The Wash
A truck passing through the roundabout on Military Road
The temporary roundabout on Military Road and Nelly Custis Drive will become permanent, despite public pushback. (Emily Seymour/The Wash)

Temporary roundabout on Military Road to become a permanent fixture

Arlington County is moving forward with a permanent roundabout at the intersection of Military Road and Nelly Custis Drive after a pilot project showed a roundabout would slow vehicle speeds. Public comment shows residents are skeptical of the necessity of the change and find the roundabout confusing.

Despite public pushback, a permanent roundabout is coming to a busy Military Road intersection after a yearlong pilot project showed a roundabout would reduce speeding.

The roundabout, part of the Military Road Safety Project by Arlington County’s Department of Environmental Services, is meant to improve road safety for pedestrians by reducing the speeds of vehicles. 

Arlington installed a temporary roundabout at this intersection in October 2021, hoping to assess the effectiveness of a roundabout.

After a year of data collection on average speeds, yield rates and other safety metrics, along with extensive public feedback, Arlington is moving forward with the pilot project and toward a permanent roundabout structure.

The county is doing so despite some public opposition because the “pilot achieved the safety goals,” according to Nate Graham, a public engagement specialist in the transportation division of the Department of Environmental Services.

Many community members, however, did not express support for the roundabout. For example, of respondents who reported driving through the pilot roundabout, 53% reported feeling “less safe” or “much less safe.”

Peter Jaffe, an Arlington resident and cyclist who lives near the intersection, called the roundabout “a solution looking for a problem.”

Graham said the county would rather be proactive than reactive regarding roadway safety, mainly because there is a high volume of pedestrians and young pedestrians that walk through the area.

“It’s our position that the time to intervene is before the occurrence of a fatal crash,” Graham said.

Ultimately, the intersection meets the criteria set forth for safety interventions by Arlington’s master transportation plan and Vision Zero, an action plan adopted by Arlington to achieve zero transportation-related deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

There have been two pedestrian-involved fatal crashes over the last several months. In August, a woman was fatally hit in a hit-and-run collision by an alleged drunk driver. An elderly woman was fatally struck in October while crossing a busy intersection.

The intersection, where Military Road and Nelly Custis Drive converge, was identified as one where vehicles frequently speed and have high pedestrian traffic since it is located near two schools.

The county released data showing the roundabout successfully reduced speeds 10 mph, from 35 to 25 mph during the pilot project.

Despite the reduced levels of speeding through the intersection, drivers, pedestrians and cyclists reported feeling less safe with the temporary roundabout for two main reasons: operational confusion and insufficient right-of-way.

Car yielding to car in roundabout
Vehicles must yield to other vehicles already in the roundabout. (Emily Seymour/The Wash)

Operational confusion and insufficient right-of-way were the primary reasons drivers – pedestrians and cyclists – reported feeling less safe.

The Wash reviewed public comments made from May-June 2022, in which many respondents reported as such.

“The area the circle is in is way too small to accommodate a traffic circle. There isn’t enough space in between the entry points and I have repeatedly witnessed near misses for accidents because people can’t gauge whether to go or not,” one resident said.

Graham said those are two issues that were a part of the limitations of a pilot, temporary roundabout and, in building a permanent structure, they would eliminate those issues.

“Most of the feedback we receive expressing concern with the pilot project are highlighting issues that can be resolved in a final design,” Graham said.

For example, part of the operational confusion and insufficient right-of-way was due to the relatively small size of the roundabout.

The radius of the roundabout will be about 50% bigger than the existing pilot condition, Graham said, which will provide more space in the circle for people to establish and indicate their desired movement.

The county could not achieve that size for the pilot project because of the size and location of a utility pole at the intersection. Graham said they were unable to move the utility pole for a temporary project, but with the permanent roundabout, they will be able to do so.

Bike lane leading into the roundabout
Cyclists in the temporary structure must merge into the roundabout. (Emily Seymour/The Wash)

For cyclists like Jaffe, the temporary roundabout has made biking through the intersection more difficult.

For cyclists who have difficulty merging into the roundabout in its current state, there will be two options in the permanent roundabout structure: a travel lane they can use to enter the roundabout and bike ramps.

The travel lanes in the permanent roundabout will be the same as they are in the current temporary structure; however, Graham said there will be different channelization that slows vehicles as they enter the roundabout, which will make it easier for bicycles to merge with them.

The bike ramps, for those who don’t wish to go through the roundabout, will be located at the terminus of each of the approaching bike lanes, and will take the cyclist onto a wide sidewalk between eight and 10 feet in most areas.

For Jaffe, neither option suffices.

 “Options are always great, but it’s better to have one good option than two bad ones,” Jaffe said.

The design process for the permanent roundabout will begin in early 2023 and the county intends to begin construction in 2024, which will take around 12 to 15 months, Graham said. 

The roundabout will cost approximately $1.7 million, paid for by both the county – with local funds – and VDOT, with state funds.

Emily Seymour

Emily Seymour is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism, with a concentration in investigative journalism, from American University. She is a reporting fellow with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. She covers Arlington in her role at The Wash.

1 comment

  • The justification of this ellipse about continues to change. First it was safety from a 2004 study, then it became a necessity for Hamm Middle school walkers. They piloted this and collected data for a year but did not share that data. I had to FOIA as request some info that showed they used minimal amount of pedestrian data. Yes speeds need to be reduced but also current limits enforced. This project has no budget they will share when I asked – I am glad you got them to say $1.7M but we have been told it is very expensive to bury the utility wires – which must now occur with their proposed design. Better understanding of the true cost vs benefit would be helpful. After my request to the Cunty Board in person in March of 2023 to cancel this to help balance the budget, the County Board Chair – then Mr Dorsey – tasked Takis and DeFerranti to investigate this. Nothing has been done as of this month per Mr DeFerranti, but will be done. Now there is a stop light planned for the Lorcom and Nelly intersection – maybe we do not need to get cars through the Nelly-Military intersection as fast. This remains an eyesore and confusing area for drivers. I am a member of one of the Woodmont Civic Association that is involved in both the Roundabout and Light at Nelly and Lorocm. bordering this site the Woodmont Civic Association.

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