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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Task force weighs road improvements to address BRAC-related traffic congestion

I-395 at Seminary Road with the BRAC complex in the background
The Mason District BRAC-133 Task Force will prioritize a list of road projects aimed at alleviating congestion near the Mark Center complex at its next meeting on Nov. 1.

The task force has already agreed on two projects, which have been given the go-head by the Fairfax County Department of Transportation (FCDOT):

1.   Optimization of traffic signal timing and phasing along Route 236, Beauregard Street, and South Van Dorn Street.
2.  Improved signage on the Interstate 395 southbound off-ramp at Route 236 letting drivers know they can access Beauregard Street and the Plaza at Landmark shopping center before they reach Route 236. The estimated cost for this project would be $200,000, says task force chair Barry Wilson.  

The task force was formed in January after residents of Fairfax County who live near the Mark Center, the site of the new Department of Defense complex at the intersection of I-395 and Seminary Road, “expressed frustration with the BRAC process,” Wilson says. The City of Alexandria was already working on a transportation plan. “Fairfax County was also going to be affected. We wanted something more holistic,” he says.

Wilson credits Fairfax County Chair Sharon Bulova with getting the ball rolling, and Mason Supervisor Penny Gross invited local residents to join a task force to consider projects to address traffic problems caused by the BRAC project. The task force includes representatives from the Lincolnia Hills/Heywood Glen, Dowden Terrace, Charleston Square, Palisades, and Linconia Park communities, and is charged with providing oversight for many other communities affected by BRAC .

One of the task force’s first actions was to get the county to measure traffic flow to get a baseline, so it would have a means of comparing current conditions with the traffic situation after the first employees started moving into the BRAC buildings in August. They also requested a baseline on neighborhood parking to determine if DOD employees unable to park in their lot are parking on residential streets. The BRAC complex only has 3,600 parking spaces, while the complex will have 6,400 employees when fully occupied.

So far, about 2,300 people have been relocated to the new offices. Another 2,800 are expected by Dec. 1. The complex is expected to be fully occupied at some point in 2012, although it’s not clear when this will happen.

VDOT has found a “pretty significant increase” in traffic exiting I-395 at Seminary Road and at the intersections of Seminary Road and Mark Center Drive and Seminary and Beauregard Street in August and September, says Thomas Burke, a senior transportation planner at FCDOT. In some cases, there are twice as many cars waiting at traffic signals than there were before people started moving into the BRAC complex. “It’s going to get a lot uglier when another 4,000 people move in,” he says.

Increased parking on side streets hasn’t been a problem so far, he says, although it could become an issue when the buildings are fully occupied. Some neighborhoods have called for residential parking districts, which means residents would need a permit to park, but there has been no formal action to request that, he says. “We’re in a wait and see mode.”

At the last few task force meetings, the group has reviewed a list of options presented by FCDOT for addressing traffic and plans to rank them in priority order on Nov. 1. 

“We don’t have funding for any of them,” Burke acknowledges. “Having a priority list will be the first step in getting money,” he says. Once FCDOT knows which projects to push for, it will take those proposals to the state and federal governments to seek funding.

One of the projects on the list—to alleviate congestion at the intersection of Route 236 and Beauregard Street—has long been a priority of FCDOT, and the county is already putting together an application for a federal grant.

This project calls for modifying traffic patterns on Beauregard Street heading south toward Route 236 by providing three exclusive left turn lanes, one through lane, and one right turn lane. A third receiving lane would also be needed on Route 236 heading east. Burke says that project would cost at least $12 million and take four or five years to complete, including environmental reviews, community input, and construction.

There had been some talk about a flyover at that intersection, but neither Gross nor the community were keen on that idea, which would cost at least $50 million, he notes. 

One of the proposed projects on the list, making Cherokee Avenue and Chowan Avenue one-way in opposite directions—is expected to be eliminated from the list of options due to strong opposition by Lincolnia Park. An alternative with more support from the community calls for an exclusive northbound turn lane on Chowan onto Route 236.

Other proposed projects on the list include rerouting traffic on Beauregard Street, Lincolnia Road, and North Chambliss Street; improvements to Lincolnia Road, including turn lanes, curbs, gutters, and sidewalks; widening the off-ramp from I-395 southbound onto Route 236 to two lanes; and widening South Van Dorn Street.

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