Around F.C., News

F.C. Mayor Shocked by Condition of Bridge

News of some dangerous crumbling infrastructure in the City of Falls Church that caught the mayor by surprise, embodied in a revealing photograph of the underside of the street bridge on S. Oak Street, stunned members of the Falls Church City Council at their work session, held virtually, Monday night.


It came following a comment by the City’s chief engineer Zac Bradley that the bridge “can’t handle school buses anymore” and that there are no plans to address the issue except by a contractor maybe in December.


The photograph taken of the underside of the bridge showed startling decay, and Mayor David Tarter exclaimed that he wanted to know why the Council was “not informed of this problem before tonight.”
He said, “As the mayor, this is the first I am hearing of this,” suggesting that “we’ve been skipping base repairs while doing superficial things to make things look pretty on top.”


Bradley said the Sherrow Street bridge is also sorely in need of repair and that a number of the flex poles holding traffic lights over streets, including on Broad Street, are corroded, resulting in one falling to the ground at the Annandale Road/Hillwood intersection last year.


The City has been underinvesting in core infrastructure for years, he said, leaving things like bridges, signal lights and street paving at increasing risk for aging out and failing.


Street signal lights need new wiring with the cost of maintenance at each intersection in the City growing from $1,500 to $10,000 per year, he said (no explanation for that huge increase was provided). Things like the cost of asphalt have skyrocketed in the recent period, up 75 percent.


The work session was held in tandem with members of the City’s volunteer Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation (CACT). Despite the underlying problems of crumbling core infrastructure, the bulk of the meeting focused on seeking to lower the vehicle speed limit from 25 to 20 miles per hour in residential areas, and “quick fix” smaller projects that can be undertaken by administrative action.


The current street paving plan, for example, with a price tag of $500,000 a year, is a patchwork proposition at best, with newly repaved streets with “mill and bill patching” lasting only five years.


“Rapid actions” such as to address the pedestrian safety issues at E. Fairfax and E. Broad, need more resources, said the CACT’s Dave Gustafson. There are too many places in the city that are “scary” for joggers, bikers and pedestrians now, he said.


Bradley suggested that to begin to catch up with the current needs will require five new full time employees in his Public Works shop.


Construction plans on the Greenway Downs area improvements, involving federal dollars and VDOT, including for safer crosswalks to get from one side of Route 29 to the other in that area, will be subject to a public meeting in late October and it is not expected that actual work there will begin until the Summer of 2024.


Some problems are susceptible to quicker solutions than others, it was suggested, such as solving the traffic issue on Gresham Place with a simple “Dead End” sign, and on Westmoreland at S. Washington with a couple ballards to prevent parking too close to the curb. “I’d rather ballards get hit by cars than a young child,” Gustafson quipped.


However, mere signage will not be sufficient to reduce speeding, especially on favorite cut-through routes, in the City’s residential areas. Signs warning of a $250 fine tend to be more effective, but Arthur Agin said also critical is signage at the entrances to the City rather than simply on residential streets.
The CACT’s Jessica Hegenbart said that signage around schools should be a priority.


F.C. Police Chief Mary Gavin said a new speeding study just completed for the City showed that Haycock Road was a major problem and Council member Caroline Lian noted that traffic on Columbia Street has been clocked at upwards of 70 miles per hour. Councilman Phil Duncan said that S. Washington is the “most dangerous” part of town.


Chief Gavin said that while data shows traffic levels still down since the pandemic, “Drivers coming out of Covid are more aggressive, reckless and prone to speeding.”


“We have to make it clear that if you’re going to speed, we don’t want you here,” said Councilman David Snyder.


While there was little consensus on a plan of action, Council member Marybeth Connelly noted that “many great minds are thinking on this.”