Manassas residents voiced concerns at a town hall last week about a plan to shrink Grant Avenue from Wellington Road to Lee Avenue downtown.
Approved by the city council in the fiscal year 2019 Capital Improvement Plan, work on the $4.5 million “road diet” is set to begin later this year, but some are hoping to put a stop to the project. The project is timed to coincide with utility replacement work along Grant Avenue and the construction of the city’s new public safety building, set to begin in earnest next month.
Planners say the goal is to slow vehicle speeds without creating backups, making roads safer for those on foot and bicycles and behind the wheel. By shrinking the road to one lane in each direction, adding high-visibility crosswalks and building a median, pedestrians will have less distance to travel across the road and slower cars around them.
Meanwhile, by adding dedicated turn lanes, cars will leave the flow of traffic when making left-hand turns, as opposed to slowing down left-lane traffic and causing the cars behind them to either slow down or change lanes. Manassas Community Development Director Liz Via-Gossman said those kinds of maneuvers are common causes of accidents. The plan is to also include a dedicated OmniRide bus pull-off.
But at the city’s town hall last week, many residents expressed doubt that the changes would work. While most who spoke said they don’t live near the project site but travel through it and don’t want to be delayed, residents from the adjacent Georgetown South neighborhood raised their own objections. Mayor Hal Parrish reiterated his support for the project at the meeting.
Two traffic studies were conducted ahead of the city CIP approval, with both saying the project would not have a significant impact on traffic along Grant Avenue. But at the town hall meeting, many speakers said the city should have tested the impact on traffic using temporary barriers. Vice Mayor Pam Sebesky, a supporter of the plan, also said the project should be demonstrated before work begins.
“I’ve got to get up and leave really early because of the traffic,” said Jairo Castillo, a long-time Georgetown South resident. “I think that the people who did these [traffic] studies don’t live in the city of Manassas or maybe they don’t travel these roads in the times that we leave or the time we need to come back.”
There have also been lingering complaints from some in Georgetown South about the way the city has prepared residents for the project. Meg Carroll, who heads the Georgetown South Community Council, said the city council should have had a Spanish-language interpreter at the town hall and said the city has provided limited Spanish-language material on the project for the heavily Hispanic neighborhood.
“I brought a lot of people here from Georgetown South tonight and they cannot understand what [Deputy City Manager Bryan] Foster talked about,” Carroll said, inviting Castillo up to translate for her. “The Manassas city government lacks transparency to its entire population.”
Via-Gossman said the city held three meetings during the planning and engineering process in Georgetown South and notified residents about them. In hindsight, she said, planners should have staged a demonstration of the new traffic flow earlier in the process, but that those aren’t typically done once the design stage is finished. At this point, she said, the utility and public works building construction will already be altering the flow of traffic starting this month, and a separate demonstration couldn’t actually mimic what conditions will look like once the streetscape project is complete.
According to Planning and Zoning Manager Matt Arcieri, one of the issues the project tries to address can be seen anecdotally: people with limited crosswalk access traversing the road on foot to get to the Grant Avenue Shopping Center or one of the two nearby schools.
A Virginia Department of Transportation study analyzing previous “road diets” in Northern Virginia released in April concluded that similar projects have had the intended effect of making roads safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Meanwhile, localities “had generally positive views about their road diet projects. … Most survey respondents indicated that, in their opinions, road diets had met the primary goals of the projects.”
But judging by the town hall meeting, held at the Manassas Regional Airport, many drivers remain skeptical, calling for the city to first demonstrate the changes before making them permanent. Foster estimated that such a test period would cost the city $30,000 for signage and barricades.
“The cost of $30,000 to make sure we are spending $4.5 million correctly is nothing,” said city resident Bob Potter. “It’s nothing and it’s prudent.”