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Slowing Down 'Top Speed' at Terra Centre

Parents at Terra Centre Elementary hope a traffic signal will make the entrance to the school safer.

Nancy Melito still remembers three years ago as she watched firsthand a car accident in front of her children's elementary school in Burke.

"I just stood there and watched with my jaw open as this happened in front of me," said Melito, a mother of two, who lives in Burke Centre. Melito, whose son Richard is a fifth-grader at Terra Centre Elementary, is concerned about the increased volume of traffic on Burke Centre Parkway in front of the school. She'd like to see a traffic signal installed there to prevent accidents.

"I think it will increase safety and security for this entire area," said Melito. "People trying to use the shopping center will be able to get in and out without taking their lives into their hands. People trying to cross the street will be able to do that without taking their life into their hands."

Melito and several other parents at Terra Centre formed a Safety Committee in May 2004, which, among other responsibilities, began investigating what could be done to make the area around the school safer.

She started last fall by approaching Greg Smith, chairman of the Burke Centre Conservancy Board of Trustees, who also represents her neighborhood, the Woods. Smith said he passed along the message in December to new Conservancy executive director Patrick Gloyd, since it had been a priority of his since he joined the board.

"I've kind of been concerned for a couple years," Smith said. "You have school with kids going back and forth and parents picking up and dropping off, and you have people trying to depart Giant.

"I think we ought to have at least signs or flashing lights, or something."

Gloyd made the formal request to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to pursue a traffic signal study, which would gather data about the intersection.

ACCORDING TO Don Ostrander, with VDOT's Traffic Engineering division, a traffic signal study for the entrance to Terra Centre Elementary, and to the Giant Towne Center across the street, is currently under way, at the recommendation of the community.

"We're taking a look at whether the signal is warranted," said Ostrander, who added the data should be obtained within a few weeks.

Traffic signal studies by VDOT follow the Federal Highway Administration's manual on uniform traffic control devices. Among the considerations for determining whether a device is warranted are traffic volume, pedestrian activity, roadway geometry, crash history and the location of other signals.

In the case of Terra Centre, a signal currently exists at the intersection of Burke Commons Road and Burke Centre Parkway, several hundred yards to the north.

Ostrander said no restrictions on minimum distance between traffic signals exist.

"Ideally you want some spacing, but that's not the foremost thing," he said.

Melito said installing a traffic signal near the school would not only help drivers exiting the shopping center but also slow down drivers on the parkway, and make it easier for pedestrians crossing the road to the school.

"This is a very dangerous situation. People using the shopping mall there are really in danger when they are trying to make a left turn out of the parking lot," she said.

AT TERRA CENTRE, overflow parking for school events is often diverted to the shopping center, meaning those attending those events must cross four lanes of traffic to get to the school.

Ostrander said he wouldn't know until the data were in whether the signal would be recommended or not. He did say that most schools in Fairfax County don't have lights around them. The main reason, he said, was that while traffic is heavy before and after school, most of the day there isn't enough traffic to warrant a signal.

"A lot of times with schools, there's a peak time period, when the staff is entering, when the students arrive and when they leave, and the rest of the day, there's no activity. You need to have some consistent volumes happening," said Ostrander.

One solution would be to install a signal with sensors, which would adapt its length between changing depending on the time of day.

Another option, said Smith, would be to simply install a flashing "School Zone" sign that would require drivers to slow to 25 miles per hour.

"I know we have a major thoroughfare through there where people drive faster than they should, and that has been a constant problem," he said.

Either way, said Melito, she believes nothing will change until a traffic signal is installed.

"People are dying at these intersections now," she said. "We have a culture around here of top speed, and we have such a population density that we have a real problem."