Opinions clashed during Wednesday night’s meeting of the BRAC-133 Advisory Group at Francis Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, with differing views on the type of environmental assessment required prior to building an HOV ramp near the Mark Center and on whether the ramp would increase traffic.
The main purpose of the meeting was to determine the appropriate level of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) documentation needed in assessing an HOV ramp connecting I-395 to Seminary Road.
According to a presentation by officials from the Virginia Department of Transportation, the environmental impact of the ramp, which received the endorsement of the Alexandria City Council in February, could be determined through either a Categorical Exclusion (CE) or an Environmental Assessment (EA).
Residents expressed concern that, as they saw it, VDOT seemed to already be going in the direction of both the HOV ramp and the CE. VDOT Commonwealth BRAC Coordinator Tom Fahrney assured them that was not the case.
Owen Curtis, a resident and transportation consultant, told the Advisory Group and the VDOT officials that an EA was the appropriate course of action, as it would provide a "much more thorough public interface" if handled in the correct manner. "Let's do what this community needs and requires," he said. "Tell Secretary Connaughton and the governor the extra six months you might save [with a CE] is not worth it in terms of properly dealing with this issue in this community."
The presentation stated that a CE is performed if no significant environmental impact is anticipated by the project. It would require technical studies, including air studies and noise evaluations. Public hearings would be held through the BRAC-133 Advisory Group and the Alexandria City Council, and the process would take about six to eight months.
An EA, on the other hand, would take about 12 to 14 months to complete. Instead of using the city’s established public information resources, an EA would require formal public hearings through VDOT, adding 3 to 6 months to the process. The technical studies would be essentially the same, said VDOT official Keisha Voight.
After conducting preliminary studies, Fahrney said VDOT officials feel a CE is the appropriate level of documentation and that the department had shared this opinion with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), who will ultimately decide which assessment to perform. If a CE is implemented and the process of constructing the ramp goes perfectly, the project could be completed by the end of 2014, Fahrney said.
Fahrney also said that in February, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton granted $80 million to be allocated exclusively to the HOV ramp project in the event it’s approved. Fahrney stressed that the $80 million was for the ramp and the ramp only, and could not be used for other transit projects. This angered some members of the Advisory Group, but Fahrney said VDOT believed the HOV ramp would be a transit infrastructure improvement, and would encourage more residents to carpool and use buses.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the Advisory Group passed a motion stating that it supported an EA as long as the extended process did not jeopardize the ramp funding.
Residents Concerned About Traffic
Curtis also had words for residents who feared the HOV ramp would only increase traffic. "I have to disagree with the fear that this ramp is going to create more traffic on our streets," he said. "BRAC is what creates the traffic ... and it'll be on your streets in a dense congestion, or some of it will convert over to carpool, vanpool and buses if this ramp is built."
Russell Axelson, a resident of Southern Towers and a local for more than 46 years, disagreed. "Cars are backed up to 395 now without the ramp," he said. "It's only going to make it worse."
Alexandria Councilwoman Alicia Hughes reminded attendees that nearly 7,000 Department of Defense employees would be coming to the Mark Center in September 2011. "It's done," she said. "We have to make the best choice among all bad options."
Vice Mayor Kerry Donley was also in the audience, and he echoed Curtis' statements. "The HOV ramp is our friend," he said. "It gives them transit options. It gives them options to take a bus, it gives them options to carpool ... and it keeps them off of that Seminary Road interchange."
On Tuesday, March 22, there will be a discussion of the City Manager's report on the Mark Center during the Alexandria City Council Meeting. For more information, click here.