Post #464: Decoding the Vienna Multimodal traffic study: Comparison to the Fairfax 527 filing

Posted on November 20, 2019

Post #456 was a heavy lift.  I spent all my time finding the facts about Chapter 527 and the Fairfax County 527 filing for Tysons.  That left no time for putting that 527 filing into a larger context.  If you want facts, read that post.

This one is the first of a series of posts about the larger picture.  I’m going to end up with the phrase “What do we want Maple Avenue to be?”.  But for now, I’m starting with a flat-footed comparison of the Fairfax County 527 filing and the Town of Vienna Multimodal transportation study.

The point of this post is how peculiar the Town’s “Multimodal” study seems, compared to the Fairfax 527 filing, where the two overlap.  And then secondarily, how peculiar the Town’s “Multimodal” study is, period, from the standpoint of cars as a mode of transportation.

At first, I thought that maybe the consultants for that study were just not very good.  But in hindsight, I’m pretty sure that the problem lies with the Town of Vienna.  With no hard evidence whatsoever, I’m willing to bet that the consultants had been told that they could not consider adding any lanes to Maple Avenue.  As is usual in Town of Vienna government, that would have happened with no public debate or even any public mention of that constraint.

It’s either that, or the Kimley-Horn consultants were absolutely incompetent, which I think is not even remotely plausible.  This will become clear when I compare the two proposed solutions (527 vs Multimodal) for traffic congestion at the Maple/Beulah intersection (below).

And once you make that observations, much of the rest of the apparent peculiarity of the Vienna Multimodal study comes into focus.  Much of what was proposed in the “Multimodal”  study would have made it somewhat harder to use a car in the Town of Vienna.  I don’t necessarily think that was the point.  I think it was a byproduct of what the consultants were charged with doing.  But I do think the consultants went well out of their way to downplay that.  It was implicit, but that’s all it was.  And that point brings me to the last section, “Road Diet”, where local governments have an up-front explicit strategy of making it harder to use cars for transportation.

The Maple/Beulah intersection

Both the Fairfax 527 plan and the Town of Vienna Multimodal study contained proposed fixes for traffic congestion at the Maple/Beulah intersection.  The 527 filing predates the Vienna Multimodal study by about a decade.  The contrast of the two proposed fixes could not be sharper.

First, examine the Fairfax proposal (below).  This seems like a fairly normal road-widening project.  Add some turn lanes to get from Maple west-bound onto Beulah.  In addition, where the very short Beulah turn lane fills up (between Branch and Beulah), add enough width to the road that you could have double turn lanes there.

All told, that intervention appears to address very directly the main problems with that intersection.  It was estimated to have cost $1.9M in 2009 dollars.

Fixing the Beulah/Maple intersection, from the Fairfax County Tysons Chapter 527 filing.

Now look at the two proposed solutions in the Vienna Multimodal study, the next two pictures.  They include brand new road segments, plowing new roads through private property, closing road segments and turning them into linear parks, and eliminating either the Beulah or Branch light on Maple.  Note that individuals traveling west on Maple would be forced to backtrack to get to Beulah.  Individuals traveling west Branch would be forced to backtrack to get to Maple westbound.

All told, that’s a) really odd, b) far more radical, and c) estimated to cost anywhere from $2.1M to $9.9M to implement.  And, as Councilmember Springsteen pointed out, the second of the Multimodal options shown above literally could not be implemented with the buildings as they currently stand.  You’d have to knock down a shopping center to do that one.

So, now, ask yourself this question:  Are the Kimley-Horn traffic engineers really that incompetent? No.  Surely they knew of the 527 filing.  Why, given that, would they propose a far more costly, far more destructive, and far less functional solution?

They could have started from the 527 solution, and tried to make that better.  Why didn’t they?  In engineering terms, what they proposed was inferior to the 527 solution along every dimension:  Cost, functionality, and private property destruction.  

There must have been some additional constraint on what they were allowed to do.  What they presented was the best they could come up with, given the limitations imposed on them.   So, what constraint would yield these solutions?  No new lanes on Maple.

So I think that, one way or the other, they were given the instruction that they were not to add any traffic lanes to Maple Avenue.  To me, that’s the only thing that explains totally ignoring the existing 527 solution, and coming up with something that is inferior in every engineering aspect.  Except for the fact that it “fixes” the intersection without adding lanes to Maple.

Then, if you read through the rest of their recommendations, you will note the following.

  • No new lanes on Maple, anywhere.
  • Removing lanes from other intersections in the interest of pedestrian safety.
  • Reducing total green-light times on Maple traffic lights (“leading pedestrian interval”) in the interest of pedestrian safety.
  • Removing parking on church, in the interest of bicycle mobility.

And so on.  Outside of Maple, most of those proposals would make it harder to use a car in Vienna.  Not as an explicit goal, but as a side-effect of what was being proposed.

So, outside of Maple Avenue, you have a bunch of solutions that would make life easier for pedestrians and bicyclists, at the expense of motorists.

Only, the way it came across was: make life easier for pedestrians and bicyclists at the expense of motorists

On Maple, you had any solution that might work … except those that involved additional lanes.   There, as presented, they never even hinted that the second clause was part of the equation.

And so I get back to Councilman Springsteen’s comment on the proposed Beulah intersection fix.  He directed his comments to the consultant, and stopped just short of saying that the proposed solution was totally crazy. 

And I agree.  But it’s not the consultants who are were crazy.  It was the Town of Vienna government.  If you want to know why the consultants came up with those expensive, invasive, and impractical solutions, ask them why they didn’t just do something like the Fairfax 527 proposal.  And at that point, I’m pretty sure that, if they are honest about it, they’ll point the finger where it belongs:  At the Town of Vienna government, the people who gave them their marching orders for this study.

Road diet

I want to sharpen the focus on cars-vs-other-modes by bringing in the term “road diet”.  Google it and you’ll immediately get hundreds of entries.  And most of those will embody a whole lot of anger.  Which may well explain the stealthy aspects of the Town of Vienna Multimodal study as it relates to car use in Vienna.

Road diet.  Crudely put, this is shorthand for purposefully reducing the vehicle carrying capacity of a roadway.  Removing a lane, say, or otherwise reducing the ability of a road to move cars.  Sometimes, this is done solely to reduce the number of cars traveling past some point, or reduce their speed.  It can be cast purely as a safety measure, for example.  More typically, it is done in order to favor (or allow) some other mode of transport, such as bike lanes, sidewalks, bus lanes, or similar.

The point I am trying to make is that with a “road diet”, the local government is up front about what they are trying to do.   They will have open debates on the merits of reducing vehicle capacity (safety, neighborhood quality-of-life, more sidewalks and bike lanes) versus drawbacks (greater traffic congestion).

My wife clued me in on a local road diet going on right now along Seminary Road in Alexandria.  You can read the Patch article at this link.  In an nutshell, they reduced it from two car lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction, a center turn land, and bike lanes.  With the predictable result that you have stalled traffic sitting next to empty bike lanes.  And a lot of angry commuters.

I have no opinion on whether this is a good idea or not, on Seminary Road.  It’s none of my business.  But what does this have to do with the Town of Vienna, and Maple Avenue?

First, the Vienna Multimodal Study is more-or-less a stealth road diet.  OK, it’s more of a maintenance diet for Maple.  Instead of taking away lines, the Town has just (quietly?) decided that they will never consider adding lanes to Maple anywhere.   It’s a diet in the sense of not being allowed to gain weight, no matter what.  And then, for the rest of the Town, it was more a question of cutting out a few snacks:  A turn lane here or there, a few extra seconds of green-light time, maybe some parking places, and so on.

I guess I’ve run the diet analogy into the ground at this point.

Second, near as I can figure, this issue — cars versus others — is a big part of what Town officials mean when they say “But what do we want Maple Avenue to be?”.  That’s not all of it, but I think that’s about half of it:  How far are we willing to go to accommodate traffic?   They never seem to have any concrete discussion of that catch-phrase, so that’s going to be the subject of my next post, to try to sharpen up just exactly what Town officials mean when they say that phrase.