By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer
Undoing a controversial piece of the Wisconsin Avenue streetscape project, the D.C. Department of Transportation last week began removing a painted median between Calvert and Garfield streets to restore a lane for cars.
The agency was responding to complaints — voiced loudly at a May 1 D.C. Council hearing — that the narrowed roadway was causing bottlenecks and sending frustrated motorists onto residential streets. The change will not affect the Glover Park commercial district, which runs from Calvert south; that area is not slated to lose its new median or dedicated left-turn lanes.
But the reversal upset some Glover Park residents who say the overall project is both calming traffic and improving pedestrian safety. And some say the Transportation Department acted without proper consultation or consideration of the spillover effects. The change was announced just days before the yellow-striped median between Garfield and Fulton streets was partially scrubbed away.
“It’s abundantly clear DDOT didn’t do any evaluation,” said Brian Cohen, chair of Glover Park’s advisory neighborhood commission. Cohen said the lane restrictions resulted from several years of study, which, he said, “found the pedestrian environment dangerous.”
“I understand there are issues that need to be resolved, but let’s resolve them in a thoughtful, comprehensive way — and this action is the opposite,” Cohen said. He said two pedestrians were hit by cars each year from 2008 through 2010 along that stretch of Wisconsin.
But the latest change pleased residents in Massachusetts Avenue Heights, which flanks Wisconsin’s east side north of Glover Park. They had argued, just as vociferously, that the striped yellow median with its marked turn lanes was not only clogging traffic, but also encouraging pedestrians to jaywalk mid-block and drivers to turn into their neighborhood to avoid the congestion.
“I’m surprised, but pleased,” said Massachusetts Avenue Heights neighborhood commissioner Catherine May. “People really want this striping gone.”
She said her constituents had uniformly protested the loss of a traffic lane, as well as new evening parking restrictions introduced on that stretch of Wisconsin without proper notice. “It doesn’t improve pedestrian safety. It makes it worse,” she said of the initial changes.
Both Cohen and May said the “un-striping” began with minimal and late notice. May said the neighborhood commissions got an email notice about a day before the work began, and Cohen said the Transportation Department sent his to the wrong e-mail address. The agency sent the council a notice May 28 saying it was responding to “a request from [Ward 3] Council member Mary Cheh, [Ward 2] Council member Jack Evans, and community residents.”
“In the interest of pedestrian and vehicle safety, an independent determination has been made” to remove the striping north of Calvert and reopen the middle lane to traffic, wrote chief traffic engineer James Cheeks.
Monica Hernandez, a Transportation Department spokesperson, said only that the removal of the median strip north of Calvert Street is a “permanent change.”
Evans said Monday that after the May 1 hearing he and Cheh had instructed agency director Terry Bellamy to “make those changes in 30 days.” Bellamy had initially said his department needed at least 90 days to evaluate the proposal.
Cheh said she, too, was surprised by the Transportation Department’s quick action and short notice. She said she had only asked Bellamy to study the issue and report back in 30 days.
But the Ward 3 member said that there seemed to be consensus that restoring a traffic lane along that stretch of Wisconsin would improve traffic flow. “We’re restoring something that existed before,” she said. “If from a pedestrian and safety perspective it makes sense, why not respond to a major problem?”
The Wisconsin Avenue project has been under discussion for years, following a 2006 study on ways to improve the business climate and pedestrian safety in Glover Park. The entire project, stretching up Wisconsin from Whitehaven Parkway to Massachusetts Avenue, also produced wider sidewalks, better street lighting and new parking restrictions. But the transformation of a through-traffic lane into a yellow painted median strip, complete with multiple turn arrows, has spurred the loudest reaction.
“This idea of restricting [northbound] traffic to one lane … is unacceptable,” Evans said in an interview, arguing that backups extend down past the Safeway several blocks south, with one illegally parked truck able to bring the entire stretch to a halt. Evans called the return of a traffic lane north of Calvert Street “a half measure,” and said he will continue to push for removing the entire yellow striped median in Glover Park’s commercial area as well.
The first news of the change came last Wednesday, when the Transportation Department posted a news release announcing “temporary lane closures on northbound Wisconsin Avenue” starting the next day “to facilitate the removal of pavement markings in this corridor.” By Sunday, the bright yellow stripes had been roughly scrubbed away between Garfield and Fulton streets, with work farther south to come.
The change sparked criticism on the Glover Park neighborhood listserv and from neighborhood commissioners. Several targeted Evans himself.
“I’ll be honest,” said Cohen. “Jack Evans is concerned about getting his kids back and forth to school, and he doesn’t give a damn about people who live, work and play in Glover Park. All he cares about is driving through Glover Park as fast as he can. That’s the problem with politicians making traffic decisions, instead of traffic engineers.” Evans lives in Georgetown, and his triplets attend school at the National Cathedral and at Maret.
Evans said Monday that his push to remove the median “has nothing to do with me driving my children to school.” He said he spoke repeatedly at the hearing of his “firsthand experience” with traffic on Wisconsin Avenue because that would be more effective than simply repeating complaints of his constituents. “It has nothing to do with me, but understanding the frustration experienced by everyone” who drives the corridor, he said.
Cheh, in a separate interview, said she would not support removing the median strip in the commercial area of Glover Park, as Evans is advocating. “We’re not going to do that,” said Cheh, who chairs the council’s transportation committee. “I don’t think we’re at the stage yet of throwing out all that work in Glover Park.”
This article appears in the June 5 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.