Who would guess something as bureaucratic-sounding as a “Center-line Design Study" would translate into a plan to save human lives?
But that's the plan. Unfortunately, the construction necessary to make the study more than just a study will not begin for at least five years, if not longer. The reason is a lack of money and right-of-way acquisition actions.
According to Thomas K. Folse, senior transportation engineer and project manager, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), "Even if we were to get the money right now, it would still take another five years before we could start construction due to all the other factors involved."
That estimate was very optimistic according to Mount Vernon District supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D). "I would suspect that we are looking at a time frame more like 20 to 25 years before anything really happens," he said. "Unless the funds would come from the state, which is highly unlikely, it's going to be a very, very long time."
Hyland acknowledged, "Clearly, Richmond Highway needs improvement, and this study is one step toward that end. That's why I think its proper to move forward with it."
Lee District supervisor Dana Kauffman agreed (D). "This is actually the first corridor study that enhances economic development, and we are working hard to make sure it does," he said. "The other important element of the long-term effects of this study is to gain better mass transit for the corridor."
The purpose of the Center-line Study is to determine rights of way required to make the necessary improvements to the 27.3-mile stretch of Route 1 from the Stafford County line to the Beltway. Primary to those improvements is the creation of an alternating sidewalk/bike trail on both sides and a median island. The object of both would be to separate vehicles from people.
On March 12, the first of three public hearings was held at Gunston Elementary School by VDOT to gain public comment on the ongoing study. It focused on that segment of Route 1 from Route 123 to Armistead Road in the Lorton area.
The next hearing impacting the Mount Vernon/Lee districts will take place April 29, from 5-8 p.m., at Mount Vernon High School. It will concentrate on the most deadly portion of the Route 1 corridor, from Telegraph Road to the Beltway. A third study segment will look at the area from Route 123 south to the Stafford County line.
AS EXPLAINED BY VDOT, the four goals of the proposed improvements are these: (1) Reduce traffic congestion, (2) improve safety, (3) facilitate economic development and (4) enhance pedestrian access and safety.
"Part of the problem with the increasing number of pedestrian deaths is that many people perceive that it is just as hazardous to walk on the side of the road where there are no sidewalks to get to a crosswalk as it is to try and dash across," Folse said. "If there was a median strip, they could at least concentrate on only one direction of traffic at a time to get across."
The bike trail/sidewalk has long been advocated by both Hyland and Kauffman, as well as David Lyons, director, Safe Crossing Campaign. The two supervisors serve on a steering committee, along with state Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-36) and Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-44), convened by VDOT to ensure the study team is responsive to the needs and concerns of citizens along the corridor.
VDOT INFORMATION states, "The location studies propose widening Route 1 in Prince William and Fairfax counties to six lanes, except for a proposed eight-lane stretch ... for 4.5 miles from Route 235/Buckman Road north to the Capital Beltway.”
The improved highway, VDOT points out, would be divided by a landscaped median bounded by a 10-foot-wide, multi-use asphalt path on one side and a 6-foot sidewalk on the other. The entire corridor would be appropriately landscaped.
During the March 12 hearing, William C. Cutler, VDOT district location and design engineer for Northern Virginia, pointed out that 42,000 vehicles per day travel the area under study. That count is expected to swell to more than 64,000 per day by 2025.
"What we can get out of this study is just what it's going to cost, piece by piece, as well as what the impact will be on the environment," Folse emphasized. "That way, when the money does come along, we are ready to move. All the documentation will be done."
Kauffman clarified, "This study was modified from when it was originally initiated in order to have it look at the various environmental factors involved. That way we can make projects actually happen."
FOLSE ADMITTED there will have to be some taking of land in order to accommodate the widening of the roadway and the addition of the paths and median strip. "But, in the northern portion, from Telegraph to the Beltway, we already have a large portion with service roads. These should provide sufficient rights of way to make the improvements."
Hyland has expressed concern that the hint of taking property to extend the right of way with such a distant time table could adversely affect both residential and commercial property values. "This study is crucial to the development of both sides of the highway. This will have a dramatic effect on homes and businesses alike," he said.
"We need to tell people when this taking could occur, with some reasonable amount of certainty. This could wipe out a business or seriously damage property salability," Hyland said.
"Perhaps the most dramatic example of the potential impact of readjusting the center line of the highway is the Mason Passage development and its counterpart on the other side of the road. Mason Passage is relatively close to Richmond Highway, while the opposite side has more space. If the line were adjusted more toward Mason Passage, it would have a far greater impact than going the opposite direction," Hyland explained.
THERE ARE A VARIETY of other factors that the study has to analyze. These include the following:
* Historic property that is protected and is not subject to taking for right-of-way widening. One such instance is Woodlawn Plantation at the intersection of Routes 1 and 235.
* Terrain factors. A good example is on the stretch from the Fort Belvoir Main Gate to the Route 235 intersection. This now slopes and curves on the east side and has a high bank on the west.
* Signalization and additional crosswalks. These would not be included in the study until the final design phase, according to Folse.
As now planned, the sidewalk and bike trail would switch back and forth across Route 1, due to terrain factors and the fact that many existing bike trails come in from the sides and dead end at the highway.
"This new trail will connect those existing trails to form a continuous route. Both the bike trail and the pedestrian sidewalk will be paved. Crossovers will occur only where there is signalization or bridges. We have enough room in the right of way to minimize these crossovers," Folse emphasized.
Coupled with the physical improvements, VDOT has undertaken an environmental impact study. It encompasses land use and socioeconomic factors, cultural resources, parks and recreation, agriculture and ecology, air and water quality, hazardous materials, noise, visual quality and aesthetics, wetlands, floodplains, and indirect and cumulative effects.
AS FOR COSTS, Folse said, "There is no way to estimate that at this time, due to the extended period before this would get under way." However, estimated cost for Study B, the subject of the March 12 hearing, and the shortest of the three segments was estimated at $156 million with all factors taken into account.
VDOT's anticipated time table is as follows:
* Spring 2003 - Location Study Report;
* Summer 2003 - Local Government and Steering Committee Review . Fall 2003 - Commonwealth Transportation Board Action and Final Environmental Assessment.
But, as Folse emphasized, "I want to be crystal clear. We are not talking about building anything right now. This is just the study. There is no money for anything else at this time."
Additional information is available on VDOT's Web site at www.virginiadot.org/projects/nova-rt1.asp.