The government listened. At least in Herndon.
The residents who lived near the heavily traveled curve at Dranesville Road and Park Avenue were afraid that Herndon was going to install a traffic roundabout that they felt was a bad idea. And in the first part of a 4 1/2-hour town council session Tuesday night, it was clear at least three of the seven council members favored the roundabout.
But after dozens of residents weighed in with traffic facts, petitions, school bus information and decades of experience, the council voted unanimously at 11:30 p.m. against putting a roundabout on Dranesville Road. Instead, they moved to build new medians and cut the four-lane thoroughfare down to one lane in each direction, south of Herndon Parkway, to allay the fears of those who have long felt the intersection/curve was a disaster waiting to happen.
“What a relief,” sighed Chuck Newell, whose house would have had a front row seat to the impact of placing a 90-foot-wide roundabout in what he and his wife, Jill Milloy, said was an 84-foot-wide space. “I didn’t think it was going to go our way after the staff presentation,” in which the town public works director recommended the roundabout as the best way to calm traffic.
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In the end, it wound up being a pretty impressive display of the way democracy is supposed to work, after a bump in the road when the council first approved the roundabout without a public hearing. Newell and Milloy analyzed not only the traffic and crash data at the intersection/curve, but also met with each council member in the weeks before the hearing, marshaled neighborhood support and then filled the council meeting room to overflowing, at least for the first couple of hours.
And the council listened. With an open mind. And watched, as the sentiment in the room unanimously tilted one way. And paid attention as the speakers went, uh, on. And then voted.
“The fact that they changed their minds,” neighbor Kevin Aiken said, “and listened to their constituents, we’re very happy about it.”
Then, while opponents of the roundabout celebrated with midnight pizza from Domino’s, the council continued on with another town traffic issue, followed by more agenda items, doing the work town councils do. But with a lot fewer people in the room.
The trajectory of the council’s decision started to turn with a presentation by public works director Bob Boxer, who acknowledged that his previous statement that there had been 29 crashes at the intersection/curve was incorrect. Upon further review, the actual number was 11 since 2002, he said. Even fewer than the 14 Newell had counted.
Next, councilmember Jasbinder Singh, a civil engineer, proceeded to shred the engineering of the proposed roundabout, saying the slope approaching it was too steep, the lighting required would be too much, cars coming south from Dranesville Road wouldn’t really have to slow down because it’s only a three-way intersection, and the turning radii were all wrong. No one really understood that last one, but hey, he’s the engineer.
Councilmember Connie Hutchinson pointed out that if medians were installed, folks who lived along Dranesville Road would have to devise some new routes home if they wanted to turn left into their driveways. Vice Mayor Lisa Merkel was troubled that exact measurements hadn’t been done to determine if the roundabout would fit. Boxer said “a timeout would be called.” That didn’t sound so great, though he said the timeout would be in the design phase, not the construction phase.”We’re still tweaking it,” Boxer said.
Then, during the public comments, resident and school bus driver Lynn Schumaker said that close to 100 school bus runs go through the intersection daily, not the two dozen or so estimated by Boxer. She noted that buses park at Herndon Elementary and make runs to other schools. She also said the size of the roundabout was a very close call for a full-sized bus, and that the school district might not even allow buses into it.
David Hartnett, who’s been imploring the council to slow down the intersection/curve since the mid-1990s, said fire trucks probably wouldn’t be allowed to go through the roundabout either. “I would urge each of you to vote no,” he said. But he urged some action, and now. He also noted a four-inch natural gas main runs directly under the intersection/curve, which is always something to think about when doing heavy construction.
Milloy, who said she measured the intersection/curve at 84 feet “curb to curb,” acknowledged that roundabouts are safer and slower in the right circumstances, “If this were perfect, I’d be all over it,” she said. But she noted that bicycles couldn’t travel in the roundabout, meaning the sidewalks would have to be ten feet wide, “and that leaves finding 15 non-existent feet on either side of it.”
Milloy added, “We don’t need protection from ourselves. Don’t devastate us and ignore the opinions of your constituents. Look around. We speak in one voice, as a team.”
The tide had turned, and a short 90 minutes later, Merkel proposed an alternate approach with medians and Dranesville Road pared down to one lane in each direction, which passed by unanimous voice vote. But Councilmember Grace Han Wolf offered a note of caution.
“In general, I don’t think it’s good to think of the roads as our roads,” she said. “We have to be mindful, this is a solution that has to fit every car that comes through our town. And traffic design by committee? Probably not a good idea.”
But for now, the committee of taxpayers, property owners and voters had scored one for the people.