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Votes

Taming Hunter Mill

Feasibility study for traffic calming will finally be initiated.

<bt>Following years of discussion, a feasibility study evaluating options for traffic calming on Hunter Mill Road is about to get underway. The Virginia Department of Transportation had committed to the study in early 2002. When the traffic calming project was publicly announced last October, the initial study was planned to be completed by the end of winter.

A Traffic Calming Committee, consisting of members appointed by the supervisors of the four districts through which the road runs, have been working on setting goals for the project and pushing it along for about four years, since the state earmarked funding for it.

The neighboring communities support modifying the narrow, winding but heavily traveled road without widening or straightening it. The Hunter Mill corridor, home to numerous historic sites, has been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places; the road itself is built on a path that predates the country. But speeding has become a problem as has pulling out from side streets and crossing on foot or bicycle.

A contractor has now been lined up and started some preliminary gathering of data. The contract is expected to be signed by the end of the week.

"We'll be up and running on day one," said Tom Flynn, transportation program manager at Draper Aden Associates, the engineering consulting firm being awarded the contract. He said the study should take about six months. "If all goes well, we should be absolutely, 100 percent finished and done by September," said Flynn.

THE WORK, for which $75,000 has been set aside, will be a relatively loose set of suggestions for measures to be taken along the length of the road to prevent speeding and keep traffic flowing smoothly. Specific suggestions and drawings may be made for some key intersections.

Two strategies to be considered are roundabouts and splitters, said Flynn. A roundabout would require expanding an intersection and placing a large, circular island at its center, around which traffic would flow, so that vehicles can enter and then exit the intersection from all directions without having to stop.

"Roundabouts are a clear option because they're such efficient and safe traffic control compared to something like a traffic signal," said Flynn.

Splitters are installed in the center of the road, like medians, but are curved in such a way that a driver would feel uncomfortable passing them faster than the speed for which they are designed. They also provide a safe place in the middle of the road for pedestrians to wait for traffic to clear, and they can be landscaped for the sake of appearance.

Flynn pointed out that both constructions control traffic without stopping it, in order to allow for the heavy volume of traffic on Hunter Mill — about 19,000 vehicles per day.

Jim Van Zee, who is heading up the project from the state's perspective as the director of regional planning and services for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC), said measures such as stop signs and speed bumps "aren't going to be an appropriate solution," given how busy the road is. "Part of the frustration is not being able to move, so when they get an open space, drivers want to hit the gas pedal," said Van Zee. He said the project aims to maintain the flow of traffic while softening it.

Van Zee mentioned that road texture is a tool that may be considered. Rumble strips are a possibility, as are areas of brick pavement, which "give a visual cue to the driver to slow down."

Flynn said a bike lane or bike trail may also be considered since Hunter Mill is part of Northern Virginia's Regional Bike Plan.

DRAPER ADEN will be assisted by Michael Wallwork who was hired indirectly by the Hunter Mill Defense League to do some initial studies on the road some years ago. Bruce Bennett, who is a member of both the league and the Traffic Calming Committee, said residents along the Hunter Mill raised funds to hire a contractor to study the road, and the contractor had pulled in Wallwork, a traffic calming engineer from Australia, where roundabouts are commonplace. Bennett said Wallwork recommended Draper Aden for the feasibility study. He is regarded by engineers and universities alike as a leading authority on traffic calming, and roundabouts in particular, and has worked with Draper Aden on several roundabouts the company has constructed in Virginia, including one on the Virginia Tech campus, three on a corporate office park in Goochland County and one in Gloucester County that Flynn said was probably the first two-lane roundabout in the state.

Bennett feels the team being contracted is highly qualified and also includes a landscaper, "so we're looking forward to some real positive changes out there."

According to Karen Washburn of Great Falls, who has been involved in traffic calming efforts on Georgetown Pike, the lag time on these projects usually happens in between the contract work, when proponents are trying to get the next phase off the ground.

She said the feasibility study for the Pike, which at 14 miles is about twice the length of Hunter Mill Road, took about a year and a half, but that was the fastest it could be done. "Once the consultant came on board, we worked as fast as anybody could work," she said.

However, it was when the time came to get state funding for the actual construction, the real hold-up happened. Because the paperwork sat in limbo until the rules for allotting state funds changed, she said, the project has been delayed for over five years. She said the matter is expected to be addressed at April's first Board of Supervisors meeting.

Other challenges Washburn named included crosswalks, which she said are unexpectedly difficult to plan and cost about $10,000 to create because of the special paint that must be used. Also several state and county officials who had become invested in the lengthy process retired or were transferred during its course.

ADDITIONAL CROSSWALKS may be considered for Hunter Mill, as well as some sort of protection for the existing crosswalk where the Washington and Old Dominion Trail crosses the road. A cyclist was hit on that crosswalk earlier this month.

Washburn also pointed out that, while Hunter Mill is shorter than Georgetown Pike, it also lacks the natural traffic calming element of sharp, winding curves which are present on the Pike.

Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence), who has been supportive of the effort on Hunter Mill, said she is pleased the project is getting underway. "It's time to actually get something started," she said.

The road is currently planned to be widened to four lanes between Chain Bridge and Vale roads according to the Transportation Policy Plan, but Smyth said a recommendation to amend the plan to confine four-laning to the south of Lewis Knolls Drive will come before the Board of Supervisors in June, when the plan will be reviewed.

Once the feasibility study has been completed, its recommendations will be passed along to the state, and the next step will be to secure funding for an engineering study that will lay out specific plans to modify the road.