An angry dust-up at Monday’s Falls Church City Council work session about planned delays in the implementation of a traffic-calming plan for the intersection of Parker and Kent Streets – where a City student was injured in a traffic accident last month – led to an uncommon set of exchanges in which the City’s entire “traffic calming” effort got called into question.
The City’s Utilities Department requested and received emergency authorization by the City Council last month to undertake safety improvements to the Parker-Kent intersection, located behind the Taco Bell in the west end of town, in the aftermath of the accident.
However, when it came to light this Monday that the City’s planned safety upgrades to the intersection would not be ready to improve safety for pedestrians walking to City schools for over a year, until September 2015, Councilman Dan Sze blew up.
“I can’t contain my disappointment,” he said. We gave you emergency authorization to act,” Sze told City Manager Wyatt Shields and Michael Collins, the City’s new director of public works. “But now we are being told you will not begin work on improvements there until next spring. This is despite the fact that you got the sense of the Council’s commitment to this as an emergency situation.”
Sze’s outburst led to a sharp reply from Shields, who said the issue is a matter of priorities, where things like the South Washington Corridor development plan are crowding neighborhood calming efforts for lack of City manpower.
“We have one tenth of a person working on this neighborhood calming effort now,” Shields added. “If there is an unsafe situation in the City, we will address it,” he intoned.
Right now, he explained, most of the “traffic calming” issues are discretionary and not a matter of correcting a dangerous situation. “There is a difference between what one may perceive is the case, and a really unsafe situation,” Collins added.
“Right now there are no existing problems. “Calming” efforts are quality of life issues,” he said. “It is a matter of taking safe streets and making them even safer.”
Paul Stoddard of the Planning Department said he’s been working with the Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation (CACT) to update the City’s “neighborhood traffic calming programs,” noting that there is only one now active in the consideration process, while proposals for the W. Cameron Street area and the Whittier Park have been dismissed.
Because these programs often become controversial in the neighborhoods involved, the cost to the City for implementing a plan tends to skyrocket. Staff and engineering costs can run from $5,000 to $60,000, he said, depending on the degree of consensus or not, thus far exceeding the capital costs of making changes (such as adding speed bumps, signage, stop signs or lights).
Collins, who came to his job here recently from neighboring Arlington County, said that his experience in Arlington was that the cost of every discretionary project ranged from $450,000 to $550,000 each.
Such “traffic calming” proposals, when recommended by the CACT, come to City Hall as advisory programs and from there, Shields stressed, have to be measured against the City’s resources for addressing more immediate public safety concerns. “All of these CACT recommendations come as discretionary,” he added.
Council member Phil Duncan suggested that the intersection of Broad and West Streets, where a major new mixed use development project may go, “has been dysfunctional since I moved here in 1985,” and he proposed that the prospective developer there could be enlisted to pay for improvements that would enhance its safety, especially as the volume of traffic there would be increasing due to the project.
Vice Mayor David Snyder added that sometimes the solution to calming requests could be met far more cost effectively than more elaborate schemes that often get OK’d by the CACT at much higher costs.