Who wants a bypass at the Mount Vernon Circle terminus of the George Washington Memorial Parkway? Apparently no one. But is there a hidden agenda?
That seemed to be the question in the collective of minds of the more than 100 Mount Vernon area residents attending a public information meeting June 26, at the Fairfax County South County Government Center on Richmond Highway. Coming to what they thought was to be a public hearing on the subject, they were greeted with a room full of charts and drawings with only the opportunity to complete a comment form.
Larry Meisner, P.E., representing Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc., Raleigh, NC, the consultants hired by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and National Park Service (NPS) to look at all possibilities explained to the milling crowd that "the driving force behind this [potential project] is the parking problem at the Mount Vernon Estate."
But he was quick to point out, "Nothing is set in concrete. The drawings you see are just potential suggestions of what may be possible solutions to not only the parking problems but increasing traffic on the Parkway."
Frank Cohn, Chairman of the Stakeholder Participation Panel, a nine member group appointed by Mount Vernon District Supervisor and Vice Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Gerald W. Hyland, explained, "As I understand it the consultant is mandated by FHA to look at every option when they are considering any change." The panel represents a cross section of Mount Vernon area residents.
Cohn emphasized that, "Once they [FHA and NPS] become fully aware of the opposition to any bypass by both the community and Mount Vernon Estate, hopefully, they will drop the idea. But, there has always been a fear that someone would suggest a bypass. Especially, those that see the Parkway as an alternate commuter route."
HIS DESIRE THAT the FHA and NPS will ultimately agree that a bypass is not a viable solution was buttressed by Hyland. "When the subject was first brought up about a potential bypass at the Mount Vernon Circle it clearly brought forth a visceral reaction of opposition," Hyland said.
"I absolutely do not support a bypass. And, the first meeting of the Stakeholders unanimously opposed any consideration of a bypass. They are good representatives and a well informed group who bring cool heads to this discussion. A bypass is not in the best interests of the residents or the Mount Vernon Estate," Hyland said.
"I hope the final report will not recommend it. If it does, there is going to be a need for federal funds and I doubt there will be any support for that among the local Congressional delegation," Hyland speculated.
Mount Vernon Estate's need for additional parking is the driving force behind the study. "The issue is that the public parking for visitors to the Estate needs to be expanded and to do this they have to get federal approval," Meisner explained.
As stated in one handout, "Mount Vernon is restoring and expanding its facilities. As a result, visitor and pedestrian patterns are changing and parking demand is growing due to a longer length of stay. More frequent use of the traffic circle for parking has created safety and traffic operations issues."
JAMES C. REES, Executive Director, Mount Vernon Estate, was quick to clarify, "The last thing we want is more commuter traffic. We totally agree with the residents that anything that expands or encourages commuter traffic is not good."
Rees further explained, "Over two years ago we informed the Park Service that parking had gotten noticeably worse. Once the expansion is completed we expect that to escalate. We now have people parking on the circle about 50 or 60 days a year.
"That is not a good idea because it does adversely affect the sight line of both pedestrians and drivers for safety. The Park Service agreed that the parking is worse. It's the solution that is posing the problem."
Rees estimates that the Estate needs an additional 400 spaces during their peak period of the summer months. "If we had our choice we would just like to expand the West parking lot. But that is Park Service land and it would mean taking out some trees. They are not particularly in favor of that."
He noted that the land immediately across Route 235 from the West parking lot is Estate land and they could put the additional parking there. "But this would mean creating additional exits and entrances onto Route 235. We would prefer not to do that," Rees explained.
The $85 million expansion planned for the Estate is not intended to increase the number of visitors but it will lengthen their stay, Rees verified. "We don't believe the Mansion could take many more visitors. We are now above 80,000 during our peak periods."
EXPANSION PLANS call for more educational opportunities in order to increase visitor knowledge of American History and the myriad contributions of George Washington to that history. Additional attractions have already increased visitor stays from an average of one hour and 39 minutes in the late 1980's to two hours and ten minutes today, according to Rees. This means existing parking spaces are occupied longer.
"Our actual number of visitors is down from its peak in the early 1960's. In 1964 we had 1.3 million visitors. In 2000 there were a little less than 1.1 million. We can't count 2001 because, like everyone else in the area, September 11 took a real toll. We are still down nearly 30 percent," he exclaimed.
"The Parkway was built as a ceremonial entrance to Mount Vernon. We do not want to see it become a commuter route," Rees insisted. "We would be perfectly happy if the Park Service would just allow us to sensibly expand the West parking lot."
Even before the new educational expansion gets underway, Mount Vernon Estate has added a number of learning opportunities that have contributed to longer visitor stays. "Previously there was no pioneer farm site, adventure map for children, or the enhanced educational area pertaining to slavery," Rees acknowledged.
"You can't have it both ways," he said. "By providing more education you encourage visitors to stay longer."
The lead paragraph in the consultant's handout asked the question "What is the project need?" They answered the question by stating:
"The expansion and renovations to George Washington's Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens will lead to changes in visitor and pedestrian patterns, including increases in parking demand. Commuter traffic along the George Washington Memorial Parkway also is increasing. As a result, traffic operations and safety of pedestrians and cyclists have become key issues."
They further define the purpose of the project as, "to determine the roadway, parking, and bike trail configurations that would accommodate the predicted demand for parking, improve traffic operations throughout the Mount Vernon area, and increase the safety of both visitors and cyclists."
EACH OF THESE COMMENTS seem to fly in the face of both Rees' and the Stakeholder Panel's analysis. Both emphasize only a need for additional parking which, as Rees noted, could be very simply solved by expansion of the West parking lot without the need for an elaborate traffic study.
As for the increased traffic on the Parkway, as stated in the consultant handout, a chart on page four of that document, developed by the FHA, indicates the average daily traffic in 2000 was virtually the same as it was in 1994. Using June as the data month, it stood at 14,000 vehicles. There was a slight increase in 1995 and 1996 and a decrease in 1999. They showed no figures for 1997 and 1998.
Of primary concern to both Rees and the Stakeholders, at the information session, was the aerial map showing a "potential traffic and safety solution" as the "possible realignments of Route 235." As presented, it would connect the Parkway with Route 235 by cutting through the wooded area north of the existing West parking lot and northwest of the new postal facility.
As proposed, the potential bypass would require the removal of far more trees far than an expansion of the existing West parking lot. It would also create new intersections with both elements of Route 235 and the Parkway.
In answering their own question of "Why hold a public information meeting?," the consultant handout stated, "They permit an exchange of ideas and information. Comments will assist the project team in addressing the community's concerns."
Hyland would agree with that aim, but stated, "The next public meeting needs to be a real meeting. One where people can make their points and have their questions answered. I am also going to recommend that the comment period for this past meeting be extended to at least 30 days. Putting a deadline of July 10 for comments is far too short.
"The format of last Wednesday's meeting, with just charts and displays around the room, is the old VDOT format. It doesn't allow those in attendance to ask questions and get answers. The next hearing has got to be a real public hearing," said Hyland.