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Task force weighs potential cost and benefits of renaming Lee and Lee-Jackson highways

Fairfax County’s Confederate Names Task Force convenes for a meeting on Oct. 18 (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Though they have cropped up with increasing regularity both locally and nationally in recent years, conversations about how to handle symbolic reminders of the Confederacy remain as emotionally charged as ever.

That was evident in the most recent meeting of Fairfax County’s Confederate Names Task Force, which has been charged with determining whether the county should rename Lee and Lee-Jackson Memorial highways.

“We have a nice taste of different people from different parts of Fairfax that want to weigh in,” task force chair Evelyn Spain said. “We value all of their opinions on whether this end result comes to change the name or not change the name of Fairfax streets.”

The two-hour meeting at the Fairfax County Government Center on Monday (Oct. 18) followed the launch of a community survey last week. Postcards advertising the survey are expected to roll out to residents across the county starting this weekend.

Also accepting public comments by email, phone, mail, and at four upcoming listening sessions, the task force will use the input to inform its recommendation to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

“I don’t want people to be back here in 30 years because we made a wrong decision,” one member said.

The Financial Cost of Changing the Names

Changing the names of both highways could cost Fairfax County anywhere from $1 million to $4 million, Fairfax County Department of Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny told the task force.

According to FCDOT, there are 171 Lee Highway signs along the county’s 14.1-mile stretch of Route 29 and 55 Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway signs on 8.4 miles of Route 50.

The cost varies depending on each kind of sign, particularly ones on traffic light mast arms or other overhead structures. If a new street name is longer than the existing one, replacing the signs will require more work due to the added weight, Biesiadny explained.

“What we’re going to replace it with does matter,” he said.

Biesiadny also reported that, based on estimates from neighboring localities that have adopted new highway names, a name change would cost businesses about $500 each to update their address on signs, stationary, and legal documents, among other possible expenses.

Other jurisdictions are looking at providing grants to cover businesses’ costs, according to Biesiadny, who noted that the county would need to conduct a survey of businesses to get a more precise estimate.

What’s in a (Street) Name?

For the task force, however, the question of whether to rename the highways hinges less on money than on what the names say about a community’s values and identity.

In a facilitator-led discussion on street name criteria, several members cited inclusivity and reflecting Fairfax County’s increasingly diverse population as key concerns.

“There’s no reason that we need to keep telling these same limited truths,” Bunyan Bryant from Mason District said. “…We’re not bound forever and ever to that. Yes, there is this history some are wedded to, but that doesn’t represent us today.”

Some task force members said tying street names to history helps create a sense of place, even if that history is less-than-inspiring.

Ed Wenzel, one of four Springfield District representatives, noted that Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway was used by troops during the Civil War, which he said “had a tremendous impact” on Fairfax County.

“Gallows Road is grisly history, but I don’t think anyone would ask to change that name,” Braddock District member Robert Floyd said, citing the common but unproven impression that the street running from Tysons to Annandale once led to a gallows or hanging tree.

Others argued that Fairfax County has overly fixated on the Civil War at the expense of other people and events from its past, noting that the county has many historical sites commemorating that era, such as Ox Hill Battlefield Park.

“Remembering and learning about history is different from glorifying history,” said Dranesville District member Barbara Glakas, a member of the Herndon Historical Society. “I think we need to look at who we’ve been glorifying.”

Should the task force recommend changing the names in its report to the county board in December, a couple of members suggested eschewing people as namesakes, given the potential for controversy.

When asked, Biesiadny confirmed that simply calling the highways Route 29 and Route 50 is an option, pointing to Chesterfield County as an example.

In that case, the local board of supervisors approved Route 1 as the name for its segment of Jefferson Davis Highway in June, seemingly to avoid the moniker defaulting to Emancipation Highway as mandated by the Virginia General Assembly.

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