By Carla Branch
After listening to nearly 40 speakers and reading hundreds of emails from the public, the Alexandria City Council voted to express support for Virginia Department of Transportation Alternatives A1 and A2 as their favored alternatives for an access ramp from I-395 into the new Mark Center facility and to request that VDOT protect the integrity of the Winkler Botanical Preserve.
“I know that many of you are here today to speak in support of protecting the Winkler Botanical Preserve,” Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille said before Saturday’s public hearing. “I just want you to know that we have read the emails and we agree with you. I believe that when this hearing is finished, whatever motion we adopt will include protecting the Preserve.”
Euille was correct. More than 75% of those who spoke came to express their concern that building a ramp from I-395 into the new Washington Headquarters Services facility would negatively impact the 44-acre botanical preserve. “How many times do we have to protect this preserve,” asked former Vice Mayor Andrew McDonald. “We thought we had protected it when they were cutting down all of the trees in the 1980s and ’90s. We thought we had protected it when the foundation was established to do just that. Apparently we are here today because we still have to protect the largest area of forest in the City.”
Four of the seven options that VDOT is currently considering would have some negative impact on the Preserve. “We can’t just eliminate options that might be viable or we will not be in compliance with federal law,” said Nick Nickelson, the Northern Region director of VDOT. “However, when we get to the next phase and really study the alternatives, we can eliminate some because of their adverse impact on the environment and the community.”
The Mark Center site will be home to the new Washington Headquarters Services facility and its 6500 employees. Alternative “A1″ provides access to the U.S. Army garage from the 1-395 southbound on-ramp and would be restricted to cars destined for the garage only. This ramp starts at the intersection of Seminary Road and the I-395 southbound on-ramp. The actual ramp begins in the left lane of the on- ramp and then elevates up and over the on-ramp to connect to the Army garage on the P5 floor level.
Alternative “A2″ provides access to the Army garage from the 1-395 southbound on-ramp and would be restricted to cars destined for the garage only. This ramp configuration begins on grade at the 1-395 southbound on-ramp midway between Seminary Road and I-395 and connects directly to the Army garage. It will require the elimination of the free right turn from eastbound Seminary Road onto the I-395 southbound on-ramp. These right turns would then need to turn in two lanes at the existing traffic signal.
“These are the two easiest alternatives to build and will probably cost the least,” Nickelson said.
However, “They do not remove cars from I-395 and they could cause backups because only 350 cars an hour can enter the garage,” said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley. “Also, they make no accommodation for buses and really encourage single occupancy vehicle traffic. If we are really an Eco-City and being environmentally responsible is one of our principles, we need to think about that.”
Councilman Rob Krupicka put a motion on the table, “for discussion only just to see what everyone is thinking. We can make adjustments as we go,” he said.
That motion included expressing a preference for VDOT Alternatives A1 and A2 and asking VDOT to consider the BRAC Advisory Group’s guiding principles in selecting any alternative. “The problem with that is these alternatives are in conflict with some of those principles,” Donley said. “It seems to me that if we are going to ask VDOT to use these guiding principles, we need to be clear about which principles we are using ourselves.”
Krupicka’s motion also included a request that VDOT evaluate a new option, which was suggested by City staff. This option would build a ramp from I-395 onto Sanger Avenue and into the BRAC site.
“We need to remember that the Preserve is between Sanger and the BRAC site so this might not be feasible,” Donley said.
Councilwoman Del Pepper worried about the impact to other intersections in the corridor. “I don’t want VDOT to forget about the other intersections here, particularly the one at Duke Street where it turns into 236 at the Fairfax County line. That intersection is already a mess and, when cars can’t get in or out of the garage onto the I-395 ramp easily, they are going to find some alternative,” she said.
Nickelson assured Council that, “federal law requires us to look at the impact to intersections up and downstream from the interchange that is being altered.”
For now, in spite of Council’s preferences, VDOT will study Alternatives A1 and D. Alternative D would provide access to the site for HOV vehicles. The access ramp starts from the 1-395 High Occupancy Vehicles lanes and then goes up and over 1-395 southbound general-purpose lanes. The ramp then travels along the Winkler Preserve and touches down at Mark Center Drive. This configuration provides a reversible flow ramp which will allow traffic to enter the site only in the morning and exit only in the afternoons.
“This does not mean that these are the only alternatives that we will study but it is where we are going to start,” Nickelson said. “Through out study, we will get a better idea of whether the alternative is buildable and have a better idea of the cost.
“Let me make it clear that we are in step one of the preliminary process. After we submit the Interchange Justification Report, the selected alternatives must go through the National Environmental Policy Act process. This will include an Environmental Assessment if not a full Environmental Impact Study.
“Once that has happened, we must obtain funding, design the ramp and construct it. If everything goes perfectly, we could have a ramp in about four years, two years after the facility at Mark Center opens in 2011…and that is if everything goes perfectly,” Nickelson said.
Council finally agreed on a motion and will attach a cover letter to VDOT explaining the rationale for the decision. The vote was 6-0. Councilwoman Alicia Hughes was not present. She was attending a class at the Sorensen Institute where she is learning to be a political leader. She has missed two of the four monthly public hearings that have taken place since she took the oath of office in July.
City Council received the final public testimony on the seven direct access ramp alternatives being considered by VDOT for their preliminary IJR analysis and adopted the following five recommendations from the Alexandria Transportation Commission:
1. Direct staff to prepare a letter to Duke Realty encouraging Duke Realty to move with all speed to complete the local roadway improvements as approved by Council;
2. request VDOT to retain alternatives A1 and A2 which provide direct access from I-395 to the Department of Defense garage;
3. request VDOT to work with City staff to evaluate additional alternatives to relieve traffic pressures on Seminary Road and to address traffic impacts from BRAC, provided that such alternatives meet the following criteria: A. do not harm the integrity of the Winkler Preserve; B. minimize disruption to all local residents from BRAC-133 traffic as well as from any potential solutions to such traffic; C. take into consideration a broader view of transportation issues in the corridor; and D. take into consideration the guiding principles of the Alexandria’s BRAC-133 group when developing alternatives;
4. request VDOT to eliminate from consideration any access alternatives within their preliminary interchange justification report which would impact the land area of the Winkler Botanical Preserve; and
5. look at the Transportation Management Plan when developing a final proposal and recommendation on the issues. (City staff was directed to draft a cover letter to accompany the motion, with the understanding that before the cover letter is finalized, that it be shared with Council to make sure the points are covered.)