As the community process to re-imagine the future of the Lee Highway corridor through Arlington begins to take shape, civic and political leaders will have any number of questions to address.
Among them? Should the county government do what it did with Columbia Pike: Seek permission to take control of Lee Highway from the Virginia Department of Transportation?
“It’s an intriguing idea,” said County Board Vice Chairman Katie Cristol, but is one that, said Cristol and others interviewed, is not quite ready for a public vetting.
A planning effort to chart the future of the key east-west corridor through North Arlington is slated to kick off later in the year and run through 2018. The future of the road itself will be a part of those discussions, said Sandra Chesrown, president of the Lee Highway Alliance, a group of civic-association leaders working with county and state officials on planning efforts.
“Our long-term mission is to transform the corridor into a walkable, vibrant, complete street,” Chesrown said. “Having county control of decisions that impact Lee Highway’s physical design might improve the corridor’s ability to preserve existing resources and attract positive economic development in the future.”
That’s the same viewpoint that carried the day along Columbia Pike in South Arlington; in 2010, the Arlington County government convinced state transportation officials to cede control of the roadway to the local government.
The results there have led County Board Chairman Jay Fisette to be supportive of doing it in other corridors.
“It is much better for Arlington to have control of arterials where we expect to be doing lot of improvements,” he said. “The savings of staff costs and time are substantial and far outweigh the relatively modest cost borne by Arlington to maintain the roadway.”
At the time of the Columbia Pike ownership switch, Arlington officials were planning to run a streetcar through the heart of the Columbia Pike corridor, but that proposal fell apart in 2014.
County Board member John Vihstadt, whose election triggered collapse of the streetcar effort, is among those in the wait-and-see brigade when it comes to Lee Highway’s future.
“I’d like a rigorous cost-benefit analysis before the county considers assuming control over another major corridor,” he said. “Even with county control over the Pike, recent history shows the continued challenges of securing effective coordination on everything from streetlights to transit with various federal and state government entities, neighboring jurisdictions, Dominion-Virginia Power and other stakeholders.”
Lee Highway (U.S. Route 29) in Arlington stretches from East Falls Church to Rosslyn. For most of its length, the frontage features low-scale commercial buildings, mostly with two travel lanes in each direction.
The stretch through Arlington includes access to Interstate 66; a number of connections to arterial roadways (Glebe Road, Old Dominion Drive, George Mason Drive and Washington Boulevard among them); and a vast network of perpendicular feeder streets leading to residential neighborhoods.
The upcoming Lee Highway planning process is separate from, but is expected to build on, a “visioning” study completed in 2016. That study was the result of efforts begun at the grass-roots level about four years before. A 2015 transportation study also focused on the corridor, concluding that many, but not all, weaknesses of the streetscape could be improved without needing to purchase additional right-of-way.
The Lee Highway study will comprise an area the length of road through Arlington and roughly one-quarter mile north and south of the roadbed. The study is likely to consider, as the visioning process did, the potential positives and negatives of zoning changes that would allow higher density in the corridor.
Peter Harnik, a longtime civic activist with a special interest in transportation, believes a change in ownership of the highway would herald a positive new era.
“As long as the state controls the policies governing Lee Highway, the overriding priority will be to move as many cars as possible as quickly as possible,” he said. “It will result in eight-lane-wide intersections like the ones at Veitch Street and at Kirkwood Street . . . these intersections are deadly for pedestrians. They are also deadly for the kind of street life that is found in Clarendon and even along Columbia Pike and in Westover.”
If the Arlington government controlled the highway, “we could consider things like street parking in all the areas that are three lanes wide,” Harnik said. “Signage could be better regulated and made more appropriate. Speed limits could be reduced. Bicyclists could be better accommodated and protected.”
In virtually all Virginia counties, the Virginia Department of Transportation owns and maintains most roadways. Arlington is different: The county owns most of its secondary roads and some primary roads, handling maintenance in exchange for an annual payment from the state government.
Occasionally, the county government asks the Commonwealth Transportation Board and VDOT to cede ownership of stretches of roadways; Columbia Pike is one example, and this month, the government is asking to be given sovereignty over a stretch of Route 237 (10th Street North and North Fairfax Drive).
Fisette said he’d like to get the Route 237 matter behind the county before moving forward on any proposed ownership change of Lee Highway.
Having ownership of Lee Highway would give the county government more control and flexibility, but would come at a price. Arlington spends, on average, about $28,000 per lane-mile to maintain its roads, but receives only about $18,000 per lane-mile in reimbursement from the state government.
State Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st), who earlier served on the County Board, said she supports localities like Arlington pursuing options that create a specific sense of place.
“In Arlington’s case, this means establishing multi-modal transportation options and a more pedestrian-friendly environment,” she said.
But in the same breath, Favola added that Arlington’s wishes would have to be weighed against the overall regional and state transportation network.
“Lee Highway crosses so many jurisdictions – all the way to Charlottesville,” she said. (U.S. Route 29 then continues south to Danville, a total of 248 miles in Virginia from the Key Bridge to the North Carolina line.)
Favola is among those believing that time will provide clearer insights on how to move forward. “At this point, the idea needs more evaluation and study,” she said.
That seems to be the overall consensus.
“Good groundwork is being laid,” said Cristol, who is likely to serve as County Board chairman in 2018. “We’ll end up with recommendations; we’ll see what we want to do.”