Alexandria, VA

(Updated at 3 p.m.) Micro-mobility company Helbiz is poised to be the first company in Alexandria offering both e-scooters and e-bikes in Alexandria.

“Helbiz… has been awarded a permit to operate both its innovative e-bikes and e-scooters in Alexandria, Virginia, making it the only company to offer both transportation solutions in the market,” the company said in a press release. “This permit follows the launch of the company’s fleet of e-bikes in neighboring Washington, D.C. and highlights Helbiz’s continued commitment to offering eco-friendly micro-mobility solutions in the area.”

Gian Luca Spriano, a spokesperson for the Italian-American company, said it would be partnering with Alexandria’s Department of Transportation to ensure safety is prioritized and the company has met all the regulatory standards.

The press release noted that the company plans to operate 200 e-scooters and 200 e-bikes in Alexandria, deployed at some point “in the coming weeks.”

The e-scooters and e-bikes are accessible through the Helbiz app, in which users can locate, rent, and unlock the devices.

Photo via Helbiz/Twitter

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The Alexandria City Council has unanimously approved a license agreement to allow Potomac Riverboat Company’s water taxi to ferry commuters from the waterfront to the District Wharf in D.C.

The daily water taxi service, which begins on March 1, was first introduced to Alexandria during last summer’s Metro shutdown, and commuters will start sailing at 6 a.m.

“I’m glad we’re doing this,” said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson. “I look forward to personally doing it. It works out really well on council meeting days, because I can leave my car here (at City Hall) and take my boat from my day job directly here.”

Potomac Riverboat Company increased its water taxi fleet last April with the addition of four new yellow boats. It also runs the Cherry Blossom, Matthew Hayes, and other named vessels. A commuter pass valid from March 1 to Dec. 31 costs $295, and a round-trip ticket costs $10.

City staff maintain that water taxi commuters will not create parking issues in Old Town — a sticking point for Councilwoman Del Pepper.

“The more ways we can find to get people off our cement streets the better,” Pepper said. “I have for about a decade opposed this, and the reason has been because of concern that our streets and our parking lots would all be filled with people getting to this destination (the waterfront). I’m going to support it with the caveat that I hope staff will be following this, and if this becomes a problem for the neighbors, I want it brought back for discussion.”

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The Eisenhower Partnership is making a last-minute push to try to salvage a 15-minute bus service plan for Eisenhower Avenue ahead of tomorrow’s City Council meeting.

Currently buses cycle along Eisenhower Avenue every 30 minutes, as they do in much of the rest of the city. A new plan would increase the frequency of service in densely populated corridors, while cutting down or eliminating service to some less-densely populated residential areas.

After backlash from Seminary Hill residents at risk of losing the AT2 line, DASH restored some of the less dense areas but at the cost of scaling back the 15-minute cycles planned for Eisenhower.

Now, the Eisenhower Partnership — a non-profit representing the Eisenhower Valley — has set up a petition hoping to make Eisenhower Avenue one of the 15-minute bus service routes again.

“We ask Alexandria City Council and the DASH Board of Directors to amend the plan to bring more frequent service to Eisenhower by 2022 to support continued economic growth, improved livability for residents, and fewer cars on our streets,” the group said in the petition. “The Eisenhower Valley is booming in new residential and commercial construction. It is an economic engine for Alexandria, increasingly providing improvements to innovation, learning, and living.”

The petition has 118 signatures with a goal of 200.

The Eisenhower Partnership cited upcoming plans to increase density in Eisenhower, with a shift towards greater residential uses.

“DASH ridership on Eisenhower is already strong, averaging 175 riders each weekday,” the petition said. “This number will grow, since several new apartment buildings are planned or under construction along Eisenhower, including partial conversion of the Victory Center to residential. Long-awaited growth is great news, but these new residents will either ride the bus to Metro stations or add to the unmitigated traffic problem.”

The City Council is scheduled to review an update on the transit vision study at the meeting tomorrow (Tuesday).

By 2030, the plan is to have virtually every bus route in the city — including Eisenhower Avenue — at 15-minute frequency. The 2022 planned network, however, would leave the N1 route on Eisenhower avenue at 30-minute frequency.

“To support smart growth and reduce traffic for all Alexandrians, bus service on Eisenhower should be at least every 15 minutes by 2022, increasing as needed,” the petition said. “For certain, another ten years of low-frequency service on Eisenhower will leave all Alexandrians in a jam.”

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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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Interested in sailing to work? During last summer’s Metro Shutdown, Alexandria eased restrictions allowing for the Potomac Riverboat Company’s water taxi to ferry commuters from the city’s waterfront to the District Wharf.

Tonight, the city council will receive a report on extending the license agreement to allow for early morning water taxi commuting services to continue.

The agreement, which would allow for the water taxi to start running as early as 6:30 a.m., was “nearly unanimously” endorsed by the Waterfront Commission, according to a Dec. 31 letter submitted in the staff presentation to council.

The letter also said that there should be minimal parking impacts in Old Town.

Specifically, staff found that 85% of commuters surveyed said they either walked or biked to the water taxi, and 90% of these commuters were former Metrorail riders,” Waterfront Commission Chair Stephen Thayer wrote. “Staff noted these former Metrorail riders did not stop riding Metrorail altogether, but simply boarded Metrorail at L’Enfant Plaza, which is a short shuttle bus ride away from the District’s Wharf.”

The Commission is also asking the city to consider a water taxi user reimbursement program. During the summer shutdown the daily $10 commuter round trip was reduced 80% with the reimbursement.

Potomac Riverboat Company operates four water taxis, in addition to the Cherry Blossom, Matthew Hayes, and other named vessels.

The Council will decide on the matter at a public hearing on Feb. 22.

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Alexandria’s DASH bus system is inviting the public to provide input on a new zero-emissions electric bus.

The 60-foot-long Xcelsior CHARGE XE60 bus can carry more than 120 people, and will be available for the public to take a test ride late this week. The event is happening on Wednesday from 4-6 p.m. at Market Square (301 King St.).

DASH has been experimenting with the bus since last week in an effort to replace its older articulated (connected by a joint) buses. The bus is also being tried out on various routes this week, including one used by Mayor Justin Wilson on Monday morning.

The bus is made by New Flyer of America, and was provided to the city free of charge during the demonstration.

Bus Features:

  • Highest battery storage capacity and range of any zero-emissions bus available in the United States.
  • Ability to serve all current or future routes within the City (navigates tighter turns than many current DASH buses due to special turning technology)
  • Nearly doubles passenger capacity for routes with overcrowding issues (carries 120-130 passengers vs. 80 on current DASH buses)
  • 3 articulated buses can replace 4 standard buses, reducing long term operating and capital costs
  • Remedies bunching issues on routes where too many buses create service reliability issues

Photo via Justin Wilson/Facebook

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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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Nicole Radshaw is all in favor of the much-maligned Seminary Road diet.

Three years ago on Halloween, the Seminary Valley resident was hit by a driver as she biked to work at a preschool on Seminary Road. Radshaw didn’t break any bones, but her bike was totaled, she spent a year in physical therapy, and saw a counselor to help deal with the trauma and anxiety of being hit by a car.

“It really sucked. I could have been a fatality. Cars were driving past as I was lying on the road,” Radshaw told ALXnow. “It took me three years to want to get back on a bike again.”

Radshaw belongs to a less vocal portion of city residents who favor the road diet, which has created consternation throughout Alexandria. Mayor Justin Wilson and city officials have acknowledged traffic delays at peak travel times since the 0.9 mile stretch of roadway between N. Quaker Lane and Howard Street was reduced from four to two lanes. Bike lanes on both sides were also added, in addition to a center turn lane, crosswalks and medians.

The city council and Department of Transportation and Environmental Services have received thousands of emails and messages against the plan. Arguments from the Alexandria Residents Against the Seminary Road Diet Facebook group even prompted Alexandria City Councilwoman Amy Jackson to call for a complete restart of the process.

Glenn Klaus lives in Rosemont, and his support of the road diet is more philosophical. He’s a cyclist and hasn’t yet biked on the new Seminary Road bike lanes, but wants to see fewer cars on city roadways.

“The city is trying to change driving behaviors and traffic patterns. People just have to deal, because ultimately I think that strategy is to their benefit,” Klaus said. “When people lose, it doesn’t mean they weren’t listened to. It just means their argument didn’t sway the decision-makers.”

Lisa Soronen lives on Fort Williams Parkway — about five blocks away from Seminary Road — and alternates between taking the bus in the morning and driving to work in the District. She walks her dog in the morning and crosses Seminary Road on foot up to six times a day, which used to be a “suicide mission,” she said. Now she says that drivers are paying more attention to the 25 mile per hour speed limit and she is no longer afraid of crossing the street.

“It’s absolutely wonderful, because if I want to cross the road I have a crosswalk,” Soronen said. “Same thing with the bus. Coming home after 5 p.m., I’d have to run across four lanes of traffic and someone might hit me. I’m really surprised that people feel so personal about it, and they have attacked me personally. I have been attacked online.”

Soronen said she has experienced delays along the roadway in the morning, and has seen emergency vehicles speed through the middle turn lane without issues . She got involved in the planning process for the roadway soon after moving into the neighborhood last April, and has corresponded with members of the city council and city staff.

“I might be delayed sometimes driving on Seminary, but it’s worth it for me for it to be safer for everyone,” she said. “The process I participated in seems open and fair. If things had gone the other way, I don’t think I would have considered that the process failed me.”

Soronen is an attorney and volunteers with the Mother of Light Center, which supports homeless Alexandrians. She said that the argument over the road diet is a waste of her time and distracts city council from its other work.

“I don’t understand the vitriol against this,” she said, calling the dispute “small and petty” and not as big of a deal as, say, poverty and homelessness in the city.

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(Updated 1/31) While construction is underway on the Potomac Yard Metro station, progress on the station’s planned southern access point is being stalled by a financing squabble between the city and WMATA.

The original southern entrance to the Metro station was cut from early plans to save money. As something of a consolation prize, a path to a pedestrian bridge, from neighborhoods to the south to the entrance on the north side of the station, was added.

The city has put forward two potential designs for the southern access to the bridge. At a Potomac Yard Metrorail Implementation Work Group on Monday, however, city staff said there have been some hiccups with regard to financing the southern access.

The pedestrian bridge is planned to cross over the train tracks next to the station and connect to a junction city staff called a “knuckle.” The plan approved by City Council features a northern pavillion, leading to the pedestrian bridge, and a 520-foot ramp going south. A second option under consideration calls for a pedestrian bridge of similar length connecting to a southern pavilion, rather than the ramp. The southern pavillion in the second option would include a staircase and two elevators.

WMATA is currently negotiating a price for the southern access infrastructure, but staff and city officials warned that the estimates are coming back higher than the $50 million allocated in a state grant.

“They provided a number,” Wilson summarized at the meeting. “Their number is much higher than we believe the number should be. You guys [staff] are going to go back with a number you’re willing to pay, an offer, that you feel is a reasonable number.”

City staff said the next steps are to determine if the prices negotiated by WMATA are reasonable given current market costs, and to get approval from oversight agencies. Despite the back and forth over costs, staff said the plan is still to have the southern access open along with the rest of the Metro station in two years.

While the discussions over the price of the southern access continue, staff said their recommendation would be to continue with the planned knuckle design and add whichever southern entrance the city can afford within budget constraints.

“We are going to complete southwest access concurrent with or very close to the station opening in March 2022,” staff said. “That is the staff’s goal and the community’s goal.”

Across the rest of the site, some construction has already begun. The project broke ground in December and pile driving started yesterday (Wednesday). Pile driving is expected to take four weeks to complete, according to a press release from the City of Alexandria.

Despite the city’s promises — or perhaps because of them given some past controversy — some residents at the meeting said they were concerned that the budget discussion was the first step towards eliminating the southern access entirely.

“We have a huge fear that people say, ‘You know what, we have the station now, it’s not that far a walk. You guys can go get the access over there at the north pavilion,’ and we get nothing,” one neighbor said at the meeting. “I think it’s a genuine risk that has high probability and significant impact.”

Some residents asked the city to start over and have contractors bid on contracts again to get better use of the $50 million given by the state, but Wilson said that comes with its own risk.

“It could be that we could go back to market and it turns out the numbers aren’t wacky and they come back way above [what we currently have], so we don’t have an option that is affordable,” Wilson said. “If we wanted an excuse, we would have pulled the plug a year ago.”

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While Alexandria’s Transportation Commission endorsed a WMATA-backed plan to overhaul the region’s bus system, that approval was accompanied by concerns that the project won’t be able to achieve its lofty goals.

On paper, the plan put forward by the Washington Area Bus Transformation Project sounds ideal to any bus rider. The plan pushes for faster, more frequent, more reliable bus service that is also more affordable.

The plan would impact both regional bus lines, like Metrobus, and local bus systems, like DASH. It lays out aims for improving the bus system that frequently overlap with the city’s own plans to overhaul the DASH bus network.

The top four recommendations are vague, but the 20-page summary gives each a little more context:

  1. Provide frequent and convenient bus service that connects communities and promotes housing affordability, regional equity and economic growth
  2. Give buses priority on roadways to move people quickly and reliable
  3. Create an excellent customer experience to retain and increase ridership
  4. Empower a publicly appointed task force to transform bus and lead the implementation of a truly integrated regional system

Part of the implementation of the plan, a representative of the project said to the Transportation Commission at a meeting last week, is a regional task force that could monitor progress on the milestones and report annually on whether those are advancing.

“We didn’t go through this process to create a plan,” the representative said. “We went through this process to transform the bus over the next ten years. Such an entity would bring more accountability, more transparency in the region at a higher level.”

Melissa McMahon, chair of the Transportation Commission, said those reports will need to identify advances not just regionally, but by individual localities.

“There could be really wide gaps between one jurisdiction and another,” McMahon said. “That could really hold this up… some of the things you’re describing require everyone to move on together.”

A draft strategic plan was released last year and to an extent, the plan already includes information on individual progress within bus networks. In the section titled “advance technology and programs that improve the safety of everyone on board,” the plan notes that DASH has security cameras installed on roughly 20% of the fleet.

Overall, members of the Transportation Commission were hopeful the plan will help to reform the bus network and make it a viable supplement to rail transit.

“Buses are the historically ugly stepchildren of the transit system,” McMahon said. “They don’t have the same flash as other kinds of transit. They don’t have the same permanence that rail does… but if the Metrorail is our backbone, the bus is our nervous system and capillaries. It’s circulating everywhere in our community. So it’s really important that we get this right.”

Photo by Jay Westcott

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Alexandria is one of more than a dozen localities in Virginia — including Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties — that will be receiving electric school buses by the end of 2020, Dominion Energy announced today.

The first phase of a project to replace diesel-powered buses entirely will start with distributing a total of 50 electric school buses to 16 school divisions spread out across the state. It’s unclear how many buses Alexandria will receive.

Dominion said the locations were selected based on the benefit the bus batteries would bring to the electric grid. Per a press release:

The electric school buses will serve as a grid resource by creating additional energy storage technology to support the company’s integration of distributed renewables such as solar and wind. The “vehicle-to-grid” technology leverages the bus batteries to store and inject energy onto the grid during periods of high demand when the buses are not needed for transport. The buses also provide environmental and health benefits through reduced emissions and reduce operation and maintenance costs for schools by up to 60 percent.

The press release noted that Thomas Built Buses, a North Carolina-based company that specializes in building school buses, was chosen as the vendor for the first phase of the project.

The second phase of the project would, with state approval, expand the program to 1,000 additional buses by 2025. Phase three would replace 50 percent of all diesel buses by 2025 and 100 percent by 2030.

Photo via Thomas Built Buses/Facebook

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Alexandria’s DASH buses may look a little different this week if you ride in the West End.

The new white West End bus traveling the new AT1 Plus route will feature artwork showing the route and various destinations in Alexandria’s West End, according to DASH.

The route runs from the Van Dorn Metro station up past Landmark Mall, Lincolnia, the Mark Center and Southern Towers. In October, DASH introduced a “plus” version of the line with improved service frequency, longer hours of operation, and additional real-time bus arrival displays. The new AT1 Plus route comes every ten minutes during peak hours, every 20 minutes during off-peak weekday times, and every 30 minutes on weekends, according to DASH.

The changes are an early part of efforts to create a transitway that makes bus travel across the West End more accessible and reliable. With redevelopment planned for Landmark Mall, the city is hoping for the improved transit service to be part of a more residential and commercial West End community. Eventually, the city hopes the transitway will connect up to the Pentagon.

DASH also recently approved plans to start moving the bus service towards a focus on rapid service through high-density areas, at the cost of bus routes through some lower-density areas.

Funding for the AT1 Plus service comes from revenue on the new I-395 tolls.

Photo courtesy DASH

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