Old Lee Highway in Fairfax City might soon become a lot more walkable and bikeable. That would mean more foot traffic in downtown Fairfax and more people using bikes to travel to residential and transportation hubs around the county.

Old Lee Highway. Base image from Google Maps.

Old Lee Highway spans from Old Town Fairfax to Fairfax Circle, one of the city’s main commercial areas. It’s home to a number of community destinations, including several schools, churches, the Blenheim Interpretive Museum, and Van Dyck Park, one of Fairfax City’s largest parks.

But Old Lee Highway also caters to cars. At its commercial ends, Old Lee Highway has four lanes. At its residential heart, it has two. At one time the city had planned to widen the entire stretch of Old Lee to four lanes, and it acquired the right-of-way and paved the area for that purpose at several segments.

The result is a widely varying road width that leads to people driving too fast and then needing to decelerate, which is confusing, and potentially dangerous. That makes it hard to use the street if you’re on foot or bike.

Old Lee Highway between Route 236 and Route 29 might look a lot different soon.

A a $60,000 grant from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation and Land Use Connections program let Fairfax hire a consultant to look into how to make Old Lee a more complete street. In early July, the city’s transportation director presented preliminary design concepts to the mayor and city council.

Old Lee could get bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and calmer traffic

The proposed design would keep Old Lee Highway four lines wide on either end, and provide a uniform two-lane configuration at the residential segment. It would add bike lanes, landscaped buffers, and wider sidewalks throughout the entire street. A landscaped median would also go between the four-lane sections. Throughout, Old Lee’s travel lanes would shrink from 12 to 11 feet.

Design concept for one segment of Old Lee Highway. Image from the City of Fairfax.

The proposed bike lane would run between Old Town and Fairfax Circle, connecting to the Cross-County Trail and to the Fairfax Connector trail, which connects to the Vienna Metro station.

For current residents of Country Club Hills, Old Lee Hills and Great Oaks, the three established neighborhoods along Old Lee, calming traffic by adding medians, widening side paths, narrowing travel lanes, and making crosswalks more visible would make walking and biking safer and more pleasant.

The changes would also help accommodate new residents in the area, as Fairfax Circle has been approved for a major mixed-use rezoning with more than 400 new residential units. Over 2,000 new residential units at Vienna MetroWest are just a five-minute bike ride to the north via the Fairfax Connector Trail.

Previous potential changes on Old Lee have fallen through

The plan to widen Old Lee to four lanes throughout was eventually abandoned because it didn’t sit well with surrounding neighborhoods.

In 2005, Fairfax commissioned a study that recommended narrowing the street in its residential heart to a uniform two-lane configuration, widening the sidewalks and improving pedestrian crossings. Residents and civic associations did not wholeheartedly embrace that plan, and the transportation division and local elected leaders did not advance it.

Since then, the city has taken some steps to make Old Lee more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. The city installed pedestrian-activated lights at the crosswalk near Fairfax High School, and striped bike sharrows in 2012.

Fairfax City now plans to do basic preliminary engineering to see how feasible the current concepts are. It will also hold more meetings to get residents’ views on the plans. While the reception by the mayor and city council at the July work session was generally supportive, some councilmembers expressed concerns about ceding too much space to bicycling and pedestrian uses and cutting travel lane widths.

Moving forward with these changes will require sustained community support. Less ambitious projects in Fairfax City have foundered in the face of opposition by a vocal minority of residents.

It will take a lot of persistence from citizens and community groups to embolden the mayor and council to secure the needed funding and move forward with the plans for Old Lee.

Douglas Stewart is a volunteer with Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth. He also works for the Piedmont Environmental Council as their Grants Specialist, and is the Transportation Chair for the Virginia Sierra Club.