O'Toole's Bar at the corner of Lowell Avenue and Old Dominion Drive in McLean still has a sign out front referring to the late-night watering hole as Bill's Carry Out. But the people who drive through town on Old Dominion Drive know the nondescript storefront best for the 12-foot-deep blind ditch and steep embankment between the road and O'Toole's parking lot.
"I'm amazed no one's gotten killed there so far," said Jack O'Toole, tipping a bottle of beer at his bar one night last week.
The muddy, rock-strewn ditch is divided from the intersection only by a telephone pole and four upright two-by-fours. The townsfolk want the state to fill the hole. They've been asking for a decade and they might have to keep up the request for another 10 years.
The ditch in front of O'Toole's topped a list of suggested improvements to Old Dominion Drive and Chain Bridge Road that McLean residents presented to Virginia Highway and Transportation Department officials at a public hearing last Wednesday night. The two-hour session in the McLean High School cafeteria was called to discuss the state's proposed $6.8 million project to widen and alter Old Dominion Drive from Dolley Madison Boulevard to Holmes Place and Chain Bridge Road from Great Falls Street to Dolley Madison.
Right now, the state has $1.4 million earmarked for the McLean project, but none for the ditch at Lowell Avenue. While the men from the state promised to begin work on the major intersection at Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion Drive, the ditch will remain unfilled because none of the initial funds will be spent on improving Old Dominion.
McLean's undisciplined streets in the central business district, which seem to widen and narrow without much design, have been an issue in the community for more than a decade. While shopping plazas took over the downtown, the roads remained basically a two-lane affair with a few turn lanes down the middle.
Plans for major changes to the roads were scuttled in 1974 because state funds were drained by the oil embargo, according to a citizens report. But those early years of planning spawned a well-organized group of homeowners and businessmen called the Chain Bridge Road Committee, which reorganized and held a series of 18 informal public hearings on the traffic problems since July, 1979.
At last week's public hearing, the group presented state officials with an eight-page report including 31 specific recommendations for the proposed roadwork. The report's central theme was: "Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion Drive within the Central Business District should be designed for commercial traffic, not commuter traffic; for customers, not commuters."
Under the state's design, the .9-mile stretch of Old Dominion Drive would be reconstructed as a four-lane divided roadway, according to the location and design study. There's no money on hand for the $2 million project, however.
On Chain Bridge Road, the state proposed two lanes from Great Falls Street to Davidson Road and five lanes through the intersection with Old Dominion Drive to Dolley Madison Boulevard. The estimated cost is $4.8 million -- and again, the state has only a portion of the funds available now.
In general, lthe 29 people who testified in the muggy cafeteria agreed with the state's proposals, with a few exceptions.
"There's a lot that's just fine about their plan," said Lilla Richadson, chairman of the 21-member group of volunteers who met and wrote the report. "But we are trying to get the highway department to alter it somewhat."
Virtually every person who spoke at the hearing supported the ad hoc group's recommendations.
There were a few notable criticisms of the state's proposal however. The downtown businessmen who opposed sections of the design brought petitions with hundreds of signatures to back them up.
The state's plan to construct concrete medians along portions of Old Dominion Drive and Chain Bridge Road met with vehement opposition. Merchants and fire officials spoke against the proposed closing of Elm Street's outlet onto the main intersection.
"If the median is built, it would devastate business along the strip," said Vincent F. Callahan Jr., a state delegate from McLean. Richard Juliano, owner of Rocco's Ilalian Restaurant, submitted a written statement representing 267 merchants opposed to medians.
A number of residents of Chain Bridge Road south of Westmoreland Street objected to the proposed widening of the roadway to Great Falls Street. They said they feared that their two-lane road would become a highway through their neighborhood.
"The proposed construction plans will alter the purpose and nature of Chain Bridge Road to that of a highway bypass for an entire portion of Rte. 123," said Robert Comunale, who lives on Chain Bridge Road. "This will be detrimental to both residential and business interests by promoting the heavier through traffic that a highway brings."
Comunale recommended that this stretch of the project be withdrawn entirely, unless the state chose to use the existing right-of-ways for a three-lane highway. Echoing a number of his neghbors, Comunale requested that any property for the revamped highway be taken from the park on the south side of Chain Bridge Road, rather than from the north side where houses line the road.
Three lawyers representing McLean businessmen at the intersection of Chain Bridge and Old Dominion testified against parts of the plan which would force their clients to move. Although as many as eight businesses might be slightly affected by the most ambitious reconstruction plan, the final design would infringe on only two or three properties, according to state officials.
"It's not a situation where you're displacing widows and orphans," said Richardson.
The meeting appears to have accomplished one major goal of the citizens' group. The committee strongly recommended that the state reconstruct the intersection of Tennyson Road where it meets Chain Bridge so that traffic could flow directly into Ingeleside Avenue. Highway engineer Keith said Friday that that job would follow the completion of the Old Dominion Drive and Chain Bridge Road intersection.
But the primary obstacle still is money rather than local opposition. Keith said most of the residents' wishes could be accommodated, but the available $1.4 million might not even cover the cost of reworking the major intersection.
Keith said he would take a forthcoming recommendation from the Fairfax Board of Supervisors together with the hearing record and his suggestions and forward the package to Richmond, where the highway commission staff will fashion its recommendation. He predicted that the commission would choose a final design in approximately three months, and that work could begin within a year.