The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor from the air by Andrew D’huyvetter licensed under Creative Commons.

Commuters may soon see safer bicycle lanes and pedestrian facilities in Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, though the details are up to you. So why weren't they there before? Blame the unsteady balance that our many levels of government strike as they work together to maintain and plan every street in the region.

Arlington County recently acquired Fairfax Drive and 10th Street N., a thoroughfare through Clarendon and Ballston, from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). In the past, it had been difficult for Arlington to coordinate with VDOT. Now, the county can take initiative and Fairfax Drive may soon see the results.

Though it’s not obvious, the roads you use every day are owned by an overlapping patchwork of governments, regulatory bodies, and private interests. This isn’t a story of tyrannical state governments imposing their will upon localities, but of intergovernmental coordination that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

Do you know who owns the street you live on?

In Maryland, the State Highway Administration maintains most highways and some main streets—anything considered a ‘state road’. Local authorities maintain most side streets. (Baltimore is an exception to this—it maintains its own roads.)

‘Maintain’ means more than patching potholes. The ‘maintainer’ or ‘owner’ of a street has the last word on speed limits, traffic lights and signs, crosswalks, bike, bus, and car lanes, and even sidewalks.

Sidewalks have been a problem for Maryland, which is not obligated to provide sidewalks on state roads. This has contributed to hundreds of pedestrian injuries and deaths over the past several years, and in one case a court found the state responsible.

A section of street network between the northern tip of DC and the Beltway. Grey-colored streets are maintained by Montgomery County, purple by Tokoma Park, and salmon by MDOT. Image courtesy of the Maryland Department of Transportation

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) maintains almost all roads within the District. The only exceptions are a few streets under federal authority, mostly adjacent to the National Mall.

In most of Virginia’s counties, like Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William, VDOT takes the lion’s share of responsibility for road maintainance. Unlike its Maryland equivalent, it owns even neighborhood roads. This means that in Fairfax, VDOT can execute its in-depth policy for bicycle lanes and has been able to undertake a coordinated effort to work toward a coherent bike network.

A high number of privately-owned roads, though, might be an obstacle moving forward. Another obstacle might be Richmond regulators representing rural constituents who are out of touch with the needs of a densifying region.

Now Fairfax and VDOT’s Northern Virginia office have been working together to churn out projects like the Jones Branch Connector, opening December 15, that “are pedestrian friendly [and] support multi-modal forms of transportation” and accommodate more private cars.

A section of street network between Vienna, Tysons, and the Potomac. Red-colored streets are maintained by VDOT, pink by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Service, purple by the Federal government, light green by the Town of Vienna, brown by Fairfax County agencies, and blue by various private owners. Image courtesy of Fairfax County.

Thirty eight jurisdictions in Virginia, like Alexandria and Falls Church, are ‘independent cities.’ Like DC, they own and maintain all the roads within their boundaries. That’s why Alexandria can rename Jefferson Davis Highway, but Arlington can’t.

Arlington is an unusual case. As the United States’ smallest self-governing county, it's actually most similar to the jurisdictions we discussed in Maryland: it owns its own neighborhood streets, while the state-level VDOT owns the arterials. But things are changing.

State-owned roads within Arlington, marked in blue. VA-237 Corridor marked in red. Note that the map seems not to have been updated to include Arlington’s ownership of Columbia Pike. Image courtesy of Arlington County with minor edits by the author.

Ballston streets are under new ownership

Arlington took ownership of the VA-237 corridor from VDOT on July 1, 2018. Fairfax Drive, between Glebe and Kirkwood and 10th Street N. between Kirkwood and Barton, passes through one of the most densely-developed areas in the entire state.

The VA-237 Corridor through Ballston and Clarendon. Image courtesy of Arlington County.

Ownership costs money. Before, VDOT paid the maintenance bill. Now, Arlington will be on the hook for about $65,000 more every year. So why spend the money? For Dennis Leach, Director of Transportation at Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services, it all comes down to flexibility.

“Having [VA-237] under local control,” Leach explains, “makes design and construction projects easier and less costly.” There are many large construction projects underway along the corridor, and owning Fairfax Drive gives the county more agility in adapting to them. For a VDOT-owned street, “any change to pavement markings requires design review and approval from the state.” These reviews can be even more expensive than maintenance.

Leach emphasizes that Arlington has a “very positive working relationship with VDOT.” In the past, VA-237 could be most effectively-maintained by VDOT, but because of urban development, that is no longer true. Relationships between institutions should constantly be reevaluated, and this is a case of institutional adaptation to change.

Other jurisdictions in the area, particularly in Maryland where ownership structures most closely match Arlington’s, might look to Ballston as they reevaluate and maintain relationships with their own state agencies.

You can weigh in on changes to the VA-237 Corridor

This isn’t the first street Arlington acquired from the state; it also took Columbia Pike in 2010. It might not be the last. Though no official plans are in the works, the same phenomena of development are also taking place along US 1 and US 29/Lee Highway, and might eventually lead to the same conclusion.

Looking to the future of Fairfax Drive and 10th Street N., Leach hopes that Arlington will be able to improve the VA-237 corridor to “have a more appropriately balanced use of right-of-way.”

The county will implement short-term improvements in the next few months, focusing on accessibility and safety for cyclists, scooter-riders, and pedestrians. What those will be is up to you!

For the next two days, through this Sunday, December 16, Arlington County is requesting feedback on issues and possible improvements. Feedback is open to anyone, not just residents of the county, and every submission counts. If you have an idea about what might make the corridor better, please (please!) make sure your voice is heard.

Taylor is a proud alum of Arlington Public Schools, HB Woodlawn class of '13. They're a nerdy gender-non-binary person interested in any aspect of spatial planning and the built environment and they'd love to chat with you. In their free time, they listen to Arabic-language music, play old N64 games, and bike too fast.