Each weekday at 5:45 a.m., Glenn Walton leaves his home in Harpers Ferry and drives through the congested streets of Washington to his job in Rosslyn. The travel time of about an hour and 45 minutes is a sacrifice he gladly makes to live in the green hills of West Virginia.
But Walton's drive probably will take much longer if Georgetown University succeeds with a controversial proposal to allow more traffic into its south entrance on Canal Road. The street is heavily used by commuters coming from Montgomery County and northern Virginia.
The university has proposed that the city install a traffic light at the entrance and cut through an existing median to allow left turns into the campus by eastbound traffic.
"It will allow us better management of traffic, rather than having people drift through the city searching for the entrance," said Dean Price, Georgetown's director of facilities planning. He said the changes also will keep commuters off residential streets in Georgetown.
Price said the university views the changes as "a commitment to our neighbors" and "a public service."
Left turns into the university's south entrance on Canal Road now are prohibited. To enter from the south, motorists must drive several blocks past their destination, through side streets in Georgetown, and circle back to make a right turn from Canal Road. Or they must use the residential streets and enter by the campus' other gateways at 37th and O streets NW (Healy Circle) or at Prospect Street NW.
Although allowing more traffic into the Canal Road entrance would reduce traffic in the Georgetown community immediately surrounding the university, neighborhoods farther away would be adversely affected, residents complain.
Walton and some other commuters fear the proposed left turning lane will become full and more cars will spill over into the adjacent lanes, stalling traffic for miles.
"We've run into a broken-down car, and it has added a half-hour driving time to our trip," Walton said.
"You have to be there one day when a lane is blocked to believe it. It's overwhelming," said Larry Berger, who drives a 15-passenger van of commuters from Gaithersburg each weekday, drops them off at the Pentagon and goes on to his job in Crystal City. "On a good day, it takes me 35 minutes to drive to work," he said. "On a bad one, the sky is the limit."
While the commuters worry about driving conditions, residents of the Foxhall Village, Colony Hill and Palisades neighborhoods say the added traffic will block exits from their communities and increase commuter driving on their residential streets.
Sabeeha Johnson, a member of the Foxhall Citizens Association, has spent the last two weeks protesting the proposed changes with fliers, telephone calls and meetings. "The response has been overwhelming," she said.
"I just think we have enough traffic on Canal Road," said John Doolittle, president of the Foxhall Community Citizens Association. "We want more time to study the problem and to get more community input."
The university hired the engineering firm of Bernard Johnson Inc. to conduct an environmental assessment of the proposed changes, a requirement when federal funding is involved, said Norman Glasgow, the university's zoning attorney. Georgetown is applying for a $600,000 Urban Mass Transportation Administration grant to finance the road work.
On Thursday night, Glasgow presided at a public hearing required for the application process. About 60 residents and commuters, polite but steadfast in thier opposition, gathered to hear the engineering firm's explanation of why the changes are needed.
Kitty Barkley, the firm's project manager, said the 210-foot turning lane will "hold up to 10 vehicles," more than twice the average that would be waiting to turn at a time.
The firm also estimated 120 vehicles will turn into the Canal Road entrance from 8 to 9 a.m., the peak hour. At present, about 80 cars use the entrance during the same period, the firm said.
At the end of the three-hour hearing, no one's opinion seemed to have been changed. Georgetown still will apply for funding for the project; the consulting firm maintained traffic will flow as smoothly as it does now; and residents want another hearing conducted by the city's Department of Transportation and time to study alternatives.