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Votes

A Stretch to Die On

Section of Richmond Highway most dangerous to pedestrians.

Dorothy Berry was released from Inova Fairfax Hospital this week. She cheated the odds of becoming the fourth fatality in 10 months on Route 1's most dangerous stretch of roadway.

"This is the new kill zone. One-half mile of flat road with no traffic signals, no crosswalks, no signage and no median. How many deaths is it going to take for VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation] to get the message?" asked David J. Lyons, director, Safe Crossings Coalition.

On Jan. 29, at 4:06 p.m., Berry, 56, attempted to cross the six-lane deathtrap known as the Route 1 Corridor. It was foggy and wet. She didn't make it. She met a pickup truck part way across and ended up in the Intensive Care Unit instead.

"While all of Richmond Highway could be considered a health hazard to pedestrians and motorists alike, the stretch between Lukens Lane and Frye Road is particularly notorious," Lyons insisted. "In the last year, it has become the leading death zone on an already deadly highway, with three pedestrians losing their lives."

Within these two intersections there are two large apartment complexes, a townhouse development, the new post office, a wide variety of businesses, and charitable and civic organizations. There are also north- and southbound bus stops. And, the speed limit is 45 mph.

Berry was struck just a few yards from where Timothy Gray, 37, of 8424 Skyview Drive, was struck on Nov. 23, 2002. Skyview Terrace Apartments, his home, one of the major complexes, is right across from that point of impact. He wasn't as lucky as Berry.

Just 12 days before Gray's death and within approximately 200 yards of that accident site, the first Regional Forum on Pedestrian Safety was held under the joint sponsorship of the Safe Crossings Coalition and the Citizens Advisory Committee to The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

THAT FORUM BROUGHT together representatives from a host of organizations as well as state and county government in a quest to stop the carnage. There was particular focus on actions taken in Montgomery County, Md., to address increasing pedestrian deaths there.

Moderated by Fairfax County supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), the event was held at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 8592 Richmond Highway. Berry and Gray were struck in that same 8500 block. Two others were killed in the same stretch within the past year.

Kauffman emphasized that the Forum's objective, to shine the spotlight on this growing problem, was "a grass-roots effort." Lyons noted, "Pedestrian safety is a national problem. There are 13 pedestrians killed every day. That's one every 111 minutes." Along the Richmond Highway corridor, 3,000 pedestrians have been struck since 1995, according to Safe Crossings' statistics.

Standing at the spot where Berry was struck, Lyons said, "There has to be a happy medium between traffic and pedestrians. You can't ask a 75-year-old woman or someone with disabilities to walk 500 yards in either direction to get to a signal and crosswalk. And then walk another 500 yards back."

In addition to the existing housing, land is now being cleared for more townhomes just to the south of the Washington Square Apartments, the other large complex in the "death zone" and in front of which one of the bus stops is located.

IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO the existing townhouse development is the new Engleside Branch post office at 8758 Richmond Highway. It serves as another magnet for pedestrian/vehicular interaction as well as vehicular-vehicular confrontation. There are no turning lanes coming north and no crosswalks or other pedestrian controls to get to and from this facility.

Lyons was quick to point out that the builders are not to blame. "They put in their plans to the county well in advance of actual construction. Developers of the Manor Townhouse development wanted a light put in to expedite crossing Route 1 to get to the bus stop. But, VDOT never approved it," he said.

Both Kauffman and Mount Vernon District supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D) last year earmarked funds saved in the operations of their respective offices to be used to improve pedestrian safety on Route 1. The savings totaled approximately $43,000.

Unfortunately, three projects agreed to at a September 2002 meeting to receive priority for those funds did not include the stretch between Frye Road and Lukens Lane. However, nothing has been done at the so-called priority sites either.

Chris Wells, Fairfax County Department of Transportation pedestrian program manager, noted at the time the funds were approved by the County Board of Supervisors, "Our concern is how to put the $43,000 to the best use now." One suggestion was the installation of countdown pedestrian signal heads.

"VDOT has agreed to install countdown pedestrian signal heads. ... But because these are still in the experimental stage, we have to file an application with the Federal Highway Administration," according to Wells at the time. He also indicated he was not sure about the cost of the new countdown devices.

ALEXANDRIA HAS HAD the devices operative for over a year at various intersections in the city. When questioned about the cost, Robert Garbacz, chief, Transportation Division, Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said, "Each signal head costs about $400, and you need to have eight at each intersection." This would total about $3,200 per intersection.

However, that is based on a four-way intersection. The stretch of Route 1 between Frye Road and Lukens Lane should call for only two heads because it would require pedestrians to get from only one side to the other. Therefore, the cost should be considerably less.

If crossing signals were placed in the area of the post office and the townhouse development, they would serve the residents at the three now-existing housing developments, the one under construction, and the post office, Lyons observed. It would also break the traffic span in half between Lukens Lane and Frye Road, thus serving as a traffic-calming device as well.

As Lyons gazed at the stretch of road where three pedestrians have perished in less than a year, he said, "Safe Crossings will continue to push for simple, low-cost improvements that will make an immediate difference and save lives. We know where the problem is, and what it takes to fix it. How many tragedies will it take before the responsible agencies do the right thing?"