Tensions Flare on City Council as One Member Fights to Reverse Seminary Road Decision

(Updated 12/12) In the last thirty minutes of last night’s City Council meeting, the typically uneventful oral reports escalated into a verbal brawl over the Seminary Road diet.

The controversial lane reduction is part of the city’s Complete Streets project, which aims to change the city’s car-crowded roads into a more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly streetscape. On Seminary Road, that meant taking the formerly four-lane Seminary Road down to one travel lane in each direction with a turn lane/emergency vehicle lane separating them, and the addition of bicycle lanes on the side of the road.

Councilwoman Amy Jackson, who had opposed the Seminary Road diet, said concerns raised in the community over emergency vehicle access on the road compelled her to motion that the City Council put a pause on the dieting.

“I’d like to discuss the division in the community concerning Seminary Road and the Seminary Road diet,” Jackson said. “I believe that it’s a public safety issue, how it’s gone this fast. We can’t get emergency vehicles over medians. I believe it’s a quality of life issue for a lot of people that they were thrown into something, honestly, without knowing the repercussions of it.”

While city reports on the median islands note that many are designed for emergency vehicles to be able to ride over them, Jackson said she’s not convinced the medians are necessary and could create more of a problem for the vehicles than they solve.

“It’s created anxiety and fear,” Jackson said. “We have lost the confidence of many Alexandrians and don’t stand a chance to regain their trust if we go full steam ahead as is. I see no harm in taking time out.”

When Mayor Justin Wilson — a frequent target of criticism over the road diet — called for a second and no other Council Members spoke up, Wilson quickly tried to push past the issue but Councilman Mohamed “Mo” Seifeldein spoke up and seconded Jackson’s motion for purposes of discussion. Things went haywire from there.

Jackson brought up the Facebook page Alexandria Residents Against the Seminary Road Diet, which now has over 1,000 members, saying the page was filled with photographs and frequent anecdotes of struggles to get through the new slog of traffic on the road. The page is extremely active — though discussions on the page have on occasion spiraled into conspiracy theories about bribery and corruption at the root of the decision.

Councilman Canek Aguirre accused Jackson of spreading those conspiracy theories about the Seminary Road diet and said the motion to reverse the earlier decision was an ambush for the community that supported the changes — who had no prior notice of Jackson’s motion.

“From a collegiality perspective, from an appropriate process perspective, I don’t suggest that members as a matter of practice springing undoing a significant decision by council… after multiple public hearings, at 10:51 at night without any prior notice to the remainder of the council and remainder of the community,” Mayor Justin Wilson agreed. “It’s highly inappropriate, it’s bad process, and not a good thing for the council to be in a habit of doing. Nobody is aware that the council is considering this issue, nobody who weighed in on this issue has any idea what is going on right now under the cover of darkness in City Hall.”

The safety of the road changes was also brought into question, with staff reporting that there were five crashes along the area of Seminary Road subject to the new road diet between Oct. 30 and Dec. 5. Of those crashes, three were minor, one was considered reportable by police, and the last was the result of a high-speed chase. In previous years, staff said there were usually one or two crashes along the same stretch of road. Aguirre noted, however, that traffic incidents were to be expected whenever new traffic patterns took effect.

Jackson ultimately withdrew the motion, but staff was requested to study the issue and come back with a report.

A few years ago, sudden policy suggestions and bitter feuds between Council members were commonplace, culminating with a protracted battle between Wilson and Mayor Allison Silberberg over nearly every issue until Wilson defeated Silberberg in a primary. Councilman John Chapman, the only member of the council other than Wilson and Councilwoman Redella “Del” Pepper who was present at that time, said the argument harkened back to those conflicts.

“I’ve seen what happens on the Council prior to this group when someone goes without talking to the others, and it does not make for good forward motion by this body,” said Chapman. “I’ve seen those opinions where people are trying to work with their colleagues and bring things forward together work better than not.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott