On Saturday, September 14th, City Council held its Public Hearing on the road configuration for Seminary Road. The hearing lasted about 8 hours with over 100 speakers on both sides of the issue. In the end, City Council voted 4-3 to reject the recommendation of the Traffic and Parking Board (TPB), which would have retained the existing 4 lanes on Seminary Road with the addition of 2 pedestrian-activated crosswalks. Instead, 4 Council members voted for what is known as Alternative #3, which will reduce the travel lanes by 50% and add bike lanes to replace car lanes. This has always been the option that T&ES staff has strongly advocated, with the support of bike and smart growth lobby groups. As we had understood the process, the Director of T&ES, Yon Lambert, was to present the recommendation of the Traffic and Parking Board to Council as the staff's preferred option, and, as a result of his decision to bring an automatic appeal to Council, would then present the other Alternatives that staff had presented to the community many months ago. But on Saturday, what we heard in the staff's presentation was a cursory description of the TPB's recommendation with what could, at best, be called a lukewarm endorsement, followed by an expansive description of Alternative #3, which the staff had self-rated as the best choice from the time they first presented their Alternatives.
Following the staff's presentation and the 100 public speakers, Councilwoman Amy Jackson put forward a motion to adopt the TPB's recommendation. That motion was seconded by Councilman Mo Seifeldein. Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker very quickly introduced a substitute motion to adopt Alternative #3 instead. That motion was seconded by Councilman Canek Aguirre The vote was then taken on the substitute motion. Voting FOR Alternative #3 (the road diet) were: Mayor Justin Wilson, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Councilman Canek Aguirre, and Councilwoman Del Pepper. Voting AGAINST Alternative #3 were: Councilman John Taylor Chapman, Councilwoman Amy Jackson, and Councilman Mo Seifeldein. So Alternative #3 was adopted as the plan for Seminary Road.
There are a few things to point out. You can watch any and all of the hearing by going to the city's site, www.alexandriava.gov to see the video of the proceedings. You may want to watch the discussion after the last speaker to see how the Council responded at that point. I think it was notable that the hearing demonstrated tremendous passion on both sides as well as robust civic engagement. To me, that says a great deal about our community as a whole. In addition, the discourse was civil. That was all very positive. Unfortunately, as the Council was finishing the docket item, Mayor Wilson proclaimed that we would never do this again. Those were his words and were the same words he had used when he met with leaders of the 13 civic associations. But in the Council Chambers when he said that, there was an audible groan. He said that far too much Council and staff time had been spent on this one stretch of road. He also expressed his deep frustration and said that we needed to change the process for the future in order to avoid this level of discussion and public input again. In that moment, he had a chance to try to bring the divided community back together, but instead he chose to announce his plan to change the process going forward, despite having just achieved the outcome he and staff had long favored.
It was also disconcerting that the Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) spoke out so adamantly in favor of Alternative #3 and against the SHA Alternative. Obviously, it is absolutely their right to do so, but it was nonetheless disappointing after all these years of collaborative work and cooperation. The SHA Alternative that we put forward to the city, which was ignored, contained the recommendation for the two pedestrian-activated crosswalks and speed enforcement that VTS had specifically expressed were their concerns with the roadway. SHA felt that our Alternative was quite responsive to the VTS' genuine concerns for the safety of their community. It is also very important to note that, in fact, at our April 2019 meeting where the SHA Board voted in favor of the Resolution supporting maintaining 4 lanes of roadway, the VTS representative was present and voted on behalf of VTS to support Alternative 4 with the 4 lanes of roadway. For some reason between the time of that vote and the Public Hearing on September 14th, the VTS community decided to change their position, but chose not to discuss it with the SHA Board, since their representative did not attend our June meeting, nor our recent September meeting that took place after our summer recess for July and August. Since the establishment of SHA,VTS has always had a Board seat on our Board, and any resident of the Seminary may be a member of the Seminary Hill Association. All of our meetings are open and residents are encouraged to come and speak out on issues of concern to them. We have never had anyone from VTS come to any of our meetings to say they have felt excluded from our decisions, so it was very disappointing to hear Seminary officials and residents criticize the Association they have been an active part of for decades.
And finally but certainly of great importance, some of the speakers and some on the dais were dismissive of the 13 civic associations from across our city and the Federation of Civic Associations, who came together in support of maintaining 4 lanes on Seminary Road. All of these organizations have served our city well for decades and operate totally on an all-volunteer basis. This coalition and joint effort of these residents and associations have been unprecedented. While we all fully understand that any decision made by a civic association does not mean that 100% of our residents agree with that decision and we have never stated that, it is important to note that this is the way our democracy works. When the SHA Board voted for our Resolution supporting 4 lanes, we did so at a public meeting where all were welcome to attend and speak, as many did. In the end, the Board voted based upon our survey of residents, our observations by attending all community meetings on this project, and statements made to the Board that evening. This is the same process that City Council follows when making their decisions. Council does not poll all 150,000+ residents before each vote they take. They do research, listen to those members of the public who choose to engage in an issue, and then vote on the issue. This is exactly what each of the 13 civic associations and the Federation did when taking a position on Seminary Road. Residents are obviously free to disagree with the position taken by their civic associations as some speakers did on Saturday, but it is also perfectly correct for a civic association to publicly take a position on behalf of their residents on important issues in our community after listening to those who choose to engage with their civic association.
As the President of the Seminary Hill Association, I am proud of the team effort by our Board and the dedication shown during this difficult time. There were many people who worked very hard and under stress by giving up countless hours to attend meetings, researching city documents, emailing staff and Council members, and on and on. It was a big lift, and we should be grateful for their commitment to SHA. Please know that I am deeply appreciative and proud of our Association and the role we played in this historic coalition of civic associations and the Federation. It has been a pleasure to work with the other civic association presidents who joined our effort after responding to the grassroots concerns of their residents. They are an amazing group of civic leaders, and we have all worked well together and are committed to staying in touch on a regular basis. When future issues arise we can get organized and take action. The bonds of friendship with the other leaders across the city have been forged, and I believe that will serve our association and our city well in the future.
Carter Flemming, President, Seminary Hill Association
UPDATE ON SEMINARY ROAD - September 14, 2019
On Saturday, September 14th, the protracted debate about the future configuration of Seminary Road will come to an end at the City Council Public Hearing. City Council will decide whether to put a portion of Seminary Road on what is called a "road diet”. In this case, that means removing 50% of the car travel lanes by reducing the number of lanes from 4 lanes to 2, with a center lane for left turns only. Bike lanes would be added under this proposal.
Seminary Hill Association (SHA) has advocated for retaining 4 lanes on Seminary since the City first proposed a road diet for Seminary. SHA responded to resident concerns about safety by advocating for 2 additional pedestrian-activated crosswalks and increased speed enforcement. SHA wants speed reduction, but not lane reduction. In June, the Alexandria Traffic and Parking Board (TPB) rejected the city alternative and voted 3-2 to recommend to City Council that Seminary Road remain a 4-lane road, with the addition of 2 new HAWK pedestrian-activated crosswalks, as SHA had supported.
SHA began this effort because many of our residents were opposed to the city's plans for Seminary Road and asked us to take a stand. Over the course of the summer, SHA has been joined by an unprecedented 12 additional civic associations whose members also questioned the process that has brought this matter before City Council. It has been so encouraging to see such a grassroots alliance of concerned citizens come together to express our views to our elected officials. Just last week, the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations also endorsed the recommendation of TPB to maintain 4 lanes on Seminary. We appreciate all the input and hard work by residents who have been concerned with the effort to place road diet on a major arterial east-west route.
Yet, proponents of the lane reductions accuse those wanting to retain the 4 lanes of car travel of not caring about safety. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the safety of all our residents has been, and will continue to be, our priority. Staff and bike lobby groups have dismissed studies that refute claims that road diet is a successful tool in dealing with safety issues on high volume roads, and refuse to study or acknowledge safety impacts on our neighborhood streets due to increased cut-through traffic from peak hour congestion on Seminary Road.
According to the city’s own data, this stretch of Seminary Road is ranked as one of the safest streets in our city. Since the adoption of the Vision Zero Plan, this roadway has consistently achieved Vision Zero, a goal that SHA fully supports. What higher standard of safety can a road achieve than that? And yet characterizations of this roadway, both in city presentations and by those desiring bike lanes, have manipulated data encompassing the entire length of Seminary Road to portray this stretch as a high KSI (killed or serious injury) corridor. The unsafe portion of Seminary Road that demands attention is the western area of Seminary, yet this plan does not address the very real safety issues there. Instead, the focus is only on this small stretch of safe roadway.
Proponents of the road diet are supported by well-funded regional bike lobby and smart growth advocates who have relentlessly emailed and tweeted their followers across the entire DMV region, most of whom don’t even know where Seminary Road is, to sign petitions asking our City Council to support the road diet which creates their desired bike lanes. Their petitions make it clear that signers do not have to give their addresses, so that allows people from all over our region to attempt to influence this decision. City staff has stated that non-resident views are as important to them as the views of those living in the area most affected by this plan. If you would like to express your support as an Alexandria resident for the recommendation of the TPB to maintain Seminary Road with 4 travel lanes and 2 pedestrian-activated crosswalks, please click on this link and add your name to the petition that supports Seminary Road as a 4-lane arterial: https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/central-alexandria-citizens-petition. In addition, you may use the city's Call, Click, Connect system to send a message to all of City Council expressing your views.
SHA leadership and members, along with representatives from the 12 other civic associations, will be present at City Hall on Saturday the 14th to testify before Council as they make their decision on Seminary Road. Anyone is welcome to speak before Council by signing up ahead of time online or filling out a speaker's form at City Hall when you arrive at the meeting. We are hopeful that a majority of our City Council will side with the majority of Alexandria residents who want Seminary Road to remain a vital traffic artery for those who, due to the lack of frequent and reliable transit options, must use cars on this roadway to reach their homes, work, schools, and hospital.
The next meeting of the Seminary Hill Association will be Thursday, September 12th at 7:30 p.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill at 3606 Seminary Road. All are welcome to attend. I encourage you to consider joining SHA and signing up to receive our emails. The agenda for the meeting will be posted on this website. I hope you had an enjoyable summer and I look forward to seeing you at one of our meetings in the coming months.
Carter Flemming, President
Seminary Hill Association, Inc.
UPDATE ON SEMINARY ROAD
On Monday, June 24th, at a standing room only meeting in City Council Chambers, the Alexandria Traffic and Parking Board voted 3-2 to recommend that Seminary Road remain a four-lane street, with the addition of two new HAWK pedestrian crosswalks. Board member Ann Tucker made the motion, and board chair William Schuyler, and vice chair Jim Lewis, voted for Ms.Tucker's motion. Board members Kevin Beekman and Casey Kane voted against the proposal. This vote followed a failed motion to recommend city Alternative 3, which would have reduced the car travel lanes from 4 to 3, with the center lane being for left turns only.
As you might remember, Seminary Hill Association had put forward a plan we termed Alternative 4, which maintained 4 lanes of car travel, but provided safety improvements including: reducing the width of those 4 lanes, creating light-activated crosswalks for pedestrians, providing a 3’ buffer on each side of the roadway, and calling for increased speed enforcement along Seminary Road. The Seminary Hill board voted overwhelmingly for this option, and a large majority of our residents expressed support for this alternative. Unfortunately, city staff did not choose to consider this proposal, but instead created what they term a “hybrid” approach combining 2 of their own proposals to change the roadway.
The city's hybrid plan would have narrowed the eastbound car travel lanes from 2 lanes to 1 lane between St. Stephens Road and Zabriskie Lane – a stretch of just 4/10ths of a mile., and would require drivers to make 2 lane changes in this short span, which creates the possibility of car accidents. In this stretch of roadway, they proposed to create an 8’ “shared buffer” space on the sides of the road, create pedestrian crosswalks with “refuge” islands in the middle of the roadway, and alter the signal pattern at the intersection of Quaker Lane. At the intersection of Quaker Lane, the right hand lane would become right turn only onto Quaker, but right turn on red would be prohibited. The left lane would become left turn and through traffic, which means that cars going straight onto Janneys Lane would have to wait behind cars seeking to turn left onto Quaker Lane. The major justification put forward by the city for the loss of an eastbound car travel lane was to make room for the "missing link" of sidewalk on the north side of Seminary Road along the property of the Virginia Theological Seminary. We do not believe this sidewalk, estimated to cost $1.5 million, is justified, given that pedestrians are free to walk through the beautiful Seminary grounds if they wish to reach Quaker Lane on that side of the street. There is an existing sidewalk to Quaker Lane on the south side of Seminary Road.
At the Traffic and Parking Board meeting on June 24th, none of the nearly 70 speakers supported the city's new hybrid plan during the more than 4-hour meeting. Instead, those favoring a "road diet" on Seminary Road advocated for the adoption of the city's previous Alternative 3, which was not recommended to the board by the city. I spoke on behalf of SHA, as did other SHA board members, representatives of other civic associations, and area residents. Those favoring city Alternative 3, which includes bike lanes were in the majority at the meeting, but the board heard our concerns about eliminating car travel lanes, and ultimately voted in agreement with the position of SHA and the other 6 civic associations that have joined with us to support maintaining 4 car travel lanes on Seminary Road, with pedestrian safety improvements.
The next step in this process will be a public hearing before City Council in September. We have not received the final language of the motion that was passed, so we are not certain of the exact recommendation that city staff will present to Council or what modifications they might choose to handle administratively. As soon as we learn more information, I will post it here. We are certain that vigorous efforts will be made to overturn the recommendation of the Traffic and Parking Board, so we will continue to advocate for the position adopted by the board of SHA in April to maintain the 4 lanes of car travel on this stretch of Seminary Road. We will be meeting with Council members before the hearing to discuss our position with them.
I urge any of you who have concerns about Seminary Road to make your views known to our City Council. You can contact them through the Call, Click, Connect system on the city's website. There is an online survey that was created by residents in favor of maintaining the 4 car travel lanes, as the SHA position advocates. Over 1200 residents have signed the petition. If you wish to learn more about this petition, please go to: https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/central-alexandria-citizens-petition. In addition, residents will have the opportunity to speak before City Council at the hearing in September (likely September 14th). Once the docket is posted for that Council meeting, I will let you know, so you can sign up to speak. It is important to let our elected officials know what we, as residents of Seminary Hill, want to see as part of the repaving that will be done on Seminary Road this fall.
I appreciate all the input we have received from residents regarding this issue. It has been especially encouraging to see the cooperation with other area civic associations on this matter, as collectively we have a much greater impact than if we stand alone. I encourage you to become a member of SHA if you are not already. I hope all of you will have an enjoyable summer. SHA does not meet during July and August, so our next board meeting will be Thursday, September 12.
Carter Flemming, President
Seminary Hill Association, Inc.