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The City of Alexandria could be turning to state funding to try to mitigate the impacts of a pair of upcoming Metro closures.

At the same time, city staff wrote in a memo that it’s increasingly apparent the city’s DASH bus network doesn’t have the manpower to support additional bus routes making up for the loss of Metro service.

The impacts are from two Metro projects coming up: a shutdown of all stations south of the new Potomac Yard Metro station and the closure of the Yellow Line Bridge across the Potomac. The Potomac Yard closure is only expected to last from Sept. 10 to Oct. 22, but the Yellow Line Bridge closure is expected to run from Oct. 23 to next May. During the much longer Yellow Line Bridge closure, riders will have to take the Blue Line to Rosslyn to cross over into D.C.

During previous shutdowns, the city’s DASH bus network helped to fill the gap left by Metro. But Hillary Orr, deputy director of Transportation and Environmental Services, wrote in a memo that DASH doesn’t have the bus drivers to pick up that slack this time around.

“DASH buses are not anticipated to play the same role they did during the 2019 Platform Improvement Project due to a lack of operators to take on additional routes,” Orr wrote.

There are still likely to be more buses to try to cover that gap, but they’ll be WMATA buses. Orr said that city staff hoping to ask the state for $1 million for support.

The grant application is scheduled to be reviewed at a Transportation Commission meeting on Wednesday, June 15.

“WMATA has prepared a mitigation plan that includes shuttle bus bridges and a commitment to increased frequency on the Blue line rail service,” Orr wrote. “The City has also prepared a mitigation plan to support travel options for residents and workers in Alexandria. [Department of Rail & Public Transportation] has announced that $2 million is available to support jurisdictions with these mitigation plans.”

Orr said the City of Alexandria has also been putting together a mitigation plan, which includes:

  • Robust communication, marketing and employer outreach, in partnership with WMATA
  • Access to transportation options such as the water taxi, discounted Capital Bikeshare memberships, HOV lane changes, enhanced way-finding, and discounted or free travel on Virginia Railway Express (VRE)
  • Enhanced support for data monitoring such as bike trail counters, StreetLight data
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Eisenhower Metro station, image via Google Maps

With a large swath of new development coming to the east end of Eisenhower Avenue, the City of Alexandria is looking at ways to make the pedestrian crossing to the nearby Eisenhower Metro station a little easier.

“The City of Alexandria is seeking input on the pedestrian experience of crossing Eisenhower Avenue adjacent to the Eisenhower Avenue Metrorail Station,” the city said in a release. “This project was identified as a high priority improvement in the Eisenhower East Small Area Plan adopted by the Alexandria City Council on March 14, 2020. Improving the crossing is vital for pedestrian safety and accessibility of the Metrorail Station, as well as overall connectivity between the station and other areas of Eisenhower East.”

The Eisenhower Metro station has historically been one of the least used stations in the network even before the network was hit with Covid and reports of widespread mismanagement. Additionally, the Yellow Line will be cut off from D.C. until at least spring 2023. The station could see a boost in ridership from new nearby residential development.

“This area has experienced an increase in the number of pedestrians due to high-density residential developments north of the station, plus staff and visitors of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, National Science Foundation (NSF), and WMATA’s Virginia facility,” the city said on the project website. “Pedestrian traffic will continue to increase as the mixed-use additions to Hoffman Town Center and other planned developments are completed. Improving the crossing is vital for pedestrian safety and accessibility of the Metrorail Station, and overall connectivity between the station and other areas of Eisenhower East.”

Proposals in the Eisenhower East Small Area Plan updateapproved in 2020 — include a potential park beneath the Eisenhower Metro station.

“The City has launched an online survey to provide the public with an opportunity to provide feedback on their experience when crossing to and from the Metro station,” the city said. “The data collected will be used by project staff when developing the initial concepts for crossing improvements. The survey results and design concepts will then be shared at a community outreach meeting in summer 2022.”

Image via Google Maps

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Metro’s Yellow Line, which runs through Arlington and Alexandria, could see some closures next year as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) works to repair the Yellow Line Bridge between Virginia and D.C. and bring the Potomac Yard Metro station online.

Yellow Line Bridge and tunnel rehabilitation project will include repairs to the bridge and fix water-caused erosion in the tunnels.

The bridge was built in the 1970s and WMATA’s project website said it’s now showing “excessive wear and corrosion” while the tunnel has been subject to “decades of water infiltration and underground moisture [which] have eroded the steel-lined tunnels.” WMATA warned that long-term repairs are necessary to avoid structural failure.

The project will also upgrade the fire suppression system on the bridge, which is currently past its useful life according to WMATa, and remediation work in the tunnel to repair cracks.

Schedule of Metro station work, including Yellow Line shutdowns, photo via WMATA

The exact timeline for the project is still unclear. Andrew Off, Vice President of Project Implementation and Construction, said a shutdown is expected sometime in fall 2022.  The shutdown would close the bridge between the Pentagon and L’Enfant stations.

“We expect to start sometime at the end of the next calendar year,” Off said. “We’re still working through with our general contractor on the specific construction duration for the Yellow Line Bridge closure.”

Meanwhile, further south on the Yellow Line, Off said a two-week closure is likely as WMATA connects the new Potomac Yard Metro station to the network.

“We’ll have a scheduled two-week or 16-day shutdown in late summer or early fall in support of connecting the new Potomac Yard infill station to our existing system,” Off said.

The station had been scheduled to open next spring but was pushed back to September 2022 after an error was found in the project’s design. Alexandria leaders are still hopeful the project could be moved up to earlier in the year.

https://twitter.com/JWPascale/status/1448671495056670725

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Alexandria’s DASH bus system is looking to improve its mobile ticketing smartphone application, but city officials want the app to be compatible with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s SmarTrip cards.

The bus system views the rollout of the app last June to be a success. Now DASH is working with the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission to understand how to improve upon the system before making those next steps.

“We eventually hope to see that merge with the future generation of SmarTrip,” DASH General Manager Josh Baker told the city council during the transit company’s annual stockholder meeting at City Hall on Tuesday. “Our system is entirely self- contained. You’re able to buy a pass on there, add money to your trips, but not on your SmartTrip card. So, eventually we hope to see that system feed into the future generations.”

Baker added, “It’s a little tricky, because of course WMATA had some stuff going on internally in that they’re trying to figure out in terms of SmartTrip in the future.”

But Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said that there needs to be some regional leadership around converging the technology to be compatible across multiple transportation platforms.

“You go to the San Francisco Bay area, and whether you’re riding Oakland’s bus system, whether you’re riding the ferry, the BART, whether you’re riding SFMTA, whatever, you’re using the same card, the same media, all the same system,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to be there eventually. So, not only the bus systems in Metro, but VRE and the water taxi and everyone else.”

Approximately 1,000 bus riders downloaded the app in June, and by October there were more than 5,000 users. The app was made available to accommodate riders during the summer shutdown of Alexandria’s Metro stations for platform improvements.

Last year, DASH reported more than 4 million passenger trips and logged 1.7 million miles.

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The completion date for the King Street-Old Town Metro Access Improvements Project has been delayed, but it’s not clear for how long.

The project, which has nearly completely taken over the entrance to the Metro station, redirected bus bays and eliminated the metered parking and kiss & ride areas.

The first phase of the project was initially supposed to wrap up next month, but construction was delayed two months and did not get off the ground until November 2018. Now the city is re-calculating the completion dates for the phased project, which is being done in coordination with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

“Staff is working now on a schedule update,” Alexandria spokesman Craig Fifer said. “The City is closely monitoring the project’s progress and working with the contractor to ensure construction is completed as quickly, safely and responsibly as possible.”

The first phase of construction — eventually resulting in the opening of a brand new bus loop — was slated to be completed this spring. A second phase includes lighting and landscape improvements, a new kiss & ride, and areas for car shares, taxis and shuttles.

Phase I also included the relocation of bus bays to the outskirts of the station on Diagonal Road, Daingerfield Road, Cameron Street and King Street. Two new pedestrian paths to the station have been sectioned off from the construction so that passengers can get to the station on foot.

Alexandria’s Metro stations have seen their fair share of construction. Throughout last summer, all stations south of Reagan National Airport were closed for platform improvements. This project, however, has no impact on train service and has been in the works since 2006. The city council and planning commission approved the design concept in 2012, and the project is part of the city’s Vision Zero initiative by aiming to provide a safer and visually appealing environment for pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders.

Gary Davis is ambivalent to news that the work is delayed. The student at Northern Virginia Community College lives in Maryland and frequently takes Metro all the way to the King Street station, where he descends an escalator and walks through a pedestrian path through the large construction project to wait for his DASH bus on Diagonal Road.

“Hopefully it will finish soon and doesn’t take too much time,” Davis told ALXnow. “It’s not really that inconvenient — aside from the noise and the traffic.”

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The World Series wasn’t just a win for the Nats — it was also a boon for Alexandria’s water taxis.

The aquatic commute route was hailed as a “super-secret” way to dodge World Series crowds, and company officials said hundreds did ferry their way to Navy Yard — capping a season of growth for the service.

“During the recent World Series weekend, we operated three special ‘Baseball Boats’ between Alexandria City Marina and Diamond Teague carrying around 450 people to each home game,” said Nicola McShane, a spokeswoman for the Potomac Riverboat Company’s parent company, Hornblower Cruises and Events.

Water taxi tickets for the home games from Alexandria sold out last Saturday, October 26, though the company was still selling some from the Wharf.

In March, the Potomac Riverboat Company, which runs the water taxis, announced it would run river trips during all home games for the Nats and D.C. United, reported Patch.

The company also added four new boats to its fleet, which helped add seven trips between 6:40-9:20 a.m. on weekdays in preparation for the Metro’s station repair projects that shuttered multiple stations this summer.

But in August after the shutdown ended, Mayor Justin Wilson announced the service was so popular the city was asking the Riverboat company to continue running extended service through the end of the year, and is due to vote on loosening regulations next year to make the new scheduled permanent.

“I am optimistic that this success will provide an opening to make the use of our water as a viable commuting option, a permanent feature for our community,” said the mayor.

The ridership bump may have been in part because the City of Alexandria offered to reimburse water taxi commuters for their fares. In total, the city spent $28,214 reimbursing the fares with $5,642  from the city’s budget, and the rest from a state transportation grant, according to Sarah Godfrey, spokesman for the Department of Transportation & Environmental Services.

But commuters also praised the taxis’ fresh air, food and drinks, and lack of crowds when traveling on the Potomac (though the river poses its own risks.)

Perhaps surprisingly in Old Town, where parking issues run rampant, Godfrey noted the city did not receive any parking complaints this summer as more people than ever boarded the water taxis.

“We do not collect parking data directly, but both [Potomac Riverboat Company] and our own survey of those seeking reimbursement suggests most users walk to the water taxi,” she told ALXnow. “In fact, 78 percent of those who sought our reimbursement either walked or biked to the water taxi.”

The total ridership for 2018 was “over 250,000”, according to the CEO Kenneth Svendsen, who previously told Patch it was the company’s “best-ever performance to date.”

McShane declined to share the company’s overall 2019 ridership numbers with ALXnow, but noted that “we have seen a significant increase in guests using our services to navigate and explore the wider metropolitan area when compared to last year. This demonstrates there is a real, and growing appetite for water taxi transport.”

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Metro is moving forward with plans to develop the areas around the Huntington station in Fairfax County, just south of Alexandria.

The transit agency announced it would tap Stout & Teague as the property’s “master developer” by preparing and dividing the 12-acre site into parcels that could be then sold or leased to other developers.

Christian Dorsey, who chairs the WMATA Board of Directors and the Arlington County Board, called this developer stewardship system of the land long destined for redevelopment an “innovative approach” during the agency’s meeting late last week, during which members unanimously approved the contract.

Back in June, WMATA invited companies to bid for the chance to develop 12 of the 30 acres of land around the Metro station which recently re-opened after a lengthy closure to rebuild its deteriorating station platform.

The transit agency’s plan called for taking down the garage on the south side of the property and replacing the north garage with two mixed-use buildings — one building to the north of the Metro station, and one to the south.

With the Board’s blessing, Stout & Teague has the green light to prepare the hilly land for buildings, and work with Fairfax County to re-zone the land for mixed-use development, Metro’s Vice President of Real Estate Nina Albert said during the meeting.

“They have agreed to not participate in any future development, but instead to work with us to market and sell these properties,” she said, referring to the developer.

Metro previously contracted with Fairfax-based Stout & Teague in 2002 to develop a section of the agency’s land into the apartment complex The Courts at Huntington Station, along with several townhouses the developer finished in 2011.

A few years later, Metro tried to interest developers in another, 1.15-acre part of the land to no success.

Now, Albert says the time to develop the rest of the land is right considering the station’s rail connections to Amazon’s second headquarters and the its eventual connection with Richmond Highway’s bus rapid transit line.

“There’s a lot of dynamic activity occurring and we should be planning now for what the station could be, and envisioning that,” she said.

Because re-zoning is typically an 18-month process in Fairfax County, efforts to re-level and prepare the sights for sale are expected to finish by 2023.

Maps via Metro

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While the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is working through plans to make September fare-free for all riders, that could be extended into October for Alexandria riders dealing with the Metro shutdown.

Plans for the VRE are headed to review at the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission’s meeting on Thursday, July 7.

A report (page 155) from VRE CEO Rich Dalton said that while the pandemic has hit VRE’s ridership, a month without fares would simultaneously be a “thank you” to loyal customers and could attract new riders to the VRE:

September is typically a month where the regional transportation system is strained, as kids return to school and workers return from summer vacation, and it historically has been one of the highest ridership months for VRE. This September, many federal agencies are expected to transition to more permanent in-office work schedules, moving away from the remote work scenarios implemented during the pandemic. While many agencies and private employers will still allow some teleworking, most will require a higher in-office presence for their workers. Staff believes offering free fares for the month of September will encourage commuters who are considering various commute options to try VRE.

The fare-free month also coincides with the start of the shutdown of Metro lines south of National Airport.

“Starting on September 10th, WMATA will shut down Metrorail stations south of Reagan National Airport on both the Blue and Yellow Lines,” the report said. “This shutdown will last at least six weeks, and VRE will be a major contributor to the mitigation efforts in the region. Allowing riders to board for free during September will maximize usage of VRE during the first half of the shutdown.”

The report also says VRE is planning to extend the free fare into October for riders traveling between Alexandria or Crystal City and either going across the river to L’Enfant or union Station or going south towards Franconia-Springfield.

“Providing free fares for these zones in October will continue VRE’s enhanced role in mitigating the effects of the Metrorail shutdown,” the report said.

The report said passenger fare revenue in April and May this year has been between $1.1 and $1.2 million.

“We do not expect significant growth in ridership from this level during the summer months, but ridership in September is expected to increase as employees return to the office,” the report said. “If average daily ridership were to increase to 10,000 trips per day, the expected monthly fare revenue would also increase to approximately $2.3 million.”

The foregone fare revenue, the report said, would be between $1.2 and $2.3 million — without factoring in the impact of the Metrorail shutdown.

“VRE’s existing federal pandemic relief funds will provide a backstop to replace this foregone revenue,” the report said. The expected impact to VRE of the proposed free fares in September and October for zones 2/3 specifically is more modest. Current ridership to/from/between zones 2 and 3 is relatively small at only 400 trips per day, with most of that ridership occurring at the
Backlick Road station. Of course, if a significant share of passengers impacted by the Metrorail shutdown shift over to VRE, that figure could increase substantially.”

The report said the VRE will be applying to a grant from the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to cover the lost funds for offering fare-free transportation in Alexandria.

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This week’s Q&A column is written by David Howell, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer, of McEnearney Associates Realtors®, the leading real estate firm in Alexandria. To learn more about this article and relevant market news, contact David at 703-738-9513 or email [email protected]. You may also submit your questions to McEnearney Associates via email for response in future columns.

Question: How did the real estate market in the City of Alexandria finish the year in 2021?

Answer: In September we wrote about contract activity from January through August of 2021 for the City of Alexandria compared to the same months of 2020 and 2019. It was not a surprise to see increases in contract activity compared to 2020 which was impacted by shutdowns and isolation due to COVID, but the increases were also significant when compared to the more “normal” market of 2019.

This week we are looking at contract activity through the end of the year which still finished strong. The overall percentage increase for 2021 compared to 2020 was 12.5%, and it was 26.7% compared to 2019!

For the past three years, overall contract activity for each year breaks down as follows:

  • 2019 had 2,516 contracts
  • 2020 had 2,835 contracts
  • 2021 had 3,189 contracts

The first chart below shows that contract activity for 2021 increased for each price category over both 2020 and 2019. The second chart shows overall contracts by property type (condo, attached and detached homes). Detached homes, which is the smallest of those categories in the City, did have a slight decrease in the number of contracts. The third chart looks at contracts by quarter and demonstrates that this year mirrors 2019 with activity increasing from the first to the second quarter and becoming quieter in the last two quarters. In 2020 COVID was a major disrupter to that typical cycle with a quieter spring and more robust fall instead. (Source: BrightMLS. Data deemed reliable, but not guaranteed.)

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One of the most visible congestion points in the city is about to get revamped.

On Tuesday, the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved roadway improvements the the intersection of King Street, Russell Road and Callahan Drive, as well as a conversion to one-way for the service road leading up to the George Washington National Masonic Memorial.

I think it’ll be safer for one and all,” Alexandria City Councilwoman Del Pepper said.

Roadway improvements in the area include:

  • Signal timing optimization to reduce vehicle delay by 45 seconds
  • Upgraded crosswalks and pedestrian signals
  • A curb extension for shorter crossing and to slow turning vehicles
  • Bike facilities through the intersection

Improvements at the intersection have been in the works since 2015, when the city received a $1.2 million Federal Transit Administration grant. The next few years were spent collecting and analyzing data, and were met with delays due to “the combination of staff capacity and implementation of the King Street Metro Improvements Project and the 2019 Metro Summer Shutdown,” according to a city staff report.

The George Washington National Masonic Memorial Association wanted the access road shut down to vehicle traffic.

“Part of this project involves the access road around the traffic island, which connects the Memorial’s driveway to Callahan Drive,” the Association wrote in a letter to Council. “While the Memorial Association believes the modifications before Council for approval are a positive step, it is the viewpoint of the Memorial Association that this access road, which is used by motorists as a way to circumvent the traffic light at King and Callahan, should be permanently closed to vehicle traffic.”

Christopher Ziemann, the city’s Transportation Planning Division chief, said that the one-way conversion was a compromise.

Mayor Justin Wilson said that the traffic island in the center of the intersection will not be impacted, as it is designated as a national historic landmark.

“I think this is a step forward and certainly enjoys broad-based community support, which is great,” he said. “I appreciate staff’s efforts to build consensus on the changes on this intersection. I know this has been a long time coming.”

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