It’s rare for a Facebook group to be the topic of discussion at the City Council dais, but Alexandria Residents Against the Seminary Road Diet is no ordinary page.
The group started as a small forum for drivers and residents to express their frustration over the city’s change to a portion of Seminary Road — reducing vehicle travel lanes from four lanes to two, with a turn lane in between, to allow for greater pedestrian and bicycle space.
The change led to traffic congestion for commuters, at least initially, as construction got underway. While the construction has mostly finished, the frustration in the group remains intense.
The backlash to the street change has inspired everything from banners along the street calling to “Retake Seminary Road” to a burger named after that and other Alexandria controversies.
For better or worse, the nearly 1,200 member group has become the digital hub of opposition to the changes on Seminary Road. City officials have been engaged in a long-running debate with residents in the comments section and the Facebook group took center-stage at a spat between two City Council members in a discussion last week about pausing work on Seminary Road.
The group was recently made private, meaning only those who join are allowed to comment and view posts, but while it was public it was extraordinarily active. Members would create numerous new posts every day, and those posts would in turn attract comments, often by the dozen.
There were a few frequent themes of those posts: photos of morning or evening rush hour traffic, links to news articles or videos about the Seminary Road changes, and ideas for how to pressure officials to change the road back to the way it was before.
The level of engagement on the page, and with the issue in general, is — to many — out of proportion to the actual stakes involved.
Not sure I’ve ever covered a story like this, where one road change was so polarizing https://t.co/yV6Hg4ICQD
— Adam Tuss (@AdamTuss) December 6, 2019
Chris Weymont, Bill Rossello and Keith Reynolds are the three administrators of the page, and each describes themself as a reluctant advocate drawn into a transportation policy argument.
“It started off on a Friday night with 10 invites and its grown exponentially,” Reynolds said. “I was a disgruntled resident. I thought it would gain a little bit of traction, but not this much. It continues to grow as people continue to find out about the page.”
While Reynolds said he set up the page to act as a forum to air complaints about the new Seminary Road changes, moderating the page started taking up more and more time. That was when Weymont and Rossello, two active early members of the page, were invited to join a small administrative team.
“I started to see some things going on that I didn’t like over a period of time, particularly after the King Street road diet,” Rossello said of his activism.
Rossello said he maybe gets on Facebook to post once or twice a year, but became involved with the page through neighborhood listserv Nextdoor and the Seminary Hill Association. Rossello said he was not active in local civic groups before becoming involved in the Seminary Road debate, but has since been elected to the Seminary Hill board and has been asked to become a member of the Alexandria Civic Federation.
“It grew out of angst a year and a half ago,” Rossello said. “Now I’m in the thick of it.”
Weymont joined later but has been one of the more active administrators in the group — weighing in on discussions and tagging relevant people. According to Weymont, the traffic issue has transcended every other partisan divide, with both avowed Democrats and die-hard Republicans standing side-by-side against the road diet.
“We’re not surprised in multiple ways,” Weymont said. “We know how badly the bike lobby and Mayor wanted this. When it comes to traffic, it’s a quality of life issue, for hardened Democrats and hardened Republicans.”
The group most commonly pointed to as the “bike lobby” is the Alexandria Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), a local volunteer organization that has been involved in promoting the road diet.
“We feel like we have taken back Seminary Road,” said Jim Durham, chairman of BPAC.
Durham said the street used to be a two-lane road, but changed to four lanes in the mid-’60s. As it’s become a larger arterial road through Alexandria, the speeds have gone up along the road over time. Durham said slimming the street down has made the road more accessible to everyone, not just people who commute in their vehicles during rush hour.
Durham pushed back against the characterization of the new improvements as a bicycle-only benefit, saying that the changes have offered a greater buffer between pedestrians and vehicles on the south side of the road and opened the north side of the road, where the Virginia Theological Seminary is, to pedestrian traffic where no sidewalk existed before. Alexandria is currently working through a grant application process to build a permanent sidewalk.
“For me, the primary reason the road needs to change is to achieve safe speeds,” Durham said. “For me, the first priority was a reduction in speed. The second was crossing safety and walking along the street.”
Durham, who lives near where Seminary Road was dieted, said he’s seen more people walking and bicycling along the street since the changes.
“The reaction is like nothing I’ve experienced before,” Durham said. “It’s different in character.”
Walked with friends along Seminary Road today. The number of runners and other walkers was nothing like we had ever seen here before. Thanks @AlexandriaVAGov @AlexandriaNow @AlexTimesNews @AlexGazette gazette The Pedestrian Strikes Back https://t.co/QctgGiOHyn
— Jim Durham (@JimLDurham) December 16, 2019
Durham also said the group is primarily focused around volunteering to help educate the public about bicycle riding and pedestrian activities. The group leads bike rides and helps with walk audits.
Both BPAC and the Facebook group said their numbers have increased significantly as of late. Durham said BPAC currently has over 30 active members. That, of course, pales in comparison to the Facebook group’s nearly 1,200 members.
In the Facebook group, Mayor Justin Wilson frequently responds to comments and criticism. Despite being critical of his policy decisions, Weymont said he and the other administrators credited the mayor and Council members John Chapman and Amy Jackson — who both voted against the road diet — for being active in the group.
With those increasing numbers, though, the Facebook group has also faced backlash of its own as tensions sometimes boil over into doxxing and what Councilman Canek Aguirre called conspiracy theories. In a post on Dec. 5, for instance, members of the group suggested that proponents of the Seminary Road “lined [the] pockets” of Wilson, to which Wilson suggested they turn information about bribery over to the Commonwealth’s Attorney of the Alexandria Police Department. In a later post, Rossello pushed back on the notion that corruption was involved in the decision ot reconfigure the road.
Bill Rossello said four people have been removed from the group, some for “trolling” and others for posting personal information like street addresses or voting records of people who opposed the road diet.
One nearby resident said at a City Council meeting that she was removed from the group after dissenting. While Reynolds and Weymont said nobody would be removed for having a dissenting view, Rossello acknowledged that a person who had openly supported the road diet was removed.
“People who are activists in the community trying to undermine this group should not be members of this group,” Rossello said.
The debate over the road changes was also reignited last week when Councilwoman Amy Jackson tried to motion for the Council to pause work on the road dieting. The motion was struck down by the other members of Council, but staff said at the meeting that they would report back to the City Council with more information on the status of the road changes.
One way or another, the administrators of the Facebook page said it isn’t a fight that’s going away any time soon, with some saying it will be one of the biggest issues on their minds when elections come around.
“Whole process was a horror show for residents,” Rossello said. “The city should be embarrassed with how this rolled out; to think that they were just going to lay this on people and it was going to be fine.”
Seminary Road this morning. Gridlock is bad, but moreover, how will an ambulance get to the hospital? This isn’t safe. @AdamTuss @Marcella_Rob @fox5dc @AlexandriaNow @AlexTimesNews @AlexGazette pic.twitter.com/57UjfYpnnn
— Jill Hoffman (@JHoffman_DC) November 18, 2019