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More Metro, More Buses, Safer Sidewalks

Residents share transportation gripes and proposals at a public forum on transportation

Dean Amel is tired of waiting for four trains to pass at the Ballston Metro stop each morning before a train arrives with enough space for him to board.

“Why can’t they start some of the trains at Ballston so people don’t have to wait so long before they can get on,” Amel said.

Jim Campbell is irate that sidewalks in his neighborhood are often hazardous to navigate and resemble a combat zone.

“Every sidewalk I seem to walk on is cracked, or has a fire hydrant or broken telephone pole,” Campbell said. “My wife nearly broke her back stepping on a collapsed parking meter.”

More than thirty other Arlington residents had the opportunity to voice their transportation grievances and recommendations last week, during a public forum organized by county officials in charge of rewriting Arlington’s transportation guidelines.

Participants at the meeting, held last Tuesday evening at the Arlington Central Library, proposed new strategies to improve the efficiency of the bus system, enhance pedestrian safety and combat congestion.

For the past year Arlington’s government has been working to update its Master Transportation Plan, which provides a framework of how the transport system should develop over the next 25 years, subsequently determining the county’s funding priorities.

A 25-member Plenary Group, consisting of representatives from citizen associations, business partnerships and advocacy organizations, is advising the county’s Transportation Commission on the MTP. Its members orchestrated the discussion group so they could gauge the concerns of the public — the concerns voiced include the need for more frequent Metro service, refurbished roads and greater facilitation of north-south movement in the county.

“People here tonight gave excellent suggestions and I’m pleased to see they are sharing many of the same goals we have identified,” said Peter Owen, chairman of the Transportation Commission.

ARLINGTON FACES many transportation challenges in the coming decades, as it struggles to retain its “urban village” ambience while functioning as a gateway community for commuters. More than 70 percent of Arlington residents work outside the county, and 160,000 people commute inside its borders everyday.

The county’s population is expected to increase from just under 200,000 in 2005 to 250,000 in the year 2030, and the county will gain more than 80,000 jobs in that time span.

Most of Arlington’s road infrastructure was built between the 1930s and 1950s and streets are starting to degenerate after decades of wear-and-tear. The current backlog of maintenance needed on local streets is estimated at $4 million, according to a study released by Kimley-Horn and Associates, a consultancy.

Every year the county government repairs numerous streets, sidewalks and water and sewer systems, said Dennis Leach, Arlington’s Urban Transportation Director. He agreed with forum participants who said too many roads still exist with gravel shoulders and many streets lack proper sidewalks. Most streets in Arlington are neither urban nor suburban, Leach said, and therefore lack both the generous sidewalks found in most cities and the wide avenues popular in suburban districts. This means Arlington has both daunting road and pedestrian hurdles to overcome.

“We’re shifting the focus to balance access and safety,” Leach said. “The focus is to make the community more walkable and bike accessible.”

Residents at the meeting called for those shaping the MTP to better protect pedestrians and turn Arlington into a more foot-friendly environment.

“Drivers need better identification of what pedestrian crossings they need to stop for,” David Falksen told the crowd, which split into small discussion groups for half of the two-hour event to brainstorm ways to improve the transportation system.

Other participants requested an educational program to inform drivers about pedestrian’s right of way. This is would reduce accidents in the county and encourage more people to walk to retail centers, said Bill Braswell.

ANOTHER MAJOR GRIEVANCE of those attending the forum was the lack of reliable bus service during weekends and off-peak hours. Residents suggested the county increase bus frequency during those periods, so more people could use public transportation to run errands, go shopping or eat out.

“Public transportation only works if it is convenient and easy to use,” said Peter Fallen, who is a member of the transit Plenary Group. “People are not going to take the bus if they have to make three connections.”

Others suggested Arlington provide more reliable information on bus locations so users could better plot their course. Jason Rylander proposed expanding bus seating capacity and adding more room in the rear for wheelchair users and baby strollers.

Residents said it was difficult for them to travel from north to south, or vice-versa, in the county. Fallon said it is easier for him to drive from his north Arlington home to McLean than it is to get down to Columbia Pike or Shirlington because of the congestion on Glebe Road and other arteries.

“If we’re going to have a greater Columbia Pike area we must improve the roads to get people down there,” Fallon said.

Government officials acknowledged they needed to come up with better solutions for north-south congestion and said it was an issue they would address during future meetings of the Plenary Group.

Many of the participants were vehemently against the proposed widening of Interstate 66 within the beltway, which would further disrupt abutting neighborhoods. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates nearly 150,000 vehicles traverse the route every day and at rush hours the crowded highway often resembles a parking lot.

Jerry Kilgore, the Republican candidate for governor, has publicly supported the widening of the road. Residents gathered at the forum beseeched officials to fund public transportation projects to alleviate the traffic conditions.

“It’s like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, you’re never going to get there,” said Peter Harnick. “No matter how many lanes you add it is just going to fill up. Widening is a dead-end strategy.”