Friday, January 11, 2008

The Connector Capers

Lest anyone think that politics play no role in the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Transportation Task Force, let the Growler illustrate with the story of Quaker Lane and the Eisenhower-Duke connector -- a classic example of NIMBYism at work.

Dear readers, you may rightfully ask why we in Parker-Gray should care about squabbles elsewhere in Alexandria.

The Growler would answer that as other neighborhoods fight off remedial transportation measures, the City's options close down. Patrick and Henry Streets inevitably become the default sites for intensification of use.

On the surface, Quaker Lane would appear to offer an ideal north-south transit alternative to Patrick and Henry Streets. It serves major commercial corridors like Hechinger Commons, Bradlee Shopping Center and Fairlington Center, while providing a key link-up to 395 and Shirlington, the Pentagon and Washington, D.C.

Yet the Ad Hoc Transportation Task Force's draft report does not feature Quaker Lane as a transit corridor. Only a portion of Quaker Lane (from Braddock and King to Duke Street) is earmarked for some type of transit yet to be determined -- and then only as an optional transitway, not as a primary route.

"Specific alternatives depicted include potential service along Eisenhower Avenue and Quaker Lane. In many cases, these and other potential alignments represent options for future extension. These additional alternatives will only be pursued when travel demand and corridor development dictate" (Draft Report of the Ad Hoc Transportation Task Force, p. 1-3)

Why not include this important thoroughfare now as one of the report's major transit corridors — and end-to-end all the way from Duke Street to 395?

To intuit the possible reasons Quaker Lane was not identified as a transit corridor, one must first understand the controversial history of the Eisenhower-Duke connector and how it relates to Quaker Lane.

For many years, the City of Alexandria recognized there was a need for a direct connection from the Beltway to Eisenhower Avenue, which was poised to become a major employment and residential center. In the mid-1980s the City’s prayers were answered when the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) agreed to construct such a connection. Phase one of the project created an exit from I-95, which is known today as the “Eisenhower Connector.” The second phase was intended to be the construction of a roadway linking Eisenhower to Duke Street.

VDOT lived up to its promises in phase one, but the second local connector from Eisenhower to Duke Street faltered. The connector was strongly opposed by some of the City's most affluent communities, including Seminary Hill and Clover/College Park. One of the principal reasons cited was the fear that drivers would exit the Beltway and use the connector and Quaker Lane as short-cuts to 395.

There was a long-drawn out political struggle over the issue in 2002, and indeed, echoes of the controversy were still being felt in the 2003 Council elections.

The original Eisenhower Duke Connector task force was expanded by Council in spring 2002, a move which some felt strengthened the hands of opponents. After reviewing a number of options, the task force split evenly on the issue of build vs. no-build with improvements to prepare other nearby streets to handle the traffic. (An FYI: George Foote served on the expanded task force as a representative of the Seminary Hill community. Mr. Foote, who also contributed an op-ed piece to the Washington Post on the subject of the connector and development, voted against building a connector.)

Several weeks after the Eisenhower-Duke Task Force made its recommendations, the City Council voted to defer the matter until an Eisenhower West Small Area Plan was approved. After five years, that plan is still in limbo.

Today the only direct method of reaching the Eisenhower Valley is via Holland Lane near the King Street Metro or Van Dorn Street. With all of the new development on Eisenhower Avenue and much more coming, both streets are jammed up at rush hour. In fact, the City must eventually build a fire station in the valley because emergency vehicles have no speedy access to Eisenhower Avenue. Even with a new fire station on-site, it will remain difficult to get quickly to Alexandria Hospital.

Is Quaker Lane missing from the Ad Hoc Transportation Task Force draft because NIMBYism prevailed so strongly and triumphantly in 2002 that even the notion of a transit corridor there could prove radioactive?

Has NIBMYism also dictated the absence of other potential corridors such as Commonwealth and Mt. Vernon Avenues, Braddock Road and Washington Street, all of which are historic bus and streetcar routes while Patrick and Henry Streets are not?

Was the Task Force so throttled by NIMBYism and under so much pressure to come up with some meaningful recommendations after three years of deliberations that it was left with only Patrick and Henry Streets to round out its report?