Proposed changes at the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Utterback Store Road in Great Falls have fueled a traffic safety controversy in northern Fairfax that pits commuters against local residents.
Despite opposition from many Great Falls residents, the state Department of Highways and Transportation district engineer for Northern Virginia, David Gehr, recommended this week that the state proceed with lowering by seven feet the crest of a hill on Georgetown Pike at Utterback Store Road and replacing the four-way stop signs, in use since 1980, with a traffic signal. Turn lanes, called for in previous plans, have been eliminated.
The State Highway and Transportation Commission is expected to decide at its February meeting whether to approve the plans.
Opponents of the plans say that the four-way stop signs are safer than traffic signals, arguing that where signals were installed along other Pike intersections, the accident rate went up. Other Dranesville residents and commuters living west of Great Falls favor the road grading and traffic light because they say it will improve visibility and provide quicker movement of traffic through the crossroads.
Georgetown Pike has been the scene of a number of battles over the years, primarily over whether it should be widened to accommodate the increase in traffic. But because it has been designated as a scenic byway -- the state's first -- it has not been upgraded in proportion to the amount of traffic it carries. An average of 12,865 cars a day travel the pike, also a state primary highway, between Leesburg Pike and the Beltway.
"We would like to see a safe intersection that still provides adequate movement. This means a traffic light," said George Smith, head of the traffic committee of the Dranesville District Council, which represents 30 civic associations in that district.
Harriet Kiser, head of an ad hoc group called the Citizens Action Committee of Utterback Store Road, opposes the changes, saying that more accidents could be caused by drivers who speed up to beat the changing traffic light. She also said that judging from her own experience at the intersection, the four-way stop signs are enough incentive to assure that daily commuters take pains to give the proper right of way.
Although Gehr said he is aware that the intersection has one of the lowest accident rates along Georgetown Pike, he said he recommended the changes because cars on the Pike do not have an adequate distance before they see other cars coming through the intersection.
"There is still a potential for an accident," Gehr said. "The traffic light is not as restrictive as the four-way stop -- it improves the flow of traffic," Gehr said. There are many people using the intersection that are his constituents as well, he said, and the highway department is responsible for providing a safe and efficient roadway for all users.
Gehr said that the traffic signal would provide for more efficient movement of traffic for the busier Georgetown Pike, while still allowing cars on the less heavily traveled Utterback Store Road adequate opportunity to cross.
At a hearing on the project in November, the Utterback group presented a petition signatures of 1,291 residents, most from Great Falls, opposed to the state's planned changes. "Everybody feels the light will create a less safe situation out here. It would increase traffic speed to 40 miles per hour," Kiser said.
Great Falls Citizens Association President Estelle Holley said that many people living in the neighborhood are opposed to any changes at the intersection. The current stop signs, she said, are "very adequate and very safe."
The association says that taxpayers' money could be used to increase the safety of more dangerous intersections a few miles away on the pike, including Springvale Road, Walker Road, and Old Dominion Drive. During the past four years, 95 traffic accidents have been reported at the Walker Road intersection and 132 accidents at Old Dominion Road and Georgetown Pike, according to the Fairfax County police and the state highway department.
According to Julian Brown, an engineer in the traffic and safety section of the highway department, accidents increase when traffic lights are installed, but they are less serious. Rear-end collisions increase, Brown said, but head-on and right-angle accidents decrease.
The controversial intersection, like others along twisting Georgetown Pike, has been the scene of frequent accidents. After a well-known local resident, Bayard Evans, the owner of Evans Farm Inn, was killed while driving along Utterback Store Road at Georgetown Pike in 1980, community protests over the danger prompted the state to design changes to make the intersection safer. As an interim measure until funding became available, the state installed four-way stop signs.
"I was very surprised that there was opposition to the traffic light , especially after the furor over getting some control there," said the Dranesville Council's Smith, referring to the outcry after Evans' death.
Major accidents at the intersection dropped from 27 during the four years before the stop signs were installed to five in the four years since November 1980, when the signs went up, according to the state highway department.
"I have heard from other citizens that there are a lot of near-misses," said Fairfax County supervisor Nancy K. Falck, who represents the Dranesville District, which includes Great Falls.
"The majority of the speakers at the hearing wanted to leave it just as it is," said a member of Falck's staff. At the hearing Falck, said she favored some form of control at the intersection.
Falck said she was concerned because school buses use it to bring children to Forestville Elementary School on Utterback Store Road. Bus drivers must negotiate a left-hand turn from Georgetown Pike onto Utterback Store Road -- a dangerous turn because drivers heading east on the Pike have difficulty seeing over the crest of the roadway.
"I don't feel the turn lanes are needed, but the hill needs to be lowered. My concern still remains with the number of children who are transported through the intersection. I want that intersection controlled," Falck said.
"I think that if the highway department offered to leave the four-way stops, then there would be a great deal of community support."
At the suggestion of the Great Falls Citizens Association, Forestville Elementary School Principal Carole Taylor took an unofficial poll among the bus drivers who use the Utterback intersection. Eight drivers preferred the four-way stop signs; two were in favor of traffic lights.
"We do not want to see it the intersection widened so it becomes like Springvale Road. It widening doesn't make the traffic flow better," Holley said. "You would have the road much widened -- you would have almost a highway intersection. It would change the character of the road. Utterback [Store] Road and Georgetown Pike are rural roads."