Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
The public meetings around the Shirlington Road Bridge project have reignited a long-standing community conversation about crossing safety near Four Mile Run Drive and Shirlington Road that has gone on for at least 10 years.
The area, at the confluence of the W&OD Trail, several legs of the Four Mile Run Trail, also suffers from a bridge over Four Mile Run that only has a sidewalk on one side, with that sidewalk being extremely narrow, traffic coming off of a major interstate highway, and a very auto-centric built environment with many curb cuts crossing the sidewalks and large trucks from the concrete plant.
These factors all coming together in such a small area leads to a situation where no one is comfortable. Trail users feel like there are no safe way for them to get through the area. Drivers feel like they already have too many things to keep an eye out for and trail users are adding to that complexity.
The Shirlington Road bridge project will help a bit — fixing the narrow sidewalk on the bridge by adding a wide, comfortable parallel bike & pedestrian bridge as well as making the mid-block crossing near 27th Street more prominent and eye-catching, but community feedback at both the recent public meeting as well as the Green Valley Bridges Ad Hoc Working Group make it clear that there is more work to be done.
The remaining issue is the crossing of Shirlington Road; it’s easiest to think about this from the perspective of someone who has just gone under 395 on the trail and is trying to continue to the West, either on the W&OD Trail or down on the Four Mile Run Trail (perhaps on their way to shop in Shirlington).
A trail user’s most obvious choice is the mid-block crossing immediately before them, but reports from existing trail users are that cars often don’t stop for the Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon (RRFB). Adding a HAWK signal or traffic signal at the mid-block crossing have been ruled out by the County due to the proximity to the existing traffic signals.
A trail user heading for the W&OD could head north on the sidewalk to cross at Four Mile Run Drive, but this brings along new conflicts — cars entering and exiting the Exxon as well as concrete trucks going to and from the concrete plan. Additionally, even those crossing Shirlington Road with the walk signal find there are dangerous conflicts — cars turning left from Four Mile Run Drive onto northbound Shirlington Road as well as cars making a right-on-red from Shirlington Road to Four Mile Run Drive and who aren’t paying sufficient attention to yield.
Those trying to head south to continue on the Four Mile Run Trail would also be going quite a bit out of their way to cross at Four Mile Run Drive. Adding a sidewalk to the east side of Shirlington Road would given them a new option to cross at Arlington Mill Drive, but that wouldn’t be safe without the removal of the slip lane from the 395 off-ramp which VDOT is uninterested in allowing.
The county has recognized in the past the need for a true long-term solution here — an extension of the existing underpass that goes under the 395 to continue under Shirlington Road, or perhaps a bridge instead. They are called out in the adopted Four Mile Run Valley Area Plan which even includes a sketch of a concept plan for extending the underpass. These are long-term fixes because they require major construction and significant study. That means it is all the more important that we start that long process now, or they become a “never” fix instead of a long-term fix.
An extension of the underpass, especially, will require studying the dynamics of the stream channel to ensure that the underpass doesn’t cause flooding as well as some careful and context-sensitive design. The County needs to show the community that they recognize that the crossing improvements that are currently moving forward are just a short-term improvement and that they are committed to a long-term solution. It’s time to fund, or start seeking funding, for a feasibility study or alternatives analysis for this crossing. MWCOG’s Transportation Land Use Connections Grant Program might be a good fit, or a Transportation Alternatives Program grant might be a good option to fund such a study. Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County has a good set of example feedback in this vein for those who want to lend their voice to such a call.
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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