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Electric DASH bus, photo via DASH/Facebook

Recent data showed the DASH bus routes to the Pentagon are some of the most widely used in the system, and those lines could see delays this week due to a lane closure.

Alexandria’s DASH bus system put out a service alert that a lane closure could cause 15-20 minute delays this week for lines 35, 103, and 104.

  • Line 35 runs from the Van Dorn Metro station to the Pentagon Metro station
  • Line 103 runs from the Braddock Metro station to the Pentagon Metro station via Glebe Road
  • Line 104 also runs from the Braddock Metro station to the Pentagon Metro station, but via Cameron Mills Drive and Parkfairfax

DASH said the delay will likely impact service on the lines on Wednesday (Jan. 4) and Thursday (Jan. 5).

Photo via DASH/Facebook

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The theme of this week’s stories has been transit.

Lots of transit news around Alexandria this week, from Potomac Yard getting a new opening date to a new dashboard that allows for an easy tracking of Alexandria’s transportation statistics.

A report also showed that DASH is going strong with a new route overhaul and a fare-free program.

It was a (mostly) a positive week for transportation news.

  1. Man arrested after allegedly crashing into multiple cars on N. Quaker Lane
  2. APD: 16-year-old beaten and robbed by group on Kenmore Avenue in the West End
  3. All-affordable development opening in Huntington next month
  4. APD: Robbers steal rental car key from driver on N. Henry Street
  5. Four people displaced after house fire in Arlandria
  6. Alexandria is pushing for an independent health department
  7. New report shows behind-the-scenes look at successes and challenges of free bus overhaul
  8. Potential impact on Alexandria shuttle programs creates setback for transportation funding overhaul
  9. Alexandria School Board considering staggered terms, fewer members and eliminating districts
  10. Pedestrian struck by vehicle on N. Henry Street in Old Town
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Alexandria transit statistics (image via NVTC)

Transportation geeks rejoice, there’s a new and easily accessible dashboard for reviewing Alexandria statistics.

A interactive tool put together by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission offers a quick snapshot of some transit statistics for Alexandria and its neighbors.

The recently launched NoVa Transit Data Dashboard offers a look at transit information in every Northern Virginia locality, as well as a breakdown of statistics by agencies.

The overview for Alexandria notes that around 19% of the city commutes on public transit. The city’s bus service, DASH, has around 81,900 riders weekly along its 12 routes.

A look at ridership over the last five years also shows the slump and recovery that DASH discussed in a recent report.

Chart of DASH ridership by year (image via NVTC)

A map of stops around the city also highlights the new emphasis on high-intensity service around dense corridors — at the cost of service to some of the less dense parts of the city.

The dashboard shows that around 94.7% of the city has access to transit — slightly less than neighboring Arlington’s 95.1% but more than Fairfax County’s 61.3% — with not much variation to that across non-white populations, households below the federal poverty line, or commuters.

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A DASH bus in Old Town Alexandria (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated 10:15 a.m. on 12/14/22) As neighboring D.C. moves forward with a fare-free bus network, Alexandria is looking back at lessons from its own first full year with a fare-free bus network.

Alexandria bus network DASH has released its first annual report on the new initiative that eliminated fares for buses.

The new report looks back at the successes and challenges from that first year — at a time when the budgetary cost means the future of the fare-free program is in question.

The report says the first year of the program has been “tremendously successful by nearly every performance metric” though it also included a look at some challenges from the last year and looming ahead.

According to the report:

  • Ridership has doubled from August 2021 to August 2022, with the largest increases occurring during the middays, evenings and weekends — though some of this may be due to the pandemic recovery.
  • DASH recorded 380,000 boardings in September 2022, the single-highest month of ridership since 2015. The report said DASH is one of the only agencies in the region that has returned to and surpassed pre-Covid ridership.
  • A customer survey said the network redesign and free fares have been two of the largest factors behind ridership growth.

The report also says there’s been an increase in job satisfaction from DASH operators, though negative interactions with passengers have increased. Customer feedback has been positive, the report said, though concerns have been raised about overcrowding — particularly on routes with large numbers of high school students.

The report says lines 31, 35 and 36 all serve a large number of high school students and the buses have seen overcrowding.

“Each of these routes are typically running every 10-15 minutes,” the report said, “however, DASH has mostly addressed these overcrowding hotspots by assigning larger 40-foot and 60-foot buses to the busiest trips and adding several unscheduled trips designed to provide adequate capacity during these periods of heightened ridership demand.”

There have also been challenges in quantifying ridership.

“First, since DASH has not yet finished its project to install automated passenger counters (APC’s) on all DASH buses, ridership data is still being collected manually by operators pressing a button for each passenger boarding,” the report said. “This method is not ideal as it means that bus operators need to count passengers in addition to their regular driving duties, which can be difficult with increased ridership and all-door boarding.”

The report also said ridership data previously collected via SmarTrip cards is no longer available, giving DASH less insight into transfers or rider types.

As the City of Alexandria heads into a tight budget season, one of the most relevant parts of the report could be the financial impacts of the program. The report looks at how much has been lost in fare revenues and where DASH can try to cover some of that loss.

According to the report:

The most significant financial impact from free fares is the loss of passenger revenues, which has traditionally been the single largest revenue source for DASH. In a typical pre-COVID year, DASH would collect approximately $4 million in passenger fares, however, that amount had decreased by more than half during the height of the pandemic. With the rapid return of ridership in FY 2022, DASH estimates that it might have collected an additional $3.5-4.0 million in revenues if the regular $2.00 fare had been collected.

DASH said that lost revenue was offset by a $1.5 million increase in the DASH subsidy from the City of Alexandria and an additional $2.6 million in grant funding from a state program.

The report notes that fare collection is, at the very least, unlikely to resume before FY 2026 — per the stipulations of the state grant.

“If DASH were to resume fare collection prior to FY 2026, the total state grand award ($7.2 million) would need to be returned,” the report said.

In the meantime, the report said DASH is still looking for alternative sources of funding.

“The budgetary impact from the first year of free fares has been largely offset by subsidy increases and state grant funding,” the report said, “while DASH continues to identify additional savings in capital and operating expenses.”

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The following press release was just published by the City of Alexandria.

The “DASHing Words in Motion” poetry contest brings recognition to writers, promotes an appreciation of poetry as an art form, and provides inspiration to individuals using the Alexandria Transit Company’s DASH Buses and Trolleys. The contest encourages quality writing by participants 16 years of age or older, who live, work or study in the City of Alexandria. Contest winners will have their poems on exhibit on DASH buses and trolleys throughout the City, as well as displayed on websites, social media platforms, brochures and flyers.

The online submission deadline for the DASHing Words in Motion is Friday, January 27, 2023. To submit poetry click here.

For additional information about the literary program, visit the Office of the Arts website: alexandriava.gov/Arts or email [email protected].

For reasonable disability accommodation, contact [email protected] or 703.746.5565, Virginia Relay 711.

The competition caps off a pretty good year for DASH, though there’s some discussion about whether the fare-free system will be sustainable.

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A bus driver waits outside the Van Dorn Metro station in Alexandria (staff photo by James Cullum)

A plan to overhaul the way Alexandria handles transportation funding from developers was sent back for further review by the Planning Commission.

Members of the Planning Commission said earlier this week that there are too many lingering questions about the impacts on local residents of the proposed changes, though the changes are headed in the right direction.

The change could lead to end of city-wide shuttle programs, leaving a gap in services that the local bus network may not be able to fill.

Currently, developers manage funding for transportation projects to offset increased traffic from their projects. That funding, part of a transportation management plan (TMP), can be used to encourage employees and residents to use public transportation, walk, take a bike or rideshare over driving to work alone.

But a number of the 106 TMPs in effect in Alexandria lack proper oversight to ensure funds are being put to good use, while developers face low penalties — a $50 fine — for not following these plans, according to a city report.

The city proposes to lump funding from those TMPs into a single, city-managed pot to be allocated to city transportation projects.

Commissioners and public speakers said there are a few areas where the change could pull the rug out from beneath a few vital current systems.

The plan is “not ready for primetime,” Morgan Babcock, manager and TMP coordinator for the Carlyle Council, told the Planning Commission during public comments.

Babcock said her TMP provides a workday shuttle and supports community events like Bike to Work Day as well as management of a tunnel connecting Carlyle to the King Street Metro station. The city would have to assume responsibility for and management of all these initiatives, Babcock noted.

Commissioners were particularly concerned about the future of shuttle services, which staff said are part of eight TMPs.

“We would potentially be remiss if we pull the rug out from shuttles,” said Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek. “I’m not sure DASH or Metrobus would be an adequate substitute for shuttles.”

Staff said one part of the plan would involve shifting shuttle operations over to DASH. Macek noted that DASH buses generally do not fill the same needs as the shuttles in TMPs.

In Cameron Station, for instance, a shuttle circulates around the community and gives better access to local homes than a bus traveling along major streets would, Macek said.

Planning Commission member Mindy Lyle proposed deferring the changes until staff could conduct more outreach to current TMP programs and review the impact on shuttles. That motion carried unanimously.

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Traffic backup heading eastbound along Duke Street near Eisenhower Ave (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated 11:30 a.m.) As Alexandria sizes up Duke Street for dedicated bus lanes, a regional grant aimed at reducing congestion and improving air quality could be a vital piece of funding the transit line’s operation.

The bus lanes, part of a bus rapid transit (BRT) refit, is part of the Duke Street in Motion project, which aims to boost transit accessibility along Duke Street.

Nothing is set in stone, but a few of the several options being considered for sections of Duke Street include blocking off sections of the roadway for dedicated bus lanes.

“The City anticipates enhanced transit operations on Duke Street beginning around FY27,” Yon Lambert, the director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES), said in a memo to City Council. “The City began an engagement process in early 2021 followed by the Duke Street in Motion initiative in 2022. Transit improvements are being coordinated with other City projects along the corridor, including the intersection of Duke Street at West Taylor Run Parkway.”

At a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 13, the City Council is set to review requests for $4.5 million in Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) grants from the FY 2029 Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program and Regional Surface Transportation Program.

The request includes a $750,000 ask for the Alexandria Mobility Plan, but the lion’s share of the grant request is $3.75 million to the Duke Street Transitway.

The $4.5 million request is in line with around how much the city has been granted over the last five years. To date, a report said the city has already received a total of $87 million in NVTA funding for design, right-of-way, construction and buses for the Duke Street Transitway project.

The grant proposal could be critical to supporting the Duke Street Transitway as the city heads into a lean budget season. Transitway programs can be expensive — a lack of funding killed dedicated bus lanes in a planned West End Transitway.

A presentation planned for the City Council says the grant would fund operations for transit service for the first 3-5 years of the BRT’s life.

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A bus outside the King Street-Old Town Metro station (staff photo by James Cullum)

An upcoming zoning change could both cut through some development red tape and make funding for transportation projects more accessible after years of noncompliance from developers.

The city is looking at reshaping Transportation Management Plans (TMP), one of the core pieces of any new development that’s remained basically unchanged since 1987. The goal of a TMP is to ensure new development promotes public transportation, walking, biking or rideshares rather than driving to work alone.

“TMPs often outline specific transportation requirements a development must carry out, such as offering an incentive program or shuttle bus to Metrorail,” a report on the proposed change said. “Developments fund their individual TMPs through an annual contribution into an account they manage and oversee.”

Most times, these plans involve dedicating funding transportation projects aimed at boosting public transit and other types of transportation. It’s a deal not unlike the way the city trades bonus density for affordable housing. There are currently 106 active TMPs around the city.

In the past, that funding has been divided up by individual projects and managed by individual developers with mixed results. The report noted that compliance is low because penalties are nominal. Development from before 2014 — which accounts for about 63 of the 106 total TMPs — only receive a $50 fine for not following their TMP.

“Administration of TMPs typically falls on property management, who often lack tools, expertise, and time to implement and oversee an effective TMP,” the report said. “Too many TMPs are doing different things with varying degrees of success, and many are not compliant with the requirements spending and reporting.”

To make matters worse, the report said the success of each TMP is difficult to measure and funding often sits unused in accounts.

“It is difficult to measure the success of TMPs since the surveys used to evaluate travel behaviors are administered by each TMP, and the data is unreliable due to low response rates,” the report said. “TMPs often accrue funds faster than they can be spent. It is administratively time-consuming for staff to coordinate with over 100 different TMP Coordinators that are frequently changing and have different levels of expertise.”

The new change would bring nearly all of the funding from TMPs into a single pot for coordinated use on city transportation projects.

“[The policy change requires] all but the largest developments to pay into a GO Alex Fund, which is managed by the City, rather than managing individual funds themselves,” the report said. “Developments over a certain size can still manage their own program with City oversight, but without paying into a City fund. The GO Alex Fund will be used to make transportation investments Citywide.”

The report said the city-managed fund would advance strategies in the Alexandria Multimodal Plan and other city transportation goals.

“The benefit of this change is that the single fund achieves economies of scale that individual TMP funds cannot,” the report said. “There are currently 106 separate funds, each of which have different programs to administer with different levels of available funding. By combining funding into one City-managed fund, the funding can be used more effectively.”

The new policy would also provide incentives for paying the obligation upfront, building transportation improvements on site, and locating development in an enhanced transit area — a place accessible to Metro or one of the city’s new high-intensity bus routes.

The change is scheduled for review at Planning Commission meeting the Tuesday, Dec. 6.

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Duke Street near Landmark and Cameron Run (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Alexandria is planning for a transit-oriented overhaul of Duke Street, and city staff connected to the project told an advisory group earlier this month that rumors about eminent domain being used for the project are inaccurate.

Yon Lambert, the director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES), told the Duke Street in Motion Advisory Group that public concerns about eminent domain being invoked to acquire right of way for the Duke Street changes is at least premature if not unfounded.

Concerns about the city using eminent domain to acquire land along Duke Street became so prevalent members of the City Council asked staff about it at meetings this month. Lambert said right-of-way acquisition does not always involve eminent domain.

“There’s been some discussion and disinformation about what right of way is and use of it,” Lambert said. “The city regularly acquires the right of way when it is building capital projects like sewers or fire facilities… The right-of-way process is a normal component of all of our capital projects. There’s nothing unusual in us having a right-of-way element on a project.

Lambert said with the plans still in the early stages, it’s not clear that the city will have make any right-of-way acquisition.

“What I specifically want to address, with this project in particular: any right-of-way that we think we will have to acquire, and it’s not clear that we will have to acquire right-of-way… if we think we have to acquire any right-of-way, we see that as being a voluntary negotiation with adjacent property owners,” Lambert said. “We do not see any intent in this stage of the project to use eminent domain.”

Lambert said eminent domain is still a tool in the city’s toolbox for making improvements that are necessary to the public interest, but with this project, the city “wants to make sure right of way set aside for this project is voluntary.”

In the same vein of corrections about misconceptions surrounding the Duke Street projects, Lambert said the Transitway proposal won’t necessarily have a one-size-fits-all application along the corridor. There are multiple options, from transit separated from traffic to buses mixed in with traffic, with multiple segments along the corridor.

“I think it’s natural and reasonable to think about it as doing something from end to end,” Lambert said. “Multiple [City] Councils have told us and the staff… that Council wants to see ensuring transit on Duke Street. But part of the reason it’s broken out into segments… [we] want to make sure it’s clear that there may be different solutions for different segments.”

Lambert said while some segments may see substantial improvements, others may only see more incremental improvements.

The advisory group is scheduled to meet again on Thursday, Dec. 15.

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City staff said changes to the DASH bus network over the last year have been a monumental success, but one with a high cost only likely to increase over time.

Over the last two years, Alexandria’s DASH bus system has gone through a series of dramatic changes, from a complete overhaul of the route system to changes to strollers and how the buses are boarded. But at a City Council retreat last week, city staff made it very clear the current balance of costs and revenue spells trouble in the near term.

“On the capital side, with what we have set aside for bus replacement, the cost of maintaining a state of good repair and electrifying [the bus fleet], we’re struggling to find the funds to do all that work,” said Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES).

Lambert said it’s important to keep that swelling cost in mind as the city heads into budget season this spring.

“On the DASH side, we’re doing some fantastic things in transit, but the challenge for us is that operating what I would consider a best-in-class transit system is challenging and expensive,” Lambert said. “Operating costs are expensive and we need to make sure we head into this with eyes wide open.”

Lambert said that, at the current rate, in just a few years the DASH subsidy will increase from the current $23.6 million to $45 million annually.

City Council member John Chapman said the discussion raised red flags about the bus system’s future and broached the question of whether or not fare-free will remain a permanent state for the bus system.

“To me: saying transit investments need to be placed on a sustainable path and not presenting what that pathway is is a big red flag to me,” Chapman said. “To say ‘hey, we don’t have this money and we don’t think it’s going to happen,’ so how do we look at cutting back or finding other opportunities to put us on a sustainable path?”

Chapman said those discussions about putting DASH onto a more sustainable path are going to have to happen sooner rather than later.

“I want to be helpful, but I want to hear solutions for right now rather than further in the future because we are going to have budgetary decisions to make in the spring,” Chapman said. “If we’re going to do fare-free: how do we make that sustainable or is that a program we do for a few years and then find a way to not do that?”

Staff said DASH was collecting around $4 million in fares before the fare-free program was put into effect — not an insignificant amount, but still not enough to accommodate for the DASH expenditures.

“When we get to budget season, I want to have those hard conversations instead of saying ‘we’re going to have a 14% increase on transit [costs]’ and then keep moving,” Chapman said. “We need to be able to go back to taxpaying residents and businesses and say ‘we understand this is going to affect your standard of living coming out of a pandemic and into a possible recession, and we are still doing the best with our funding that we can.'”

Lambert said figures from DASH and Metro recovery showed buses recovered ridership more quickly from the pandemic than Metro did, saying the numbers emphasized that buses are the real “people movers” in Alexandria and did much of the heavy lifting for public transit during the pandemic.

Mayor Justin Wilson said there may be room to expand DASH operations while still making more efficient use of city funding by folding some aspects of the city school bus network into DASH. Wilson said the city could reach a place where DASH buses replace middle and high school bus services for Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS).

“This is an opportunity,” Wilson said. “Anything we can do to use capacity we’ve already invested in more efficiently is a good thing. The opportunity for partnership with ACPS is one of those opportunities, particularly at the middle school and high school levels.”

Wilson said the future of public transportation could involve replacing school buses for high school and middle school students with DASH bus lines.

“I want to be explicit: it’s not just ‘hey we can supplement what they’re doing,’ it’s potentially figuring out a way we get rid of ACPS transportation for middle and high and come up with a scenario where DASH route network can do that,” Wilson said.

DASH’s financial forecast is one part of a looming challenge for the city — a swelling budget faced with stagnating growth in a potential “pasta bowl recession.” According to Arthur Wicks, budget manager of the Capital Improvement Program:

We’ve embarked on a very ambitious capital program over the last couple of years… the big takeaway is: the expense of having a CIP the size we have is going to exceed what revenue growth can absorb. Our capital programs have become larger and more complex than what we can execute. We’ve come to you during the last few years of retreats and said a big CIP expense increase is coming and we find ways to shave it down and make it bearable. We’ve kind of used up our bag of tricks on that.

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