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City staff reflect on one of Alexandria’s most bizarre and troubled transportation projects

The Eisenhower Avenue-Mill Road project had one of the most bizarre approvals in recent city history — a project nobody on the City Council wanted but was too expensive to cancel.

Changes implemented earlier this year on Eisenhower Avenue were notably out of date, widening a roadway and creating a T-intersection at a time when the city is usually doing the opposite, but the City would have to pay back grant money already spent on the project if it were canceled.

A little over five months since the project was completed, Transportation Division Chief Chris Ziemann said the city has been trying to make the best of a project that no longer conforms to current transportation design.

One major problem is the project has been in the works for nearly 20 years.

“This project stems from the 2003 Eisenhower East Small Area Plan,” Ziemann said. “They were expecting development to happen faster than it did. They were expecting more traffic and a need to handle that a lot better, along with predicting a lot of office space to go in there.”

But while the opening of the Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2005, and later the National Science Foundation in 2017, spurred some redevelopment in the region, it wasn’t quite as much and wasn’t quite as quick as planners expected. Today, after the Covid pandemic, the USPTO is downsizing its Carlyle office space.

Ziemann said the traffic study was done in 2009 and the design concept was approved in 2013, but the next year, the City came out with its Complete Streets Guidelines. Vision Zero came out in 2017.

“So, obviously, the design takes safety and multimodal access into account, but it’s not designed with Vision Zero in mind,” Ziemann said.

Ziemann said the project was plagued with numerous unexpected challenges.

“This project took a long time because there were a lot of unexpected things that popped up, like utilities and working with property owners on right of way took longer than expected,” Ziemann said. “This was approved by the City Council ten years ago.”

While the city has been implementing road diets on other streets and changing roadways to prioritize transit, in many ways the Eisenhower Avenue and Mill Road intersection changes take an old-school approach of road widening to accommodate more traffic.

The project added a second left-turn lane from westbound Eisenhower Avenue onto Mill Road and a new lane onto Mill Road.

The roundabout at Eisenhower Avenue and Holland Lane was converted to a T intersection… even as the city reports say T intersections are more dangerous and, among the improvements to fix dangerous intersections, are conversions to roundabouts.

Ziemann said there’s some added context to Eisenhower Avenue and Mill Road that make the streets a little different from areas like Duke Street or Seminary Road.

“The roads where we are repurposing lanes and stuff like that, they’re not connected to interstates and not around 15-20 story buildings,” Ziemann said. “That’s a bit of the changing context.”

Still, Ziemann recognized that the project as-is isn’t necessarily how the city would approach the intersection if it was starting the project today.

“This project took a super long time, and it kind of reflects that too,” Ziemann said. “If we were starting from scratch, it might look different.”

Residents near the intersection shared images of crashes occurring in the newly redesigned intersection.

Ziemann said the city uses annual crash data to monitor the impact of a project, and said that data won’t be in until sometime next spring.

“When we track it, generally we look at trends,” Ziemann said. “If there are a lot of crashes at one time or if there are certain things happening continuously, but — basically, since it was just finished in May — it’s too early to gather crash data.”

Regarding the crashes, Ziemann said any time there’s a change to a roadway, there’s a period afterward where drivers get adjusted to the changes.

Once that crash data comes in, Ziemann said the city will adjust plans as needed, but said those frustrated by the new design should temper their hopes the city might tear up the roadway and start from scratch again.

“As we monitor the safety and crash history in that area, we’ll definitely look to see if more improvements are needed and we’ll go from there,” Ziemann said.

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