How did a simple, routine maintenance project of paving a few blocks of one Alexandria’s busiest streets suddenly morph into such a controversy? And how did it veer from its original purposes?
The street in question is Seminary Road, from Howard Street to Quaker Lane. City Hall was the venue on June 24 for more than five hours of spirited debate, with 68 speakers. It was under the auspices of the city’s Parking and Traffic Board, under the direction of the Transportation and Environmental Services Division (TES).
From the beginning of the TES focus on Seminary Road in the fall of 2018, there had never been any dispute among the public about the immediate need to pave this street, where 20,000 cars travel through on a daily basis. Similarly, there was wide citizen consensus that some pedestrian safety improvements would be welcome along Seminary with striped crosswalks, especially near schools, churches/temples and the hospital, along with improved signage.
But somehow the topic of paving the street was overshadowed by demands for a bike lane. Where did this come from? Enthusiastic members of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC is an independent, non-city sanctioned entity) spearheaded the charge. TES Director Yon Lambert noted that an estimated 2.5% of Alexandria’s population of 160,000 people ride a bike to work. But there are no statistics stating that their “work” is only in Old Town Alexandria, and not in other parts of the city or in neighboring jurisdictions.
The main factor in riding a bike to work is not the street you take, but whether there is a shower available once you reach work. No one wants to sit at their desk all day long, next to a sweaty cyclist. By its configuration and traffic flow, Seminary is not a good choice. We don’t need to revamp the street; we need to change the route. Cyclists could safely opt to use Holmes Run Parkway, where they are not competing with cars as they head to work.
Seminary Road is a West End issue, but, geographically, five of the seven members of the Parking Board live in Old Town and one lives in Arlandria, all in the East End. The one West End Board member could not attend this meeting and thus did not vote.
Why was such a crucial decision for the city’s overall traffic management plan submitted to this small board instead of going directly to the City Council? I am a former member of the Traffic Board and usually the docket includes more mundane things like driveways, curb cuts, installation of parking machines and creating parking districts.
Another aspect made public at the hearing was that three of the seven Parking Board members are all actively involved in BPAC. Local resident Frank Putzu noted that the City Attorney’s office had been questioned about potential “conflicts of interest” for those affiliated with the city’s boards and commissions who are publicly affiliated with a group involved on an issue on which they may have to vote. Should they be required to recuse themselves from such votes?
Putzu said the City Attorney’s office said its interpretation of the guidelines were that they only applied to financial conflicts, not ethical ones. Putzu disputed that. He cited Alexandria’s 2016 Ethical Guidelines for Council, staff and board and commission appointees.
Another disclosure was that the city’s deputy fire chief on June 3 had voiced serious reservations on the proposed elimination by TES of the four lanes. He questioned the department’s ability to handle emergencies in a timely fashion. But an email made public for the first time at the hearing, dated June 24, from the fire chief, offered a conflicting viewpoint.
Board members asked that this correspondence be made available to the board and to the public. It also requested relevant discussions with Alexandria INOVA Hospital officials and the police department about future configurations on Seminary Road.
Similarly, some of the speakers at the June 24 hearing said that cutting down the lanes would reduce speed. Owen Curtis, an expert in transportation, said the opposite was true. Several speakers noted that better police enforcement was the way to deal with speeding, not cutting lanes, especially in the wake of increased density coming from proposed Trans Urban exits off I-395 to Seminary Road as well as an increased density from residential and commercial future projects.
Attached to the Docket Item # 9 was the TES Report on Seminary Road, and it offered a selective inclusion on limited outreach efforts to residents on Seminary Road’s future. No mention is made in this report of the standing-room-only meeting on May 30 at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. There was overwhelming opposition to the TES Plan in this two-hour session.
Nor did the report include the overwhelming support from more than 1,200 signatories to an online petition for retention of four lanes on Seminary Road. Meeting participants criticized the city for not requiring signatories to list a local address. Thus, some non-Alexandria residents signed the petition.
At the end of the lengthy session, Parking Board members William Schuyler, Ann Tucker and James Lewis voted to recommend to the City Council for its consideration the retention of four lanes on Seminary Road. They also supported additional improved safety features to pedestrian crosswalks and the retention of the current “No Right Turn on Red When Pedestrians are Present” regulation for cars going east on Seminary and turning right at Quaker Lane. Those opposing the motion were Kevin Beekman and Casey Kane.
The City Council will consider the recommendations when it resumes its sessions in September.
Prior to that, TES should revise its public and website report on Seminary Road, and include data from the citizen input at the May 30 session, along with the petition signatures.
The report needs to correct any false assumptions that Seminary Road is “a very dangerous part of the city,” which is not supported by the documented facts. In the TES five-year survey from 2013 to 2018, there were 31 car accidents, and one of those accidents was caused by a deer, according to the report. That would be an average of six accidents a year, versus its high volume of cars on Seminary Road during that period.
TES needs to realize that one size does not fit all when it comes to the “Complete Street” dictum.
Kathleen M. Burns