Alexandria, VA

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’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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As Alexandrians are getting ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve tonight, be aware that some city services will not be available on New Year’s Day.

Trash will be picked up today (Tuesday), but will not be picked up tomorrow (Wednesday). Trash collection services scheduled for Wednesday through Friday will be delayed by one day.

Libraries will close at 5 p.m. today and libraries, recreation centers, and the Torpedo Factory Art Center will all be closed on Wednesday, according to the city website.

As on Christmas, there’s no need to feed the meters on New Year’s Day. Metered parking restrictions will be lifted throughout the city, though this only applies to legal parking spaces and parking in no parking zones, loading zones, or spaces for persons with disabilities is all still prohibited.

DASH will operate its regular schedule today and will operate a special trolley service between the Durant Center (1605 Cameron Street) and the George Washington Masonic National Memorial (101 Callahan Drive) from 5:30-11 p.m. tonight for First Night activities.

DASH buses will not be operating tomorrow, but the King Street Trolley will run on its regular schedule.

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While more property owners have signed on to plans to shift Alexandria’s workforce to car-free, a report on those plans showed an increasing percentage of workers and residents in new developments driving alone compared to last year.

Some commercials and residential developments are required to have plans to get employees or residents to use non-car transportation to commute. These plans are called Transportation Management Plans (TMPs) and there are currently 75 developments in Alexandria with TMPs.

The report notes that over the last year 58.9% (out of 702 people surveyed) said they commuted to work driving alone, compared with 46.6% in 2018.

The report does state that these results could be inflated because the program is heavily weighted towards ten large office developments with TMPs, outweighing others, but the results still show riding alone dwarfing all other forms of transportation.

Among residents, driving alone and taking Metro increased over the last year, despite the Metro shutdown over the summer. The percentage of residents saying they carpool fell dramatically though, from over 40% to under 10%.

Staff acknowledged that there are several issues with the current TMP system, “including low compliance, a penalty structure that is less expensive than compliance, and poor incentives to comply.”

According to the report, staff is planning to make recommendations regarding the program next year to push larger, new developments to get employees and residents out of cars and into mass transit.

In related transportation news, the city has worked to sign more employers throughout Alexandria onto voluntary Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategies. These plans guide employers and residential communities on how to reduce reliance on cars for employees, customers and residents.

There are currently 522 employers with TDMs, according to an update delivered to the Transportation Commission, up from 313 last year. These range from the indoor playground Scramble to federal agencies like the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation and Patent and Trademark Office.

Image via City of Alexandria

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Parking at metered spaces will be free throughout the city on Christmas Day this week.

The police will not be enforcing parking restrictions at metered spaces, residential permit parking districts, and other areas with parking time limits on Wednesday (Dec. 25), according to the city’s website.

This only applies to restrictions on legal parking spaces, so prohibited places like loading zones or spaces for persons with disabilities will still be restricted. Temporary no-parking signs will also be enforced.

Bus riders are less lucky, though. DASH buses will not be running on Christmas.

On Tuesday (Dec. 24), the regular weekday schedule will be in effect, but service will end at 7 p.m. On Wednesday (Dec. 25) there will be no DASH service, but the free King Street Trolley will operate on its regular schedule. The trolly will run every 10-15 minutes from 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. between the King Street-Old Town Metro station and the waterfront.

Meanwhile, most other city services in Alexandria will be closed:

  • Alexandria Library: all branches will be closed tomorrow (Tuesday) and Wednesday, (Dec. 25)
  • Recreation Facilities: all recreation facilities will be closed on tomorrow (Tuesday) and Wednesday (Dec. 25).
  •  The Torpedo Factory: the art fac ility will be open tomorrow (Tuesday) from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. but closed on Wednesday (Christmas)
  • Animal Shelter: the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter will be open from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. on Tuesday, December 24, with animal viewing beginning at noon. The Animal Shelter will be closed on Wednesday, December 25.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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After years of relying on the Virginia’s SMART SCALE grant program to fund transportation projects, changes in the program’s scoring criteria could leave that well dry for Alexandria.

At a Transportation Commission meeting on Monday, Nov. 20, city staff warned that new criteria under consideration by the Commonwealth Transportation Board could shift transportation funding away from existing urban centers like Alexandria and instead favor less dense locales.

“Because road widening projects in other jurisdictions did not score well and were not funded, VDOT has been tasked with re-examining the scoring criteria,” staff said in a letter to the commission. “Many of the changes put transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects at a disadvantage, and projects in denser areas in general.”

The city received $57.2 million in funding in 2019 for the design and construction of bus rapid transit routes in the West End and $50 million for the enhancement of southwest access to the Potomac Yard Metro station. But changes would impact criteria used to prioritize which transportation projects should receive funding.

Staff told the commission at the meeting that the change they’re most concerned about is regarding land use in the scoring criteria. Currently, staff said the program scores existing land uses and densities as well as consideration of changes in density, while the new criteria would prioritize areas that are becoming denser rather than those where density currently exists.

“We feel that severely penalizes places like Alexandria that are already densely built,” staff said.

The criteria would also take into consideration traffic congestion on weekends, where currently projects are only assessed by rush hour congestion. That would hurt Alexandria, which has plenty of rush hour traffic but not as much congestion on the weekend.

“We feel that hurts areas suffering from regional congestion rather than local congestion,” staff said. “That makes it harder for projects in these areas to score well.”

Staff says the criteria changes would prioritize the number of crashes over the severity of crashes, so intersections that see more fender-benders would be ranked higher than intersections that have had multiple fatalities. This principle goes against the Vision Zero goals adopted by the city, staff said.

City staffers told the Transportation Commission that bus rapid transit projects and bicycle-pedestrian projects would be negatively impacted by the changes in criteria.

“The current list completely omits any mention of bicycles and bicycle safety, even as more people statewide are biking,” staff said. “[The Commonwealth Transportation Board] should include bicycle safety and infrastructure projects (such as striping for bicycle lanes, road diets, etc.) as eligible low-cost, high-benefit improvements.”

Staff encouraged the Transportation Commission to approve a drafted letter opposing the criteria changes. No action was taken at the meeting, so that commission members could make changes and sent the letter within the next week.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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A long-planned bus rapid transit network (BRT) that would run through Alexandria’s West End is moving forward early next year, though the dedicated bus lanes featured prominently in the conceptual stage might not make it into the initial designs.

The city’s vision for the West End Transitway is a series of transit improvements to create a reliable, accessible bus line that would run from the Van Dorn Metro station to the Pentagon, hitting West End destinations that aren’t accessible by Metro, like the Mark Center, Southern Towers, and the perhaps soon-to-be-redeveloped Landmark Mall.

The goal is to make mass transit more accessible and more appealing to the car-heavy West End. After years of studies and securing funding, Steve Sindiong, project manager for the West End Transitway, says the design phase for the project is scheduled to start in early 2020.

Sindiong said the designs will include new traffic signal priority, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streetscaping, and queue jump lanes — a short stretch of bus lane that allows a bus to easily pass through intersections.

But dedicated bus lanes, like those on the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway and one of the earliest identified goals for the West End Transitway, are unlikely to make the cut in the initial phase of improvements.

“The reason we’re not proceeding with dedicated lanes at this time is a lack of funding,” Sindiong said. “We don’t have funds to do the full improvements. It would require a lot of rights-of-way which we try to get as development occurs, which hasn’t been occurring on Van Dorn as early as was anticipated.”

Some redevelopment has been occurring in the Van Dorn area, however, like the Vulcan Materials site approved for redevelopment in October. The city has also been working to push industrial uses out of the area — as in the case of the Virginia Paving Company being told to clear out — to make room for more residential and commercial uses.

With $70 million collected for the design and construction of the transitway, Sindiong said staff is ready to start moving forward with initial improvements for the West End Transitway and incorporate dedicated bus lanes later.

“The dedicated lanes are important and we are planning to eventually do the full build,” Sindiong said. “We will have to continue seeking funding and acquiring right-of-way through development. Putting in other improvements, like queue jump lanes and new bus stations — will improve the transit speed and reliability [in the meantime].”

The new transit improvements will also coincide with DASH’s plans to shift to a bus network that with a smaller coverage are but improved bus frequency in high-density areas. As a sort of proof-of-concept, Sindiong said the city has been working on improving service on AT1, a bus route that hits roughly the same areas as the eventual West End Transitway.

“We’re improving that service so people can expect ten-minute frequency during peak hours, and twenty for off-peak,” Sindiong said. “We’ve extended the service hours and added real-time bus information. This is the first step towards the West End Transitway… we want to track that to make sure the route is being productive.”

The West End Transitway also features into the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission’s plans to build a new BRT line along Route 7. The Transitway overlaps with a planned bus route that would connect Alexandria to Tysons, Pimmit Hills, Seven Corners and Bailey’s Crossroads, according to WTOP.

“The design would tie in at the Mark Center Transit Center and would use part of the city’s West End Transitway improvements,” said Sindiong. “It would turn onto Beauregard [Street] and stop at the city stops. For a small portion, there would be two overlapping transitways.”

Images via City of Alexandria

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Morning Notes

Stolen Vehicle Prompts Police Helo — “The Alexandria Police Department stopped a stolen vehicle in the 3000 block of King Street. A helicopter has been requested to assist.” [Twitter/@AlexandriaVAPD]

Route 7 Bus Lanes Planned — “New plans for rapid bus stations and bus lanes along Route 7 in Northern Virginia show the changes that could come to the busy commuter route over the next decade. A new conceptual engineering report lays out 18 specific bus rapid station locations from Tysons to Alexandria.” [WTOP]

Hospital Uses Temporary Cowbell Alert System — “It got a little noisy at Inova Alexandria Hospital on Thursday, Nov. 7, as hospital staff had to get creative in the in-patient unit by giving patients cowbells during an upgrade to the call bell system. Extra hospital staff were deployed to help patients during the four hour shutdown before the system was back online. There were no reported issues.” [Zebra]

Thousands of Coats Donated — “It wouldn’t be the holiday season in Alexandria without Willie Bailey’s annual coat drive. By the end of the year, Bailey and his team of volunteers from the Alexandria Police Department, Fire Department, and Sheriff’s Office have distributed more than 4,000 winter coats to city youth.” [Zebra]

Nearby: Elaborate Light Display Taking Year Off — “Collingwood Lights will not open this winter, ending a tradition for thousands of local residents. Elaborate, music-synched light displays have given joy to many people for more than two decades at Bill and Jan Vaughan’s home at 1601 Collingwood Road. In 2018, the couple won $50,000 in ABC television’s ‘The Great Christmas Light Fight.'” [Alexandria Living]

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