Opinion: Commentary: How To Make Parkway Safer?

Opinion: Commentary: How To Make Parkway Safer?

On July 11, over 150 people attended a National Park Service (NPS) meeting to share comments on NPS’s safety study and the future of the southern section of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Del. Paul Krizek, U.S. Rep. Don Beyer and I have been asking for a safety study for four years and so far NPS has produced excellent information.

I have lived about two blocks from the Parkway most of my life and significant changes have occurred. The Defense Department moved 15,000 new employees to Fort Belvoir after 2005 and it has proven to be a real tipping point. More specifically, many people who live in Maryland and worked at Walter Reed Medical Center now come across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and take the Parkway south to the Walker Gate. In the evening rush hour, they race north and switch to Fort Hunt Road to access I-495 gridlocking Fort Hunt Road.

New traffic navigation applications such as Google Maps and Waze have highlighted to drivers what many of us have known for years – the Parkway is a quick (and scenic) substitute for U.S. 1. Just look at the cut-through traffic and backups on Sherwood Hall Lane through Gum Springs.

From my perspective, most of the Parkway’s problems are caused by increased traffic volumes, excessive speeds and left turns that are especially dangerous. The Park Service’s initial statistics support this view.

According to their studies, almost everyone speeds. A shocking 70-80% of drivers speed and NPS did not even measure speeds at the 35-mph stretch between Belle Haven Road and Belleview Boulevard. Three of nine major intersections generate about 50% of crashes — Belleview Boulevard, Morningside Lane and Belle Haven Road.

Limited traffic gaps contribute to collisions. Drivers need about an eight-second gap in traffic to safely execute a turn. The NPS data shows, for example, at Collingwood Road, there are gaps greater than eight seconds about 25% of the time in the morning and about 40% of the time in the afternoon. However, at Belleview, in the morning, an eight-second gap exists about 5% of the time and 25% of the time in afternoons. Traffic builds during the rushes and creates collisions.

NPS found maximum morning traffic queues of 21 cars at Belle Haven Road and nine cars at Collingwood Road while evening maximum queues were only about 13 and three cars.

The big question now is, what will we do? First, it is very important to understand that the Parkway, which opened in 1932, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was intended as a scenic drive that integrated natural areas and preserved scenic vistas. Congress created it explicitly as a memorial to George Washington, part of Washington, D.C.’s monumental core and a grand gateway to Mount Vernon Estate as a memorial to the nation’s first president. It was never intended to be a commuter thoroughfare or to accommodate high speeds.

The National Historic Preservation Act imposes significant legal protections that restrict major structural changes to the road to preserve its historic integrity as directed by Congress. Many will recall that the Federal Highway Administration was forced to reroute U.S. 1 100 yards to the south because of Woodlawn Mansion’s federally-protected, historic status. Given these legal constraints, changes like adding lanes, traffic circles, new bridges and guardrails are unlikely options.

However, NPS is considering “traffic diets” — restriping intersections to narrow the road to one lane in each direction to provide turn lanes. They are also examining speed cameras, turn restrictions, and maybe a stoplight or two.

People move to our area to enjoy the Potomac River, the Mount Vernon Trail and the Parkway. Many consider it a privilege to live near Mount Vernon. The Parkway is a road within a national park, an important natural and national resource. We must now all work together to come up with sensible solutions.

NPS will accept comments through Aug. 21. I have created a survey and a comment form to capture feedback. I will forward all comments that I receive on to NPS. Please complete it on my blog – The Dixie Pig – at scottsurovell.blogspot.com or at http://bit.ly/GWPkwyStudy.