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New HOV ramp at Seminary Road to ease Mark Center congestion

The new HOV exit ramp would allow Mark Center commuters to stay in the HOV lanes all the way to Seminary Road. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – At a meeting on Tuesday evening, Alexandria residents expressed concern about a project to add a new High Occupancy Vehicle exit ramp to Seminary Road, which project leaders say will help fix congestion near the Mark Center.

“That’s the purpose of the project — to get people in and out of the Mark Center. The Mark Center is a huge generator of traffic and the old system wasn’t up to carrying that type of capacity,” says Virginia Department of Transportation Project Manager Larry Tomlinson.

“It will encourage more people to use HOV to get to and from work at the Mark Center. It will reduce traffic on the main lanes quite a bit,” he says.

Currently carpoolers coming from the south headed to the Mark Center must exit the HOV lanes at the Franconia-Springfield Parkway, then merge into the general lanes and sit in traffic with other drivers for about five miles to the Seminary Road exit. The new HOV exit ramp would allow those commuters to stay in the HOV lanes all the way to Seminary Road.

Tomlinson says the new exit will shave precious minutes off their commutes.

“I would say certainly the Mark Center commuters would save that much. But I would see time savings [for everyone] by just reducing congestion and getting those people going to the Mark Center off the main lanes,” he says.

But the plan didn’t come without concern and displeasure from residents on Van Dorn Street and Seminary Road. Several of them questioned Tomlinson and Brian Quinlan, project managers at Archer Western, the contractor on the project.

“The striping under the Seminary Road bridge is unacceptable. Somebody is going to be killed. There isn’t any signage in the area,” says Annabelle Fisher, who lives at Southern Towers, a highrise on Seminary Road.

However, most of the concern expressed at the meeting involved the noise and the removal of several trees for construction. Residents seemed to worry the trees would ruin the aesthetics in the area.

“In the four years that this has been pursued, there has never been any great groundswell for this project. VDOT has been in love with it from the beginning and the City of Alexandria just jumped right in,” says Kathleen Burns, who lives on Richenbacher Avenue in Alexandria.

Shirley Downs of North Vail Street in Alexandria says most people in the area want the trees to stay.

“We do not want your 15-to-30-foot sound walls. We want to keep the trees, but instead you’re removing them,” says Downs.

Emily Brown of Pegram Street in Alexandria says the community does not want a noise wall.

“What about trees? We have trees there. We need to leave the trees there. I don’t understand the value of noise walls versus trees. If you look at the south side of Duke Street near 395 where they’ve already torn out the trees, it’s just plain ugly and that’s a compliment because it’s worse than that. That’s what we don’t want,” Brown says.

Tomlinson says he understands those concerns, but says the project will improve the commute for anyone heading to Alexandria from the south in Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties.

“We always seek input from the community. There will be some trees taken down in the strip between Van Dorn Street and 395 and there’s no way to avoid that. But we will have a lot of landscaping that’ll go in once the project comes to end,” he says.

Construction should begin next spring and the new HOV ramp will likely open in the fall of 2015. The entire project will be complete in early 2016. Construction will cost $55 million, with the total cost of the project at about $76 million.

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