Seminary Road is about to go on a diet, slimming down from four lanes to two.
Last weekend, the Alexandria City Council narrowly approved a plan to remove two traffic lanes from a stretch of Seminary Road. The “road diet” will create new bike lanes and improve pedestrian safety along a busy stretch in the West End. The four-to-three vote was cast Saturday night after a contentious day-long public hearing.
“I drive my car and need my car as well,” said Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennet-Parker. “But I have noticed and learned that bike lanes serve as a buffer for pedestrians, even if there’s no one in that bike lane.”
For council members, it was a debate between keeping Seminary Road to four lanes or reducing it to two lanes plus a turn lane in the middle. Bicycle and pedestrian enthusiasts argued the road diet would make the road safer and more accessible.
Diet detractors worry about traffic congestion and emergency-vehicle access. In the end, elected officials sided with advocates for bicycle and pedestrian improvements after a yearlong controversial process that divided the city.
“We are not a small French village,” said public speaker James Ray, who lives nearby. “No one rides their bike to work to get a baguette. We need to get around.”
Dissenters worried that a road diet would impede hospital and emergency vehicle access. However, Inova Hospital did not oppose the road diet, taking no position on the controversial issue. The Alexandria Fire Department said they needed 11 feet of clearance, as fire apparatus vehicles are ten feet wide need lots of leeway. City officials said that the road diet would address those needs, as each lane would be 11 feet wide.
“When you expand roads, you can attract more drivers, but when you cut roads and invest in better alternatives, traffic will adjust,” said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a supporter of the road diet. “We will still be driving, but the more people we have not driving because of alternatives will be safer and better for us.”
Concern for a potential lawsuit lingered after the council approval of the road diet. The Seminary Hill Civic Association, among 12 other association opponents of the road diet, has considered filing a lawsuit. However, even opponents of the road diet acknowledge that the council went through all protocol, and that it would be difficult to prove that they acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” way.
“It seems to me that we probably wouldn’t win,” said Jack Sullivan, former president Seminary Hill Association. “In this city, you essentially need a smoking gun of some kind to win, and I think it would be a lot of money spent to no effect.
Those against the road diet had a sense that the civic process is broken and that the City Council was not listening to their constituents, a concern that was repeatedly outlined during hours of public testimony. Some warned they would vote out council members who voted for the road diet.
“To go against the clear wishes of so many Alexandrians would be to tell us that you know what’s better for us than we ourselves,” said Alexis Sargent, a graduate of St Stephens & St Agnes.. “I think that’s something we will be considering the next election cycle.”
City officials say work on repaving Seminary would begin this fall, and transforming it into a Complete Street should take four to six weeks.
Voted in Favor of Road Diet
Mayor Justin Wilson
Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker
Councilwoman Del Pepper
Councilwoman Canek Aguirre
Voted Against Road Diet
Councilman John Taylor Chapman
Councilwoman Amy Jackson
Councilman Mo Seifeldein