Normally when bike lane projects get controversial, most of the drama happens before construction, and things calm down once the lanes are installed.
That’s not the case for Alexandria’s Seminary Road.
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For almost a year now, the Seminary Road Diet bike lane project has dominated certain sections of city politics. Construction wrapped up around the new year and is working as intended, but that hasn’t stopped some project opponents from carrying the torch against the new bike lanes, even promoting false or misleading information with the help of local media.
First, some background. Seminary Road connects a few neighborhoods in Alexandria’s West End to an exit on I-395. The city identified it as a road where high speeds and a lack of good pedestrian and bike infrastructure made the road a hazard. Last March, Alexandria city staff unveiled some options for improving safety along the route, including a “road diet” where the road’s four-lane configuration would be reworked to include two lanes for cars, bike lanes, a center turn lane, and other safety improvements. The city’s transportation board eventually recommended a “hybrid” option that kept the road’s four lanes, but the city council voted for the option that included the full road diet. Construction started late in the fall and recently wrapped up.
Despite some breathless reports about congestion that occurred, usually due to the construction itself, the data from Seminary Road is matching pretty closely to what the city predicted: Travel times increased by about a minute or so, including at peak travel times. Mayor Justin Wilson now regularly reports the data in his newsletter and on Facebook, where the debate still rages on.
But the controversy flared up again recently after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by a residents’ association revealed email discussions between the city’s planning staff and the Alexandria Fire Department.
The Alexandria Times recently published a series of three columns by Frank Putzu, a member of the Seminary Hill Civic Association, which opposed the road diet. His column reports on a series of emails between city planning officials and members of the Alexandria Fire Department. At various points over the summer, it was clear that the fire department wasn’t always aware of what city planning staff were thinking and that it needed clarification from the planning department. Those emails show that back and forth between the groups.
In his columns, Putzu alleges that these emails prove that the city advanced its efforts on Seminary Road despite the ignorance and objections of the fire department. That could mean that emergency response times could suffer, harming Alexandrians when they need emergency services.
There’s only one problem. It isn’t true.
After the first two columns went up, the Alexandria Fire Department was quick to respond in the Alexandria Times that despite what was revealed in the FOIA request, the fire department did eventually put their approval on the project. Fire chief Corey Smedley made it clear in the first paragraph of his response:
On Jan. 20, the Alexandria Times published a summary it prepared of selected emails between city transportation and fire officials. This summary does not accurately reflect the work leading up to the new design of Seminary Road. I want to reassure the community that the Fire Department participated in the design process for Seminary Road and is satisfied that appropriate measures have been put in place for us to safely travel before, during and after an emergency call.
Road diets are a standard tool, and there are many examples across the capital region, including nearby King Street’s road diet in 2016. These projects typically make roads safer without making gridlock worse. It’s a win-win situation for nearly everyone.
Road diets are still unfamiliar to many people, and it’s natural to expect some pushback. But the Seminary Road case is a great example of how that resistance can coalesce into something bigger, where a political victory over a one-mile stretch of road becomes more important than making sure people can travel safely in their own communities. This can have big consequences at city hall, where perceived political risks can stand in the way of needed safety improvements. It can have even bigger consequences on the streets themselves, where people are trying to get from place to place without worrying about if they’re in danger because the road is designed for high speeds.