Thousands of Alexandria City Public School students and many emergency responders may face major delays because of expected traffic coming to the Mark Center.
Children may have to wake up earlier to catch a bus and firefighters could take about 15 minutes to respond to a 911 call once the 6,400 federal employees have moved into the new building at Interstate 395 and Seminary Road as part of the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process this fall, officials said.
Schools Superintendent Morton Sherman told members of the BRAC neighborhood advisory group that of the 3,600 elementary school students, about 25 percent do not attend their neighborhood schools, because of overcrowding and No Child Left Behind options, for example, and must commute elsewhere. That 25 percent also does not include special education students. T.C. Williams, Alexandria’s only high school, buses in students from all over the city. Those schools and bus routes were not discussed in the plans.
“The thousands of children impacted by this site are the forgotten students,” Sherman said.
The school system was not informed that the traffic study was flawed until after the April report by the Department of Defense Inspector General was released, he said.
“The initial transportation report said we’d be in fine shape,” Sherman said. “We were not given the insight . . . to know there were issues.”
A winter meeting between city and school officials led Sherman and his staff to believe that traffic delays would be up to 10 minutes, he said.
But Abi Lerner, the city’s deputy director of transportation, disagreed.
“At no point did we characterize that the traffic concerns were going to be acceptable,” Lerner said. He added that Sherman’s comments were “a little bit disingenuous,” because in addition to the city telling school officials about multiple studies, the BRAC relocation has been reported in newspapers, and the advisory group has been meeting for years.
“As superintendent, I did not receive that message,” said Sherman, who was looking for answers on how to plan his routes for next year, including how early children will have to wake up to catch the bus and how to finance more buses.
Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel is also searching for more funding to handle the extra load of thousands of federal workers in what, he said, is an already underserved area. Thiel wants more money to build a new fire station.
Of the existing nine firehouses in Alexandria, only three are in the west end of the city, he said. Many fires and emergency calls in the west end are answered first by Fairfax and Arlington County firefighters, he said. The morning and afternoon traffic surrounding the Mark Center site will add to his crew’s response time, which is “pretty rough for us today,” Thiel said.
His department’s response-time goal is 5.5 minutes. Thiel said he projects response times from the 911 call to become as long as 17.5 minutes in the west end. That time does not include getting into the building, he said.
“It could be 25 to 30 minutes before we ever got the first firefighter” to a victim inside a tall building, he said.
The Army has signed onto a plan that would allow firefighters at Fort Belvoir to respond to emergencies outside the fort to help make sure the nearby community is covered. The Army also has put up $20 million for short and mid-term road improvements to help ease the congestion.
That roadwork is expected to take up to two years, but Jim Turkel, director of the Belvoir Integration Office for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said, “Those are not really complicated projects. We will drive the team to get those done as quickly as we can.”
Turkel said he did not think the Army would be willing to add money toward the school bus and fire station concerns.
Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) and other federal legislators are trying to pass a bill that would delay the move-in process at the Mark Center site and six other BRAC installations. Moran also is trying to limit parking to 1,000 spaces until the roadwork is completed. That bill has passed the House and is making its way through the Senate.