Despite an evening of heavy rain, residents turned out in large numbers to a meeting about the National Park Service’s traffic study and safety assessment of the George Washington Memorial Parkway on Thursday at Whitman Middle School.
While many of the attendees had expected a meeting with speaker presentations and a question-and-answer session, it was instead held “open house” style, with traffic engineers and Park Police taking questions at a dozen different displays showing the results of the study thus far.
The section of the Parkway being studied is between the City of Alexandria and Mount Vernon, particularly the 11 intersections contained therein. There have been a number of serious crashes on the Parkway in recent years, including a head-on collision in April that killed one man and left three people seriously injured. The NPS hopes to respond to community concerns about safety, revisit previous safety studies and their recommendations, and develop safety solutions appropriate for the scenic and historic roadway.
That last point was emphasized at many of the displays: The NPS really wants to remind people that the George Washington Memorial Parkway was not originally intended for commuters, but as a scenic drive. They are open to all options to improve the Parkway except those that would alter the historic character of the roadway.
Indeed, one of the NPS’s expected outcomes is “to make critical decisions between managing the roadway design for modern use while honoring the intent of the historical design.” Additionally, discovering “operational and design solutions to balance the needs of park visitors, pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders and commuter traffic” is the other goal of the project.
Possible solutions mulled
Participants were asked to write down comments and concerns so they can be added to the public record. The potential use of speed cameras was one area of intense speculation with many in the crowd. A Park Police representative said that, due to the GW Parkway being federal land, the use of speed cameras was an option they could explore. However that is still very much a gray area, according to State Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36).
“[The GW Parkway] has deteriorated dramatically in the last 10 years. Speed cameras can solve the problem, but I’m not sure if it will conflict with federal law,” Surovell said.
Other possible solutions suggested included restriping the road, reducing lanes (i.e. a “road diet”) and increasing police presence to discourage speeding and aggressive driving.
Alexis Glenn and Jeff Gauger of the Fairfax Alliance for Better Biking were among many bicycle advocates in attendance. Glenn wants pedestrians and cyclists to be able to safely cross the Parkway to get to the Mount Vernon Trail without long detours. She said she routinely has to travel two and a half miles out of her way to find a safe place to cross.
Gauger, who has been using the Mount Vernon Trail for 20 years, says he’s glad the NPS is finally looking into improving the highway, but it’s just a start. He also stated that he sees “a wreck every week” at the Belle View Boulevard intersection, which had the greatest number of crashes of the intersections studied, followed by the Belle Haven Road intersection.
Another cycling safety advocate, Miles Keogh, worked the room with his color copy graphs showing the results of his own study of average car speeds on the parkway compiled over three years. Keogh said that after crossing Parkway every day for three years “it’s a miracle I’m not a hood ornament.”
The youngest concerned citizen in attendance last night, 10-year-old Adam Stanger of Mount Vernon, stated “[The GW Parkway] is too dangerous!” His recommendation was to cut out spots along the road where Park Police could safely pull over speeding drivers to give them tickets.
The next NPS meeting is tentatively scheduled to take place in November, where the results of all the surveys and public comments will be shared as well as any new findings from the ongoing study. All information regarding this traffic study, as well as the page for making public comments (open until August 21, 2019) can be found on this NPS page.
Mike O’Neill is a freelance writer and three-time cancer survivor who lives in the Kingstowne section of Lee District.