Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Ancient rugweavers purposefully included a flawed stitch in their work to symbolize life’s imperfections.

A tip from my observant pal Todd tells me our hometown of Arlington, which usually runs like clockwork, has committed a small public error.

I assumed it was done for similarly philosophical reasons. The truth is more quotidian.

Look at the street sign at the corner of Sycamore Street and North 22nd Road. The sharp-eyed will spot how instead of reading 22nd, the official black-on-white metallic sign reads nonsensically as 22rd.

Okay, no one will get lost because of this misprinted street name. But in Arlingsville we take pride in literacy. Turns out county officials do too.

“We try to keep all our signs neat, clear and straight, and we patrol amply,” Wayne Wentz, chief of Arlington’s Transportation Engineering and Operations Bureau, told me. “But our guys do make mistakes.” During his 33 years working at it, Wentz has seen examples of 22st instead of 22nd. He’s seen street names misspelled, and he’s seen the word “school” mis-stenciled on a parking lot.

“Good citizens call us” to report errors, Wentz said. “Others try to embarrass us by taking a picture and sending it to 400 people.”

Wentz walked me through the county’s in-house sign creation process-the computer software with standardized type for vinyl lettering, the large printer that rolls out ready-to-trim sheets of aluminum. “Every sign has its own lifetime, on average 10 or sometimes 15 years,” he said.

So replacement demand is steady, and the crew also does traffic signs, which might explain the occasional typo.

New street names in Arlington are rare. The signs communicate a systematic grid of street names that has been run by the county board since 1934. Except for the state roads, Arlington owns all its streets. Hence it can enforce the regime of numbered streets that cross over named streets arrayed alphabetically in groups of one-syllable names, two-syllable- and three.

Unlike neighboring jurisdictions, Arlington doesn’t let developers choose names for streets they build on, says Luis Araya, chief of Arlington’s Development Services Bureau. “Some of them would want flavor-of- the-month superstar names or themes like trees or water.” Arlington keeps it simple.

The only exception is when the county board agrees to commemorate an individual, who must be deceased for five years, Araya says. The most recent example was in 2006, when the board renamed S. 28th St. in Shirlington for Elizabeth Campbell, civil rights activist and founder of WETA, and her husband.

The name on that sign was spelled correctly.

Though it’s trendy to bash government, I’m a fan of Arlington services. Last week’s earthquake caught me in the midst of shuttling between two county agencies, the Commissioner of Accounts and the vehicle registration desk. As hundreds evacuated and gathered at the courthouse parking lot, I was able to stroll over and track down the right employees from both departments. They seemed as stunned and out-of-context as I felt, but both were happy to help move forward with my transactions.

Chief Wentz tells me the county can fix a street sign mistake in two or three hours. Okay, the clock is ticking.

Meanwhile, here’s one that’s easier to fix. Todd sent me a photo of an electronic sign Friday at N. Glebe Rd. and Williamsburg Blvd. It reads: “Chian Br. Road Closed.”

UPDATE: Arlington County crews had fixed the mispelled sign Wednesday morning by 9:15.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]

 

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