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Slowing Traffic

No fireworks, but big hopes for completed Hunter Mill Road study.

After more than four years of work, the Hunter Mill Road Traffic Calming Committee is about to disband, its goal accomplished. A study conceived in 2002 to examine possible traffic-calming measures for the road — some of which are not typical traffic solutions in northern Virginia — was finally delivered to the state legislature last week.

"We'll sunset the group and consider the next steps," said committee chairman Bruce Bennett of Oakton. The nine members of the group were selected by the supervisors of the four districts along the winding, 7.2-mile, two-lane road that has become a major traffic artery between Reston and Oakton. They were assigned to make recommendations, based on the needs of the road's residents, to guide the study, for which Del. Vince Callahan (R-34) secured authorization in 2002 and funding in 2003, and which was contracted out last year.

"It's finally been done, and I'm not sure yet what all of the recommendations are," Callahan said last Thursday. A copy of the report had just arrived on his desk that afternoon. Getting the study done, he said, "was a problem for the last couple of years. I hope all of the parties involved are satisfied with the results."

Among the recommendations of the study, which was conducted by engineering firm Draper Aden and roundabout expert Michael Wallwork, are 12 roundabouts, four splitters, three raised medians and a crosswalk. Roundabouts consist of a small, circular island in the center of an intersection, around which traffic flows counter-clockwise, while splitters are like large, oblong medians, around which both lanes curve. Both often include trees and other landscaping.

The report also recommends widening the one-lane bridge over Colvin Run and constructing on-road bike paths and, ultimately, off-road shared-use paths along the length of the road.

If all of these projects are realized, it will not be for several years, at least.

"I THINK IT'S MORE of an implementation issue than a planning issue," said Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence). "I'd say the biggest thing we need to plan for is funding."

She noted that Chevy Chase Bank is currently funding engineering work for a roundabout at the entrance of the future Oakton Community Park, as part of an agreement that allowed the bank to build a branch up the road from the site. A rough estimate for the cost of installing a roundabout at the site ran about $350,000, said Smyth. This is less expensive than an earlier estimate for the cost of adding lanes at the intersection, which would have been the alternative.

Since the Park Authority was going to have to restructure the intersection, she said, she decided to take the opportunity to request a roundabout. This is likely to be the primary means for implementing the rest of the recommendations: requesting improvements as development proffers or when other projects are undertaken along the road. "It's not going to happen all at one time. That's for sure," said Smyth. "It's going to be a piece here and a piece there."

Bennett agreed. "We have to take a long-term view, as far as getting some of these things implemented," he said. Bennett said he would like to see the recommendations incorporated into the county's Comprehensive Plan, although Smyth said she was not sure whether this was necessary.

The report is also "adding a lot of information to the whole argument about traffic-calming," said Jim Van Zee, director of Regional Planning Services at the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, which handled the contracting of the study. He noted that the report supported the idea that measures like roundabouts and splitters could move traffic along for a lower cost than widening, straightening and flattening roads, and without the need to seek much additional right-of-way. "I was a little skeptical when the study started," said Van Zee.

Others had been skeptical as well. At community meetings, residents voiced numerous questions and concerns but ultimately endorsed the idea. When the study's findings were presented to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, several board members expressed surprise at the increased levels of service that were expected to result from the proposed changes.

"I think what it's done is, it's given us another tool, another way we can look at, to manage traffic," said Smyth, noting that the methods would impose minimal impact on the environment and on historic sites like those that dot the Hunter Mill corridor.

CALLAHAN SAID Hunter Mill Road was "another of the gems we have in Northern Virginia." He was approached in 2001 by members of the Hunter Mill Defense League, a citizens' group of which Bennett is also a member, who had learned of a traffic-calming study conducted on Georgetown Pike and wanted to see a similar study done on Hunter Mill. "It's a very historic road, and I wanted to do everything I could to keep it in that status," said Callahan.

After he managed to secure $75,000 in funding for the study, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority was given the responsibility of hiring a contractor. However, the authority was unable to complete the study "for a variety of reasons," according to a memo to Callahan from the organization, and the task was shifted to the regional commission at the end of 2004. The commission then had some trouble settling on a contractor and, in early 2006, selected Draper Aden, which subcontracted Wallwork.

Meanwhile, the Traffic Calming Committee hashed out its recommendations for maintaining Hunter Mill Road's historic, residential character. Some suggestions fell outside the purview of Draper Aden's study. One such recommendation was that the entire length of the road should remain two lanes wide, although the stretch from Vale Road south was designated four lanes wide on the Comprehensive Plan. The Board of Supervisors upheld the request, altering the Comprehensive Plan last summer.

A recommendation that trucks carrying hazardous materials be banned from the road, however, was rejected just over a year ago by the Virginia Department of Transportation, after the department conducted a study on the matter. The study was called into question, though, and Del. Steve Shannon (D-35) has asked that another study be done.