Electrification may be the future for Alexandria’s DASH bus network, but officials say diesel buses are still the present.
In a meeting with Alexandria’s Transportation Commission, DASH General Manager Josh Baker said maintaining good repair comes ahead of all other goals and cited Metro as a warning of what happens when transportation systems work the other way around.
“We’ve seen what happens on Metro when the Metro was built and not maintained,” Baker said. “For us, the top priority is good repair, followed by electrification then expansion.”
Baker said eventually the goal is to make electrification a part of DASH’s normal operations, but the funding isn’t there yet.
“I think we can get to a place where electrification is part of good repair, but at the moment, that cost differential is not funded,” Baker said.
City leadership has previously discussed the challenge of both the ambitious electric conversion of the fleet and the funding sapped away when DASH went fully fare-free. Deputy Director of Transportation Hillary Orr previously told the Transportation Commission that the city has ten buses that are reaching the end of their lifespan and, despite pledging to go electric by 2037, it was likely the replacement buses would still be gas-powered rather than electric.
“[DASH] ordered 10 diesel buses,” Baker said. “Is that a bad move? I don’t think it’s a bad move at all, we have to maintain the fleet. We want to continue to be electric, but if we don’t have the money to do it we’re not going to stop buying buses and get to the point where our service decays.”
Baker said around 14% of DASH’s buses are curently electric.
At the meeting, DASH officials said an electric bus costs $1.2 million while a diesel bus costs $600,000. Officials said the life cycle of an electric bus is less than a diesel bus, but they don’t know yet what that looks like at mid-life and end-of-life for electric buses.
Alexandria’s DASH bus system has been going through a pair of ambitious, headline-grabbing overhauls, but city leaders are still working out how to pay for them.
In 2021, DASH went fully fare-free, meaning anyone could ride a DASH bus at any time without paying for a ticket. At the same time, the bus network has been undergoing a full-electric conversion, gradually swapping out all of the diesel buses for electric buses.
But in addition to hurdles like a lack of charging infrastructure, DASH faces the budgetary challenge of how to pay for the expensive new electric buses.
Deputy Director of Transportation Hillary Orr spoke to the Transportation Commission last week about the budget challenges facing DASH.
The city has applied for a federal grant to help convert 10 of the city’s aging buses to electric, but Orr said if the city doesn’t get that grant, the city will have to buy diesel buses rather than electric.
“If not matched, we would buy clean diesel buses because we need to replace these buses,” Orr said.
One Commissioner suggested the city could pay more for electric buses, but Orr said even using what money was set aside for DASH improvements to buy electric buses instead of diesel buses would leave the city with several buses past their expected replacement date.
“We could pay more, but then we’d have a bunch of buses that are expired because we don’t have enough with $4.8 million to replace all the clean diesels we need to replace,” Orr said. “We have 10 buses expiring… We’re doing our best to cobble together what we can and then we’ll see what we get. Whatever’s remaining, we’ll buy what we can.”
Even if Alexandria does buy more diesel buses, Orr said the city will still be on track for its goal to have a fully electric bus fleet by 2037.
“If we bought clean diesel buses, we would still be on track with our goal for 2037 having a full fleet,” Orr said. “It’s not until fiscal year 2025 that we need to start buying all-electric.”
Some on the Transportation Commission said they still hope DASH can accelerate the bus fleet electrification. According to Commissioner Jim Maslank:
I’d like to make a motion that we consider in our letter to the council that they consider additional funds as a contingency if we don’t get the money. It’s an opportunity: the whole world is going electric. 2037 is a long way away. It would be a budgetary tradeoff, but I think this committee — I personally feel we should accelerate that change, but it is going to cost the city more money. There will be tradeoffs, but that’s how I feel.
Meanwhile, the City of Alexandria will also be shouldering more of DASH’s operating costs as the bus system is weaned off the state’s Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP).
“[There’s a] 18% increase in DASH funding from [fiscal year] 2023 to meet increased operating costs and decreased TRIP grant funding,” Orr said. “We get less and less each year. The TRIP grant was a grant we received when DASH went fare-free, with a little over $7 million over a four-year period. In the fourth year, DASH has to commit to being fare-free without any commitment from the state.”
“It’s like baby steps,” a Transportation Commission member said.
“Baby steps down to zero,” Orr replied less enthusiastically.
The FY 2024 budget is scheduled for adoption on May 3.
Photo via DASHbus/Facebook
Alexandria is hoping a federal grant could help push Alexandria’s DASH bus network a little closer to full electrification.
A memo from Deputy Director of Transportation Hillary Orr to the Transportation Commission said the city is hoping federal funding can help cover a sizable budget gap looming for electric bus replacement plans.
The DASH bus network has been crawling toward electrification for years despite challenges, from difficulties with hilly terrain to a lack of charging stations. The city’s goal is a fully electric fleet by 2037.
Currently, DASH has 14 electric buses in circulation and 87 “clean diesel” and hybrid buses. The bus network’s plans include replacing ten additional buses and five trolleys that have reached the end of their useful life — but replacing these buses and trolleys with electric alternatives is costly.
“To replace these assets with battery electric buses and trolleys will cost an estimated $19.3 million,” Orr wrote in the memo. “The City currently has budgeted $4,798,900 for the replacement of these buses, leaving a gap of $14.5 million.”
Beyond just the electric bus costs, Orr wrote there is an additional smaller budget gap for new clean diesel buses.
“Additionally, the City was previously awarded $4.4 million in Smart Scale funds for six clean diesel buses,” Orr wrote. “To upgrade these buses to battery electric would cost an additional $3.1 million.”
Orr wrote that DASH and City staff are submitting multiple applications to the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Low or No Emission Grant Program:
The following projects could be submitted within these applications.
- Trolley Replacement (up to $6.8 million): Retire and replace five (5) trolleys with electric trolleys.
- Bus Replacement (up to $12.5 million): Retire and replace ten (10) buses with electric buses.
- Smart Scale Expansion Buses (up to $7.5 million): Upgrade six (6) Smart Scale clean diesel buses to electric buses.
- Electric upgrades at DASH Facility (up to $9 million): Build new electrical service, including on-site equipment and infrastructure to support charging need of fleet wide conversion to battery electric buses.
- Workforce Development (up to $1.6 million): Required 5% of federal request.
In total, Orr wrote that the city is seeking $38 million in grant funding.
“While it is unlikely the full grant request will be awarded, staff determined the best path forward is to propose all needs in a scalable manner by which the FTA can assess and award funds as available,” Orr wrote.
The grants are headed to the Transportation Commission for review at a meeting on Wednesday, March 15.
Photo via DASHbus/Facebook
Alexandria’s Duke Street transitway could have dedicated bus lanes, but it’s unlikely they’ll run the full length of the corridor.
At a presentation to the City Council on Monday, city staff offered a look at how plans for the Duke Street transitway plans are coming together.
The idea of the transitway is to redesign the streetscape to better facilitate public transit. The project looks at Duke Street between the Landmark area and the King Street Metro.
Hillary Orr, deputy director of Transportation & Environmental Services, and project manager Jen Monaco said an advisory group suggested dedicated bus lanes at either end of the project area, but possibly keeping buses mixed into the regular flow of traffic towards the center of that corridor — between Jordan Street and Roth Street.
“At either end, [we’re looking at] at design options that do the most for transit: center and curb running,” said Monaco. “In the middle of the corridor, where taking more space means greater impacts on property, they chose to look at mixed traffic and a bidirectional option. We’re combining these options for each segment into two end-to-end corridor alternatives to allow for a more complete analysis.”
Where the city could install dedicated bus lanes, that could take a travel lane away from cars.
“Right now there are three travel lanes plus alternatives and even more at some intersections,” Orr said. “We are looking at taking one of those lanes in each direction and converting them into bus lanes.”
Monaco said the goal is to bring a recommendation to the City Council this summer.
The transitway is part of a broader suite of improvements for Duke Street. Orr noted that Duke Street is the highest crash corridor in the city.
“There are a lot of real issues with this corridor,” Orr said. “It’s a central connection for our community to reach homes, businesses, jobs, parks and libraries, but there is a lot of traffic congestion that leads to cut-through traffic in neighborhoods.”
Mayor Justin Wilson said one of his hopes for the project is to fix some of the crash-prone and all-around terrible intersections where Duke Street crosses Jordan Street and Quaker Lane.
“At both of those intersections could end up with solutions that become the focal points of the project… Jordan especially because of the service roads and the complexity of that,” said Wilson. “It’s a mess for pedestrians and a mess for drivers. It’s a horrible intersection for drivers. Anything we can do to improve the flow through there is a real opportunity for us. While this is a transit project, it’s a project that could have some significant ancillary benefits to pedestrians and drivers throughout this corridor.”
Nearly half of Alexandria’s bus stops do not meet federal accessibility standards.
It’s been a good couple years for Alexandria bus service DASH, but a new report presented to the City Council at a meeting this week by Chairman David Kaplan highlighted areas where there’s still room to improve.
“Much work needs to be done,” said Kaplan. “As good as the investments are that we’ve made in additional transit services, there are challenges when it comes to access to transit stops. The wait at the stop or the boarding process matters a lot when we have an older adult or a person with disabilities considering whether they can make a trip safely and comfortably on transit.”
Kaplan said that 42% of bus stops in Alexandria do not meet the standards laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many of those are due to non-compliant boarding areas.
- 18% of stops are in locations where parked cars are permitted to block the boarding area
- 22% of stops do not have a shelter
- 46% do not have a bench
Kaplan said only around 7% are built to what is considered best practices.
Beyond accessibility, City Council member Canek Aguirre said DASH and the city could be doing more to improve safety at bus stops.
“We [should] do audits at night as well to take a look at lighting,” Aguirre said. “We’ve definitely had some issues. I rode the bus with an individual working at The Fresh Market in the Bradlee Shopping Center. We got off at the same stop and it was pitch black. There was some greenery hanging over and blocking the lighting. Especially when it’s wintertime and it gets darker, lighting is another crucial piece when we talk about bus stops and shelter.”
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).
🚨 A lane closure at the entrance to the Pentagon Transit Center will cause approximately 15-20 minute delays on January 4-5 for DASH Lines 35, 103 and 104. 🚨 https://t.co/KAuWRwX20y
— DASH Bus (@DASHBus) January 2, 2023
Photo via DASH/Facebook
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.
- Man arrested after allegedly crashing into multiple cars on N. Quaker Lane
- APD: 16-year-old beaten and robbed by group on Kenmore Avenue in the West End
- All-affordable development opening in Huntington next month
- APD: Robbers steal rental car key from driver on N. Henry Street
- Four people displaced after house fire in Arlandria
- Alexandria is pushing for an independent health department
- New report shows behind-the-scenes look at successes and challenges of free bus overhaul
- Potential impact on Alexandria shuttle programs creates setback for transportation funding overhaul
- Alexandria School Board considering staggered terms, fewer members and eliminating districts
- Pedestrian struck by vehicle on N. Henry Street in Old Town
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.
Meet the new NoVaTransit Data Dashboard. Watch the video to see some of the features and check it out here: https://t.co/Mh9c7II74f pic.twitter.com/zPlL4iqaCV
— NVTC (@NoVaTransit) December 15, 2022
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.
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.
(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.”
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.