary Road project that will include a construction update, crash data, travel time data, project cost data, details on the two types of medians and traffic analysis of Patrick Henry, city spokesperson Craig Fifer said.

Staff will also answer questions that Jackson submitted in advance. Jackson sorted 31 specific questions into categories: emergency preparedness and safety, sidewalks, traffic and Douglas MacArthur Elementary School. MacArthur is relevant to the conversation since beginning at the start of the 2020 school year, MacArthur students will attend Patrick Henry – located near Seminary Road – as a swing space while their school is remodeled.

Jackson’s questions cover a lot of the things residents have been wondering about the Seminary Road project, including “What is the total cost of the sidewalk implementation part of the project?” and “For clarification, please explain why the medians are needed on this .9 mile stretch on Seminary Road between Quaker and Howard.”

Jackson said some of her questions were prompted by documents obtained by residents under the Freedom of Information Act.

In recent months, discussions about Seminary Road have revolved around those FOIAed documents, which include all communications between the Alexandria Fire Department and Department of Transportation and Environmental Services for a six-month period beginning May 1, 2019. The documents reveal that AFD had little input in the decision to narrow the road, although it eventually had input on aspects of the road diet implementation.

The documents have caused several residents to question not only the role of AFD and Inova Alexandria Hospital in the Seminary Road decision-making process, but also the city’s internal processes.

“Basically, the questions I’m putting forth on Feb. 11, a lot of them can be answered through the FOIAed materials,” Jackson said. “… My questions could be answered by just using that, but I’d like to hear from staff about ‘Why?’ At this point, it’s still about Seminary Road, but now we’re really getting into a lack of transparency.”

Jackson said she doesn’t know whether she’ll make another motion to rescind council’s road diet decision, since she doesn’t know if she’ll have the votes. At the Sept. 14 public hearing, Mayor Justin Wilson, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Councilor Canek Aguirre and Councilor Del Pepper voted in favor of the road diet. Councilors John Chapman, Mo Seifeldein and Jackson voted against it.

Jackson alluded that Pepper would be the swing vote if there’s a vote at the Feb. 11 meeting.

“I don’t know if my motion will have the four votes needed, to tell you the truth,” Jackson said. “We are still working on at least one councilmember, of course, and it is the one who we didn’t think anyone had to work on because she’s been fighting for the West End for 34 years.”

Jackson said the terminology of her motion in December, to rescind rather than reverse council’s September decision, was dictated by city code.

“That motion was asking … basically to rescind the vote, to stop everything, not to reverse the decision,” Jackson said. “That’s all I could do. I couldn’t ask for, in terms of the city code, I wasn’t allowed to ask for a reversal of that vote in any way.”

The Seminary Road topic has been divisive in both the community and the city council dais. Wilson, a vocal supporter of the road diet, is among those unlikely to vote in favor of a motion to rescind the September decision.

Wilson said that since the road diet was implemented, he’s seen benefits for pedestrians and bikers. He also said traffic has been improving since November.

“Where I see this issue going is probably the same way I saw the issue going in the beginning,” Wilson said. “We said from the beginning that there would be an adjustment period and as things settled, we would collect data. … From November on, things got better and better every week as the patterns adjusted, and so I think that’ll be something we’ll probably see in the data.”

Both Wilson and Jackson suggested that Seminary Road has prompted larger discussions in the city, Wilson focusing on process, Jackson on transparency.

“We spent a lot of time on Seminary Road and I don’t know that that is something that is sustainable for the future,” Wilson said. “I think we have to figure out how to engage the community, come to a good decision and move on to the next thing. We have too much ahead of us as a city to be continuing to talk about something for this long, and not really making a heck of a lot of progress on the discussion.”

“This is not the first time local government, our city staff, has felt like they can just go do something and then everyone finds out about it later,” Jackson said. “I mean, this is obviously my first term in office. My first year has just been completed, and it’s a lot different on this side … and I just feel like our local government can do so much better.”

Council’s Feb. 11 meeting takes place at city hall at 7 p.m.

(Read more: Seminary Road showdown approaches)