Making a Project U-Turn?

Making a Project U-Turn?

City contemplates proposal to change course of a VDOT project that could impact nearby shopping center.

The City of Fairfax and the Virginia Department of Transportation refer to the Pickett Road and Main Street intersection road project an "improvement," but adjacent property managers are wondering what the so-called improvements are going to do to their shopping centers.

If the Virginia Department of Transportation follows the current design plans already underway, traffic and congestion could ease through the intersection of Pickett Road and Route 236/Main Street. VDOT began construction near the intersection last month, and now the shopping center managers want to add in their own designs, at the expense of the city.

Combined Properties, the property managers of the shopping centers on both northern corners of the intersection, want the City of Fairfax to help them stop VDOT from eliminating a northbound left turn lane on Pickett Road. The lane is an entrance into the Turnpike Shopping Center, and Mark Looney, an attorney representing Combined Properties, said his clients have conducted engineering and traffic studies about the impact of its loss.

"We estimate that 40 percent of all the trips in and out of the center come through that entrance," said Looney. "It’s a fairly significant impact."

So, Combined Properties is proposing to partially fund a road-widening project at Pickett Road in order to keep the turn lane, asking that the city to cover the remaining cost. The property owners would dedicate a portion of their property from the Pickett Road Shopping Center, on the east side of Pickett Road, for the project. Alex Verzosa, the city’s transportation director, said the city could move forward with the project without VDOT, since no federal money would be used; however, the city can’t stop VDOT from completing what it has already started. City Manager Bob Sisson told councilmembers that VDOT probably wouldn’t begin that portion of the project for another 30 days, so little time remains to make a decision.

"We all agree we’ve got essentially 30 days to figure this out and make it work," said Looney. "We’ve discussed some scenarios … there are timing issues and some practical issues. How do you go about and basically change the design of what VDOT is already going to do?"

Looney said his clients suggested paying about a third of the cost — approximately $1.1 million — not including the cost of the city’s condemnation process at market value costs, which Mayor Robert Lederer said could be significant.

"I don’t think the city should pay a dime," said Councilmember Jeffrey Greenfield. "This benefits [Combined Properties], they ought to pay for it."

Sisson said the city wants to be a good partner with its retail developments by not designing projects that adversely impact them; however, he said the city is also responsible for keeping traffic moving. He agreed that the city’s level of commitment, if it chooses to commit at all, is not an easy decision.

"We want to take them at their word that it has a serious impact on their shopping center," said Sisson. "We’re trying to develop an understanding if the shopping center is impacted."

COMBINED PROPERTIES had been working closely with Verzosa, but City Council and the Sisson were not involved in the process. Around the same time VDOT awarded the contracting bid and crews began work, Combined Properties was just wrapping up its engineering study, said Sisson. Now that work has begun, VDOT does not want to hold it up any longer because it’s so severely overdue, said Sisson.

The project would really improve the flow on Pickett Road in both directions, said Verzosa, at the Tuesday, May 8 council meeting. And for the people traveling eastbound on Main Street who are used to turning left onto Pickett, and then left into the Turnpike shopping center, a U-turn at the Main Street and Pickett Road intersection would be encouraged as the alternative. The U-turn would allow those who miss the Fair City Mall entrance another chance to get into the shopping center.

Councilmember Joan Cross said that encouraging U-turns at such a busy intersection seems outrageous. But Sisson said the U-turn on Main Street is a great thing.

"It gives great flexibility to motorists," he said. "Those kinds of built-in flexibilities are what we need more of in transportation design."

Verzosa is meeting with VDOT to discuss alternatives, and Combined Properties also has several meetings scheduled with city staff. Sisson said several more hours of work is needed before the city can decide if it should play a financial role in the project. Without the city’s help, Combined Properties would not likely pursue it.