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Roads in Arlington Should Be Paved With More Than Good Intentions

The Arlington transportation chief’s response to last week’s concerns over temporary paving highlights the challenges of keeping a growing community’s streets safe.

Last week this column illustrated the dangers of a poorly maintained street construction site. The accompanying video showed a cyclist taken down by a dangerous parallel ridge cut in the pavement that was left in place and unmarked for months. Arlington Patch followed up with an interview of Dennis Leach, the county's transportation director, about Arlington’s street construction policies and practices. It was useful to hear about the systems Arlington has in place to manage street construction.

But they’re clearly not working well enough.

To be clear up front — Mr. Leach is to be commended for his leadership of the transportation department. Having had many conversations with him about cycling and Arlington, I think that this county is lucky to have such a forward-thinking person in charge of its transportation infrastructure. I see him out on his bike regularly and believe his commitment to building an Arlington equally suitable for cars, bikes and pedestrians is deep. Setting that kind of tone at the top matters, and I see its influence throughout the transportation department.

Unfortunately, that influence doesn’t always make it to the street. That’s why it’s important that Arlington County ensure that its systems be inherently oriented toward its policy goals. Put another way: The temporary patching standards and street inspection process should explicitly consider and address the safety of cyclists.

The existing standards appear to be oriented toward cars, which can easily handle a significant lip parallel to the road. And while an unexpected steel plate can be unsettling in a car, it poses a far more serious danger to the cyclist, who can easily go down on a wet steel plate.

I take Mr. Leach’s point that it’s not practical to immediately create a finished surface after every road cut is made, but Arlington County’s temporary standards could be improved to provide better safety for cyclists. Parallel cuts should not be permitted to leave a sharp lip, but rather be ground to a slope that doesn’t threaten control of a bike. Similarly, steel plates need to come with an advance warning.

The ability of six inspectors to cover the entire county could also be supplemented by the interest of residents in the streets closest to them.

If the database of those making cuts to the streets were, in some form, publicly accessible, I don’t doubt that many of Arlington’s residents would be able to better aim the expression of their concerns toward the right body. And that is something I suspect that the staff at the transportation department might appreciate.

Yes, these proposals may require efforts beyond the usual national standards, but Arlington County is attempting to take transportation beyond the standards of most places.

Arlington’s leadership in transportation issues is clear at the top. Now we need to work on ensuring that approach continues all the way to the streets.

Also?  The road at Quincy Street is now buttery smooth. Thank you, Arlington County.

Commenter — and longtime Arlington cycling advocate — Allen Muchnick quite correctly noted that some of the paving challenges in Arlington are simply poor maintenance in general, highlighting the condition of Columbia Pike since the county's takeover of it. For more about the challenges of the county's ongoing maintenance program, see this Patch article from this past summer. As to Muchnick's concerns about trails... Well, keep coming back to this column.

Mark Blacknell is a member of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and a League Cycling Instructor.

Kristine October 22, 2012 at 01:24 PM
Please note that Columbia Pike has CPRO - Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, Ballston has a BID, Rosslyn has a BID, and so on. Arlington also has a Civic Federation and civic associations. Last year the Green Party candidate for County Board made a huge to-do about street repaving. County took a survey of residents and the #1 concern was street paving. So it's not that they don't know.
Don October 22, 2012 at 05:52 PM
The biggest safety threat to bicyclists would be streetcar tracks on Columbia Pike.
Mark Blacknell October 23, 2012 at 01:04 PM
As if to underline the point of this column, a dangerous street construction condition is the talk of local Twitter this AM: "Terrible patch job reported on Clarendon Blvd between Courthouse & Rhodes St. Watch out bikers--take the lane! twitpic.com/b6p37y" and "Crazy dangerous new steel plate by construction site on Clarendon south of n. courthouse - complete w/huge spike! railroad tie-like spike."
Mark Blacknell October 23, 2012 at 04:12 PM
Response from Arlington DES: "Inspector asked contractor to recess plate, backfill/install asphalt until work complete b/c in bike lane."

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