Faced with delays by the Virginia Department of Transportation in designing, installing and switching on new traffic lights in Fairfax County, the Board of Supervisors is offering to help the state agency do its job in order to relieve congestion and improve safety at some increasingly dangerous intersections.
At its meeting Monday, the board passed a motion by Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) directing the county executive to formally offer Fairfax County's assistance in reducing a backlog of traffic-light projects that have been approved but are not yet functioning.
"All traffic lights in general are taking ridiculous lengths of time," Frey said Tuesday. "The main part of the problem is that the VDOT traffic engineering department just doesn't have any people." He said the department was hit hard a few years ago by an early retirement program as part of cost-cutting efforts and has yet to recover.
"This is life and death in some areas," Frey said. "You're talking about dangerous intersections that aren't getting proper traffic controls."
Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for VDOT in Northern Virginia, said the agency "receives hundreds of requests each month from homeowners associations, citizens and elected officials for anything from new traffic signals to multi-way stop signs." Each request requires a field study and a recommendation. "We're literally dealing with thousands of requests per year."
The traffic engineering department does not suffer from a lack of positions, she said. Rather, "the issue is retaining a highly skilled work force in a highly competitive environment. We currently have three vacancies. . . . A lot of consultants are after these highly skilled folks."
At the board meeting, Frey cited the intersection of Stringfellow Road and Autumn Willow Drive in his district, where a set of lights has been in place for more than a year but has yet to be turned on. The traffic lights, costing about $100,000, were installed by the county as part of a $7 million road project.
"VDOT has either not decided how or whether to allow electricity to the lights," Frey said. "The poles are up, the fixtures are up, but they're covered up with burlap, and they have been for a year."
Morris said Frey's account of the problem was "not correct" and blamed the delay on the county's own contractor. "This is a county project; it's not VDOT," she said. The contractor did not put the foundations deep enough and VDOT could not accept responsibility for the signals until the problem was corrected, she said.
"The signal is expected to be turned on any day now," Morris said, although county workers still need to paint white stop lines on the street before that can happen.
In another case, Frey said, VDOT received approval and funding four years ago to install traffic lights at the Chantilly post office but still has not done so. He charged that the agency "hasn't figured out how to handle the underground utilities" to get power to the lights.
Morris said this project was repeatedly redesigned because of problems with easements and fiber optic cables. "This has been a frustrating project," she said. But the poles will be put up and the lights turned on before Christmas, she said.
"It's time for the county to step up to the plate and help VDOT," Frey said. Most of the delays are in the design phase, he said, adding, "We have engineers who can do that. . . . We ought to be able to offer to help design the [projects] that are backlogged to get the backlog down."
Frey offered a similar motion in the spring, but the board was "horrified" by the idea of doing the state's work and "watered it down," he said. The board instead sent letters to VDOT requesting a list of delayed projects and an explanation of the delays.
"As of today we still haven't had a response from VDOT," Frey said.
At least 15 traffic-light projects in the Sully district are "way behind schedule," he said. Although similar delays have arisen elsewhere in the county, the problem is especially severe in Sully because of rapid growth in western Fairfax.
Frey's motion directs the county executive "to approach VDOT with an offer to try to find some creative ways that the county can help reduce the backlog," Frey said Tuesday. "I don't know of anything that would prevent us from doing it, other than it's not our job. But I'm so fed up now I'm willing to do anything."