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Arlington Transportation Chief Talks Challenges of 'Unprecedented' Construction

Leach: County remains committed in policy and in practice to encouraging more walking, biking and transit in society.

Arlington's transportation director said Tuesday that while the county is "absolutely committed" to making the streets more accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and transit, the massive amount of construction here presents a number of challenges to those people in the short-term.

Dennis Leach, responding to a Patch opinion column from earlier in the week, discussed those challenges and the county's commitment "by policy and by practice" to encouraging a more multimodal society.

In a phone interview, Leach said the amount of construction in Arlington right now was "unprecedented," and certainly more than he's seen at any one time in his eight years with the county. That includes private development, county capital projects and utility work, particularly burying utilities underground.

Keeping an Eye on Development

The county has "six or seven" inspectors assigned to every public and private development project and to all utility work, Leach said. They visit multiple sites daily. The current staffing level "makes it difficult" to visit every site every day, he said.

As developers apply for various permits, the information about their projects are collected into a master database. So, if something is left unfinished or not up to proper standards, the county has a list indicating who is responsible.

The average permit is granted for 180 days, though developers can apply for new permits to accommodate their construction schedule.

"I can't emphasize this enough: There's so much that people don't see that's below grade — water, storm sewer, Washington Gas, Dominion Power, other lines. Generally, with any of our capital development work, the front-end is very challenging," Leach said.

"In almost all of our projects, the initial phases are disruptive and lead to a temporary deterioration of the right-of-way. But we are absolutely committed to restoring, and ultimately, the things that get built are a dramatic improvement over where we started."

A 'Painful' Transformation

Monday, regular Patch columnist Mark Blacknell included a video of a cyclist crashing on Quincy Street thanks to a pavement cut from utility work. Blacknell, a member and former chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, wrote, "The lip is unnecessarily sharp, and — as clearly demonstrated — poses a significant danger to cyclists. This on a primary north-south route that the county encourages cyclists to use."

The Quincy Street project involves streetscaping and undergrounding utilities, Leach said. Final paving is slated to happen "in a couple of days," he said, adding, "There's rarely more disruptive work than utility undergrounding."

"The irony of that particular example, the final condition will be a pretty significant improvement for cycling and walking and transit," he said.

Offering another example, Leach cited improvements to the Glebe Road bridge over Arlington Boulevard. The bridge, once lined with crumbling sidewalks and responsible for chunks of concrete falling into the travel lanes on Arlington Boulevard, has after 15 months of phased construction emerged as a successful joint venture by the county and state Department of Transportation.

Working with VDOT, the bridge now has a 17-foot shared-use trail on one side, and an 11-foot sidewalk on another. A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held nearby on Wednesday.

Leach also cited improvements on South Joyce Street and Pershing Drive.

"What we're doing is this transformation. The early steps, particularly utility relocation, is very disruptive," he said. "That's my message: To get to the finish line, to get to a built environment that is a significant improvement over what we had, we often have to go through painful construction."

Changes

Over the past five years, Arlington has begun requiring developers to submit transportation plans that show how they will accommodate motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and transit during each phase on construction.

"It is unrealistic as a temporary measure to install a final, finished driving surface, only to rip it back up," Leach said.

"At the end of each workday, we expect the worksite to be safe, to be cleaned up. …All motorists, as well as bicyclists and pedestrians, they need to use caution. I bicycle every day. And I'm aware of the construction. So, it's a balancing act."

Arlington's base infrastructure dates back to the 1950s, Leach said, and included minimal accommodations for biking, walking and transit.

"We've come a long way," Leach said. "But we've got a long way to go. There's always more that can be done, and we're committed to doing it. But the act of doing those improvements creates short-term disruptions."

irret October 17, 2012 at 12:12 PM
Interesting that Dennis Leach returned a phone call. He never returned any of the 4 calls with messages that I made to him between June and September regarding the sidewalk project on S. 8th Street in Penrose
Fedup October 17, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Funny that Dennis Leach's Dept. will be ripping up almost all of S. 8th Street yet doesn't underground the utilities. Instead the DES staff designed sidewalks with utility poles in the middle of the sidewalk and handicap ramp. Then DES says tha VA Power will resite the poles which will cost additional money to take out since they are encased in concrete and then the County has to redo the ramp.
Allen Muchnick October 18, 2012 at 04:55 PM
Utility work and redevelopment are not to blame for the many unfilled potholes on Arlington's roadways. In particular, the pavement on Columbia Pike has gotten far more hazardous since the County took over the maintenance of this roadway from VDOT.

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