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.