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Modern Mobility: More Money, More Crashes, More Injuries

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

(Updated on 11/11/20) On Saturday, the Arlington County Board voted 4-1 to endorse the County’s application for $25 million in grant money for VDOT’s Arlington Blvd Safety Improvements Project, covering the area from Glebe Road to Fillmore Street.

That grant money, if awarded, would not be disbursed until 2026, meaning construction is at least six years, if not seven or eight years away. VDOT’s decision to select a costly, construction-intensive capital project to solve the safety issues in this stretch means our community will be stuck with six to eight years of additional crashes, injuries and even fatalities when VDOT’s own study makes it clear that a the majority of the safety benefit of their preferred alternative could be implemented in the short-term, with temporary materials and a much lower cost.

VDOT’s preferred alternative consists of a wide median from Glebe Road to Fillmore Street, the creation of dedicated left turn lanes at Irving Street, the extension of the westbound left-turn lane at Fillmore Street and the addition of dedicated left-turn phasing (green arrows) at Irving Street to service those new dedicated turn lanes.

VDOT’s report shows that, had these improvements existed from 2014 to 2018, there would have been 16 fewer crashes with injuries or fatalities. So, the fact that we’re waiting for these improvements until 2026 or 2028 means we can expect between 24 and 32 additional, preventable crashes with injury or fatality in the meantime.

However, all of the listed design elements from their preferred alternative, except for the extension of the westbound left-turn lane at Fillmore Street can be implemented within the existing roadway simple by narrowing some lanes to 10′ (within the Arlington County standard) and by repurposing some of the existing shoulder. A narrow median could be added with jersey barriers or a similar material, the dedicated left turn lanes striped in by repurposing excess lane width and some of the existing shoulder, the dedicated signal phases could be added at Irving Street. This would gain us 87% of the safety gains of the full project, while avoiding the slow and costly widening that VDOT is calling for which will cut down trees, add 2 acres of impervious surface, and reshape this stretch of Arlington Blvd into a defacto limited access highway.

The grant application was opposed by a number of nearby neighbors concerned that it would lead to additional cut-through traffic on Irving Street and I submitted and presented a letter for Arlington’s Transportation Commission for the reasons outlined above. Unfortunately, only one member of the County Board (Takis Karantonis) found the slow pace of implementation and large cost of VDOT’s preferred alternative unacceptable and so the grant application has been endorsed, leaving little incentive for VDOT to make interim safety improvements. The result: a project that costs more money and results in more crashes, injuries and potentially even fatalities.

Bizarrely, this safety study is a result of a program called “Strategically Targeted Affordable Roadway Solutions” (STARS), a program that would appear geared toward finding quick, cheap solutions to safety problems. Instead, it appears to be yet another vehicle for VDOT to push forward large, slow, expensive roadway widenings wrapped in the veneer of a safety study.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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