Every now and then, a politician becomes forever known for one unfortunate statement. For George H.W. Bush, it was “Read my lips: No new taxes.” For Bill Clinton, it was “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” For Mayor Justin Wilson, it may end up being, “We cannot do this again.”
Wilson had the very last word in the debate before City Council’s fateful 4-3 Seminary Road vote on September 14th: “We cannot do this again. This kind of knock-down drag-out on each road in the City. We just cannot do this again.” For him, it was too long, too hard on Council and City staff. And it was all the citizens’ fault.
Yet, Wilson’s own machinations led to both the protracted length and the contentious nature of the process. It started with his blind commitment to narrowing arterial roads through a Complete Streets program. Then, leading up to the mid-2018 announcement of the Seminary Road project, he repeatedly dismissed valid citizen concerns about congestion. He just thought Central Alexandria residents were being parochial.
Subsequent delays in project rollout were mainly due to overwhelming community opposition, playing out prominently in three well-attended meetings between T&ES and residents of Seminary Hill and other Central/West End neighborhoods. Neither the mayor nor T&ES expected such push back. Instead of scrapping the project, they kept delaying it.
Not long before the Council vote, Wilson met with a number of civic association presidents. When asked whether it mattered that 13 civic associations opposed the road diet, he remarked, “If 99 percent of people wanted me to do something stupid, I wouldn’t do it.” The leaders left feeling impressed only by the mayor’s condescension and dismissiveness. Retaining four lanes certainly doesn’t look stupid now.
Throughout, the mayor was not transparent or straight with the community. His messaging was all over the place: It’s about 37 annual deaths (not factual). A missing sidewalk (not needed). Buffers for pedestrians (didn’t happen where needed). Safety for all users (seems worse). Now, Wilson is saying that it was really about creating impediments to non-resident cut-through commuters so they would keep to the interstates. Those same impediments are now hindering residents’ own mobility.
To many, it seems that the mayor was orchestrating the lengthy and contentious process all along. Case in point: At the final community meeting in May, T&ES Director Yon Lambert announced that the process would now include a City Council vote. This rendered the already delayed Traffic Board hearing meaningless and delayed the process again from June to September. Does anyone really believe that Yon Lambert made that decision without political intervention? We all now know what came next.
No, we cannot do this again. We cannot again elect leaders who think they are always right, ignore overwhelming community opposition, twist facts and spin public opinion, divide the community, and care more about burnishing their political credentials to outside parties than preserving the quality of life in our neighborhoods.