Fairfax County likely to rename Lee and Lee-Jackson highways after route numbers

A road sign for Lee Highway, also known as Route 29, in Merrifield (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

A formal vote won’t come for another month, but several Fairfax County supervisors indicated support yesterday (Tuesday) for using routes 29 and 50, respectively, as the official names for the roads known for now as Lee and Lee-Jackson Memorial highways.

The Board of Supervisors directed county staff by a 9-1 vote to prepare a resolution for its next meeting on Sept. 13 endorsing Route 29 and Route 50 as the new names after a year-long review process that included a community task force and public surveys.

While route numbers don’t carry the same symbolism as Arlington County renaming its portion of Lee Highway after abolitionist John Langston, board members expressed hope that the move will reduce the confusion of navigating the county in addition to discarding reminders of the area’s Confederate past.

“Frankly, calling them by the route numbers is what a lot of people already do today voluntarily, so I don’t see this as a heavy lift at all for these two major corridors and I think will chart us a better course moving forward,” Chairman Jeff McKay said.

If the resolution passes, it will go to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which will have the final say, as required by state law.

Evoking Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the highways were among 150 sites in the county with names whose Confederate origins were confirmed by a 2020 report from the Fairfax County History Commission. Combined, they represent over 20 miles of roadway from Chantilly on the county’s western end to the Falls Church border in the east.

Recommending that both roads be renamed, the board-appointed Confederate Names Task Force suggested five alternatives each, including the route numbers, in a report finalized in December 2021.

Surveys of property and business owners in the corridor conducted this past spring found that they preferred the route numbers over the other options, which included following Arlington’s lead with Langston Blvd for Lee Highway.

“I think this is basically as close as we’re going to get to consensus on the names,” said Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn, who chairs the board’s transportation committee. “I think this is a very reasonable and practical way to address the challenge that we’re facing, and I think it’s a big step towards moving away from memorializing that time in history and some of those folks and really updating that.”

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the only Republican on the board, voted against changing the road names, noting that a majority of public input collected by the task force last year favored leaving the names.

Calling the task force’s report “a politically driven, predetermined outcome,” Herrity also took issue with the county’s survey of property owners not including a question about whether they supported the name changes.

“Changing names of roads are a lot harder and more impactful than removing a statue,” he said. “With all the challenges that our residents and businesses are facing, now we’re going to add this cost either publicly through taxes or otherwise.”

When the matter comes up for a vote in September, staff will present information on “how financially assist those directly impacted by changing the name of either road and that criteria to meet such assistance be developed in an equitable manner,” as directed by Alcorn’s board matter.

When surveyed this spring, more than 70% of business and property owners on the two roads said they expect the name changes will bring costs related to legal documents, signage, and marketing.

Since the new names will be short, the cost to the county of replacing the road signs and other expenses will likely fall on the low end of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation’s $1 million to $4 million estimate.

However, other supervisors argued that the financial costs are outweighted by the benefits of dropping the names of two men who fought to preserve slavery from two of the county’s most prominent thoroughfares.

“I think the impact might actually be greater than removing a statue, because they’re not just on deeds,” Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said. “They are on the roads we use every day, they’re on addresses, and they’re a constant reminder of a past that I think many of us do not agree with today and does not reflect our One Fairfax community.”