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New Traffic, New Problems?

Two-way traffic is back downtown, and only time will tell if the new system is working.

For the first time in over 30 years, cars traveled east on North Street, Saturday, Aug. 5, as the city moved forward with one of its projects designed to revitalize the downtown area.

Crews began changing signals, signs and road stripes the evening of Friday, Aug. 4, and came out ahead of schedule when North Street’s conversion to two-way traffic was complete by early Saturday afternoon. City officials were not planning on opening the street until at least Saturday night, and were pleasantly surprised at the quickness of the switch.

“Everything is running smooth,” said Phil Thiessen, city police officer. “North Street is open and running pretty good.”

Officials set up a tent in the Old Town Hall public parking lot to answer questions about the projects. City Manager Robert Sisson was there with the blue prints of the project, but said people hadn’t been stopping by the booth. He said everyone was well-informed by a pamphlet sent out to businesses and residents throughout the city.

“People are just learning the system,” said Sisson. “It’s too early to know of any problems yet.”

The switch from two-way to one-way traffic in the early 1970s was to make the city more of a thoroughfare, said Mayor Robert Lederer. Now with the construction of a mixed-use shopping and business area called Old Town Village, Lederer said officials want to make the city a destination, not just something to pass by on the way home from work.

"Our goal is to return a sense of place to Old Town Fairfax," said Lederer. "From that standpoint, I think it's going to be very successful."

Main Street was undergoing its switch to two-way traffic as cars were directed onto North Street while construction continued into the evening. Some downtown visitors had no idea the project was going on, even after the city sent out a flyer detailing the time and locations of the road closures and construction sites.

Doug Cox was walking through Old Town with his family, and said they came up University Drive and saw the construction crews at work. He said his family was not aware of all the "brouhaha" going on downtown. Dave Basye, working on the signals for the Phillip C. Clarke electrical company, said he thinks the project might be too ambitious for the city’s roads.

“Wait till they get the cars out here,” said Basye. “It’s going to be a mess.”

The streets are narrow, and the new lanes leave little room for error, said Basye. As he pointed to the intersection of Main Street and University Drive, he said it would be impossible to have a large truck turning from the right lane without squeezing out the space left over in other lanes. Basye said it should be interesting to see whether the city decides to change back to one-way traffic after a few weeks of this new system.

And switching back is not out of the question, said Sisson and Mayor Robert Lederer at a July City Council meeting. If the new two-way roads turn out to be a disaster, there is nothing stopping the city from going back in and reversing the whole process.

"There's going to need to be a lot of fine-tuning," said Lederer. The main problem Lederer said he has spotted thus far, is eastbound traffic on Main Street. Before the switch, people were used to driving straight through downtown on Main Street. Now that it is a two-way street, there are half the amount of eastbound lanes, but cars haven't made the switch yet. The streets are now designed for 75 percent of that traffic to turn left onto North Street and 25 percent to continue through on Main just as before. Lederer said the opposite is happening, creating a lot of gridlock on Main Street and almost no traffic on North.

"It's [Main Street] not designed to handle the amount of traffic its experiencing," said Lederer. "If you turn left on North Street [right now], you zip through downtown."

After the weekend construction wrapped up, the Monday commute became the first test of the two-way streets. Jo Ormesher, city marketing manager, said there were some backups, but said it was expected because of the newness of the change. City drivers were able to test it out about 24 hours ahead of schedule, said Ormesher, since both Main and North Streets were fully operational by Sunday morning, Aug. 6.

One thing that might prove to be problematic, said Ormesher, was the on street parking still in place on Main Street. Keeping the parking meant narrower lanes for the two-way switch, and she said city officials might look to change that in the future.

“This is something they had 30 years ago, and it worked then,” said Ormesher.