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Residents Call for More Funding for Street Improvements

Rising construction costs have led County Manager to ask for no new funding this year for pedestrian and neighborhood traffic-calming projects.

Is Arlington in danger of losing its title as one of the nation’s most pedestrian-friendly communities?

That’s what some residents are fretting, after County Manager Ron Carlee announced that no funding for neighborhood traffic calming or WALKArlington projects will be included in this fall’s bond referendum. In contrast, both of the programs received $1 million as part of the county’s bond package two years ago, and $2 million each in 2002.

The cut in funds to such popular initiatives, as well as to the Neighborhood Conservation program, are due to rapidly escalating construction costs that have caused the county to reallocate money to complete other building projects, Carlee said.

The county has begun to rethink the scope of its capital improvement planning, and has decided to finish projects that have already been approved — such as the Cherrydale fire station and Westover library — instead of setting aside new funds for street and sidewalk enhancements.

“Let’s catch up on what commitments we’ve made to get additional resources to finish those projects and then re-look at other projects,” Carlee said during a public hearing late last month on the six-year Capital Improvement Program.

The amount of money for the Neighborhood Conservation program will drop from $10 million in the 2004 bond to $5.9 million this year, and the bulk of that money will go towards completing some of the 62 previously approved projects that are still unfinished.

“We need to get a grip on these costs and build out the existing portion of projects before we take on new ones,” said Chris Nixon, the Neighborhood Conservation Coordinator.

YET SOME Arlington residents have been vocal in their consternation over the lack of new funding for traffic and pedestrian safety improvements.

“These programs have helped us make progress in our neighborhoods,” David Haring, president of the Yorktown Civic Association, said during the May 22 public hearing on the CIP. “If we take the next two years off, the problems will not disappear.”

Haring added that while Arlingtonians are thrilled by new buildings and park facilities, they don’t understand how the county doesn’t possess the “small amount” of money necessary to “repair the crumbling infrastructure adjacent to those projects.”

Kathleen Laird, who lives near the intersection of Ridge Road and S. 23rd Street, said her neighborhood is desperately in need of traffic calming measures to protect children from speeding cars.

“We can’t get streets and sidewalks up to basic safety standards?” she asked the County Board.

The Pedestrian Advisory Committee has called on the five board members to revise the county manager’s CIP and include at least $1 million per year for pedestrian improvements.

“Walking is a key component of Arlington’s success, and as the county becomes ever more dependent on, and linked to, mass transit, we need to have budgetary support for walkable streets,” said Thanna Schemmel, a member of the advisory committee.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD Conservation program is working with communities to cut costs in hopes of having some of the $5.9 million leftover for new initiatives, Nixon said. But she is not willing to “cut corners” so that more communities will have their street lightning or curbs and gutter projects approved.

“These are legacy items that are in there for the next 50 years, so we have to ensure they are done the right way,” Nixon said.

Even if some cost-saving measures are found though, there will still be a large backlog of WALKArlington and traffic-calming projects.

Jeff Sikes, the neighborhood traffic-calming coordinator, estimates that his division has a list of 90 requests for street improvements, but can only undertake planning on approximately eight to 10 a year.

In the past, Sikes’ division has been able to fund most of projects that have come before it, but that may be changing because of the stress construction costs are putting on the county’s budget.

But he is holding out hope that the County Board may heed residents’ call for more money for pedestrian and sidewalk enhancements.

“I don’t know if the board will step in and throw money at these programs, but there is certainly the demand,” Sikes said.