Similar to what John Adams said about facts, orthodoxies are stubborn things. In this decade, Complete Streets and Vision Zero traffic policies have become orthodoxies of Alexandria’s city government. To be sure, a reading of City Council Resolution 2244 reveals that any time a road is to be repaved, there is almost no choice but to make it a “Complete Street.” And it is not truly complete if it does not include bike lanes and promote “road equity” for all users, whatever that means. City Council’s resolution may sound good, but its rigid adherence to these policies may portend a future disaster for traffic flow and mobility in Alexandria.
City Council members should learn the lesson of another orthodoxy held in the 1990s by the elected officials and city manager of that era. Called “Pay-as-You-Go,” the policy mandated that the city never use its AAA-bond rating to fund capital expenditures. Instead it called for paying for expensive school renovations, fire trucks, road improvements, and other large projects from that current year’s operating budget.
This, notwithstanding operating budget limitations, the existence of proven and long-accepted municipal budgeting practices, and the availability of the lowest possible interest rates with a AAA-bond rating in hand.
At the time, those of us who served on the city’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee repeatedly expressed our concerns to City Council and the finance staff that Pay-as-You-Go was mortgaging the future of taxpaying citizens. We believed that the policy would lead to deferral of needed facility renovation and replacement and major infrastructure maintenance projects. Not to mention dramatic increases in tax rates in future years. It all fell on deaf ears. The city manager and finance staff continually maintained that the city had no major needs that would require them to bypass the Pay-as-You-Go policy. Hard stop.
It would become evident in later years that Pay-as-You-Go was disastrous for the city and taxpayers. Larger school, sewer, facility, and road projects were deferred to the 2000s and even the 2010s, or ignored altogether. In fact, we are still living with the impact of the Pay-as-You-Go decade as the population has grown dramatically and residents clamor for large capital expenditures on the one hand, and complain about ever-increasing tax rates on the other.
The similar intransigence of today’s city leaders regarding Complete Streets and Vision Zero promises to mortgage the future of Alexandrians’ quality of life, mostly for the benefit of a small but vocal minority of two-wheeled residents who have advocated for the policies. This is all playing out, yet again, with the proposed narrowing of Seminary Road, a project facing a growing groundswell of opposition from residents throughout Central Alexandria and the West End.
City Council seems unconcerned that narrowing major vehicular arteries has already led to more congestion and — even more concerning to residents — dangerous cut-through traffic on secondary and neighborhood streets. Since these projects comported with their orthodoxies, City Council’s view seems to be "so be it,” despite the higher risks of future gridlock on arterial roads and tragic accidents on secondary and neighborhood streets.
A more thoughtful approach would be to holistically address the need for arterial traffic flow now and in future years. Beyond that, the city could still use Complete Streets as a toolkit for making tactical design decisions, rather than as the current strict rule set that drives bad design decisions. This would also afford City Council and staff the leeway to apply judgment on road redesign projects, truly consider the community’s expectations and preferences, and more seriously consider the longer-term implications of their decisions.
Otherwise, years from now, the city councils of the 2010s may be remembered as the group whose disastrous Complete Streets and Vision Zero orthodoxies changed Alexandria for good. But not in a good way.