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Alexandria City Council votes to move forward with Duke Street Transitway after marathon meeting

Rendering of center-running bus lanes on Duke Street (image via City of Alexandria)

(Updated 6/29) After nearly seven hours of public comment, Alexandria’s City Council voted to move forward with the Duke Street Transitway.

The gist of the plan is to reconfigure sections of Duke Street to make the road more accessible to public transit, as well as making improvements to the pedestrian and cyclist experience along the arterial road.

The public comment on the topic — one of the longest in recent memory — was mostly divided between some residents near Seminary Road sharing concerns that the changes will make the road more inhospitable to its primary users, car drivers, while others shared their enthusiasm for a more transit, cyclist and pedestrian-friendly Duke Street.

Hillary Orr, deputy director of Transportation & Environmental Services, said one of the drivers behind the transitway plans is the increasing density along Duke Street. It’s universally agreed that traffic is already pretty bad on Duke Street, but Orr said that will only get worse as more development comes to that corridor.

“If we do nothing on this corridor, the region will continue to grow and make this already tough corridor even more unpleasant,” Orr said.

Orr said the Duke Street corridor is one of the “most productive bus routes” in the city’s bus network and the transitway would help bring new mobility options and safety to the street.

The Duke Street Transitway proposal included short-term recommendations, which focus on having center-running bus lanes at either end of the corridor with mixed-traffic buses in a center portion, and longer-term recommendations, which include center-running bus lanes along the entirety of Duke Street.

The project is funded for a total of $87 million.

“We believe the funding we have in hand will build a solid foundation,” Orr said. “We have $87 million now and a great concept we can make a reality. Delaying the project will only reduce the scope with the budget we have in hand now.”

Recommendation for the Duke Street Transitway (image via City of Alexandria)

Several representatives of nearby civic associations spoke in opposition to the project as currently designed and many said they hoped that the project could be delayed for further study.

“It is clear from those briefings and community meetings that residents have far too many unanswered questions to reach an informed decision tonight,” said Carter Flemming, co-chair of the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations. “Tonight’s vote is an unnecessary artificial deadline. What is the rush for approval? Major changes to service roads and limited access to homes and businesses are planned with details to follow later. What staff categorizes as granular details are in fact major changes that deserve answers now, not later.”

Representatives from several other nearby civic associations shared similar concerns, some of them about the project as a whole and others about specific elements that impacted their neighborhoods.

“There are inconsistencies and unanswered questions,” said Fran Vogel, president of the Strawberry Hill Civic Association. “This project in its current form should not be approved.”

Some said they supported the project but wanted certain pieces prioritized. Lisa Porter, president of the Clover College Park Civic Association, said her association was in support of the project and for the 2B portion if staff prioritized the Cambridge Road redesign.

“We have deep concerns about the center running bus lanes along 2b which cuts off access to Yale Drive,” said Porter. “The Cambridge intersection as it currently exists is unsafe… [and] the proposal will increase traffic volumes by at least 60%.”

More speakers in the public comment section spoke in favor of the transitway and the impact it would have on the communities around Duke Street.

“I take my five-year-old to dance class on Duke Street on rush hour,” one nearby resident said. “We take the bus. To get home, also in rush hour, we must cross six lanes of Duke Street and then stand at an unprotected bus stop… a center-running bus lane with a pedestrian island will help immensely.”

Multiple speakers said the transitway plans would make Duke Street safer for Alexandrians with disabilities. Bob Hart, an Alexandria resident and member of the Seminary Hill Association, said improvements for blind residents could include fully functional pedestrian use signals that include street names at crossings.

“I fully support the recommendations of the Duke Street Advisory Group,” said Hart. “As a blind guide dog user, one who walks along Duke Street as a pedestrian and someone who uses the bus network… I urge council members to adopt near and longer-term recommendations of the Duke Street in Motion Advisory Group tonight. It will make Alexandria a safer and more livable community.”

Melissa McMahon, a Planning and Transportation Commission member but speaking at the meeting on her own behalf, recalled bicycling to the Alexandria Commons shoppin center along Duke Street.

“The best trail, according to Google, was on Duke Street heading west,” said McMahon. “Since I do not normally ride on sidewalks I rode on the street west to Panera and east after meeting. It was frightening and stupidly naive. Duke Street remains inhospitable and hazardous today. There is no way to safely walk or bike from one end to the other.”

As the night went on, the public comment went back and forth between critics of the project and supporters. Sandy Modell, a Living Legend and longtime DASH General Manager, described the transitway as “a square peg in a round hole,” and said the transitway neither addresses the needs nor concerns of business owners along Duke Street, where her new business the Wholistic Hound Academy is located.

Seminary Hill Association President Bill Rossello said the plan doesn’t address the frequency of service, the main complaint of bus users along Duke Street, and criticized the plan spacing bus stops further out along Duke Street.

“Our residents believe the potential costs and inevitable project overruns will result in little to no benefit to anyone but developers,” Rossello said.

The final public speaker of the night was former City Council member and delegate turned doughnut maverick Rob Krupicka.

“This is the next big decision in the vision we started so long ago,” Krupicka said. “For those concerned that we have not taken enough time, I hope I can provide the perspective that our staff have been thinking about this for a long time. We need a new transit vision for Duke Street. I encourage you to think about our future. The city is going to continue to grow. This is an opportunity to leave the community better than [we] found it. Don’t say no: we have to move forward.”

With the public comment concluded, the main concern from the City Council was that the long-term goals for the corridor, namely the center-running lanes all along Duke Street were setting off concerns that eclipsed the short-term plans.

“I want to assure folks we aren’t jumping there; we do have a short-term focus,” said Council member John Chapman. “I’m not sure it’s on Council to articulate what the long-term goal is. We can be bold but vague. We can say ‘we want that at some point’ but there are a whole lot of conversations that happen before that.”

Council member Canek Aguirre said one of the concerns raised about the long-term plan, the possibility of the city using eminent domain to seize the portions necessary to make the center-running lanes happen, was casting unnecessarily long shadows over the immediate transitway plans.

“If it’s not feasible to not have center running lanes in 2A, we’re not going to do that, even if it says that in the long-term plan,” said Aguirre. “As Chapman said, if eminent domain comes up, it will probably be a future council that says that. This council isn’t saying that. I’m not saying that.”

The City Council ultimately voted unanimously to move forward with the design phase of the Duke Street Transitway.

“I’m thanking staff for an endurance award at this point,” said Mayor Justin Wilson. “I would remark that, in the end, most of the speakers — regardless of what your concluding perspective was — we were all saying the same thing at some point. Even when they were opposing it, they said they want to see these safety features.”

Others noted that there are still decisions ahead for the Duke Street Transitway, including branch options for the 2b section in the middle of the corridor.

“We still need to decide on this 2b or not 2b branch,” said City Council member Kirk McPike.

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