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Agency to Restore Six Lanes Along Wisconsin Avenue in Spring

By Elizabeth WienerCurrent Staff Writer

A clearly reluctant D.C. Department of Transportation has tentatively agreed to restore Wisconsin Avenue to six traffic lanes in Glover Park.

In the spring, the agency will remove remove the newly painted median strip that was designed to slow traffic and protect pedestrians on the busy commercial corridor.

The turnabout came at a public hearing last Wednesday where witnesses argued that the restricted lanes are causing unacceptable delays, and actually jeopardizing pedestrians because bottlenecks lead impatient drivers to swerve in and out of lanes and cut crazily through adjoining neighborhood streets. Many residents, the Glover Park advisory neighborhood commission and two D.C. Council members have been pushing for the reversal.

“Six lanes — that’s what we want. Why can’t you scrape Wisconsin Avenue now?” demanded Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, who has led the charge to undo the lane changes that evolved out of a six-year streetscape revitalization project.

“Cut to the chase. Can we restore this to six lanes?” asked Ward 3 member Mary Cheh, who chairs the council’s committee on transportation.

Transportation Department director Terry Bellamy, clearly under pressure, agreed. “What DDOT is prepared to do, is to work with [Cheh] to look at what the cross section can provide, and how we can go back to the original configuration. There’s an inherent conflict between keeping traffic moving and keeping the neighborhood safe,” he testified. “We’re here today … to find common solutions.”

There’s one wrinkle. As Bellamy noted, the roadbed through most of the commercial strip has never been wide enough to accommodate six standard lanes. That part of Wisconsin is only 54 feet wide, he explained, and the Federal Highway Administration says lanes on arterial roads should be at least 10 feet wide. Defying that standard could mean a loss of federal funds.

“It isn’t illegal, but definitely substandard,” said one Transportation Department engineer. “This is a federal route, an evacuation route, and one ramification could be loss of federal money. They may require us to pay back for what we put into Glover Park.”

“We may have to use local money,” Bellamy added.

That didn’t deter the council members. “Yes, you can put six lanes in,” said Evans. “We do it till they tell us we can’t.”

“We’ll have a bake sale,” Cheh added.

Transportation Department officials, backed by a handful of residents, said the “lane diet” has actually worked as planned, with relatively minimal delays and traffic accidents down. According to the department’s analysis, travel time northbound in the commercial strip was up by about two minutes — from 3.5 to 5.5 minutes during the afternoon peak — after the project was completed late last year, but has actually fallen since then as adjustments were made and drivers got used to the system.

“Wisconsin Avenue should never have been a six-lane highway,” said Abigail Zenner, a Glover Park resident and project booster. “DDOT says northbound travel time increased 120 seconds. I’d gladly take two minutes to be safe.”

But other witnesses overwhelmingly disagreed. “The problem is not that cars slow down. That’s good. But far too many drivers get frustrated, change lanes, block intersections. It doesn’t work for residents, for business, for anybody,” said Jackie Blumenthal, a Glover Park neighborhood commissioner.

Nan Bell, president of the Burleith Citizens Association, put it succinctly: “Wisconsin Avenue has really become a dangerous mess.”

At the urging of council members and residents, the Transportation Department has already made modifications. It removed the painted median north of Calvert Street last spring, allowing one more travel lane. The intersection of Tunlaw Road and Calvert was reconfigured to discourage cut-through traffic, and the department has also agreed to make 35th Street between Whitehaven Parkway and Wisconsin two-way to remove a bottleneck at the southern end of the strip.

But Cheh, Evans and most witnesses also agreed that many of the pedestrian safety enhancements installed so far — wider sidewalks and better street lighting, for example — have been a success. And they urged the Transportation Department to be sure that additional safety measures are taken even as travel lanes are restored.

Glover Park neighborhood commission chair Brian Cohen presented a detailed proposal to calm traffic and keep pedestrians safe: traffic cameras on north and southbound Wisconsin, stop sign cameras at certain neighborhood intersections, a pedestrian-activated HAWK signal or safer crosswalk at the “dangerous intersection” of Wisconsin and Fulton Street, a new traffic light where 35th Street meets Wisconsin, and beefed-up enforcement.

But Cohen also delivered a warning. “Regardless of whether we revert to the six-lane traffic pattern, there will be more traffic on Wisconsin Avenue.” He said both legislators and transportation officials have to find ways to reduce auto use on the corridor, with improved bus service, a streetcar, or “the best long-term solution,” a Metro line down Wisconsin Avenue from Tenleytown to Georgetown.

Cheh said she will help schedule a meeting this week with stakeholders to set up a timeline for both the lane changes and safety improvements.

But Bellamy said that while the planning can proceed, actual roadwork must wait until the weather warms up. “Spring, that’s when we can work,” he said.

“So you’re really looking at April. But by then you can get all the traffic calming planned,” said Evans.

“That’s the way to do it,” Bellamy replied.

This article appears in the Dec. 11 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.