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With Labor Day coming up on Monday, a couple of the leading unions and labor organizing groups in Alexandria say they’ve seen substantial gains but there’s still work to be done.

Collective bargaining for public safety agencies was one of the leading issues early in late 2021 and early 2022. Labor activists were also critical of the city’s involvement in financing the development of the Hotel Heron in Old Town, saying the city should leverage its position to ensure better wages and treatment of employees.

In recent years, Alexandria labor activists have also worked with human rights advocates in protests against evictions and poor living conditions.

NoVa Labor

The Northern Virginia Labor Federation (NoVA Labor) is an umbrella organization that encompasses unions in all segments of the economy. Virginia Diamond, President of the NoVA Labor, said the organization includes 55 different labor organizations and 70,000 members across the state.

Diamond said union organizing is on the rise as Virginia’s workforce grapples with the economic impact of the pandemic.

“This year NoVA Labor has seen a great upsurge in union organizing,” Diamond said. “This is a result of the impact of the pandemic on workers, as well as a generational revolt against an economy that offers young workers little hope for the future.”

Alexandria in particular has been at the forefront of union organizing in Virginia, Diamond said.

“Alexandria is a progressive community that values equity and economic justice, so there is widespread support for unions,” Diamond said. “When the General Assembly adopted a statute enabling localities to allow public employees to engage in collective bargaining, Alexandria was the first locality in Virginia to adopt such an ordinance.”

Diamond said one of the major labor concerns is wage theft and exploitation in the construction industry.

“Soon the City will address this problem by adopting a prevailing wage and using community benefit agreements, also known as project labor agreements,” Diamond said.

Beyond combatting wage theft, Diamond said one of the critical pieces of labor reform is offering low-income communities in Alexandria better access to higher-paying trades and careers.

“Building trades unions are reaching out to low-income communities in Alexandria to offer free paid apprenticeships leading to middle-class careers in the skilled trades,” Diamond said. “The Alexandria Democrats Labor Caucus, headed by Russ Davis and Sean Casey, bring together union members and friends of labor to publicize and educate the community on issues affecting workers.”

Diamond said a driving force behind union organizing is the dire levels of income inequality.

“Income inequality is at a level of the Gilded Age, and unionization in the private economy is at only 6%, down from 34% four decades ago,” Diamond said. “Income inequality is a grave concern to Alexandrians, and the most important vehicle for addressing this inequality is unionization. Just as factory workers in the 1930’s and ’40’s organized and built the middle class, workers in the service economy are now organizing to rebuild the middle class.”

Diamond said she’s encouraged by union victories at companies like Starbucks, Amazon, Apple, Chipotle, REI and Trader Joe’s:

The popularity of unions is now at 71%, higher than any time since the 1960’s. The resurgent labor movement is just getting started. Hopefully over the next year we will see the first union hotel, the first union Starbucks, and the first union health care facilities in Alexandria. With the support of the Alexandria community and city leaders, workers will achieve the dignity, respect and living standards that they deserve. Good jobs are union jobs, and good union jobs will enable workers to afford to continue to live in this community.

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Landmark Mall demolition in progress (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

In addition to being a mall and Wonder Woman battleground, Landmark has also served as a major transfer junction for Alexandria bus riders: but that changes this week as the mall’s redevelopment has forced DASH to relocate.

According to the DASH website, the transit center’s closure is necessary as mall demolition removes a ramp connecting Duke Street to the junction.

“Beginning Monday, August 1, the Landmark Mall Transit Center will be closed to all bus traffic for several weeks for construction,” the bus service said on the site. “This closure is necessary to remove the flyover ramp connecting eastbound Duke Street to the mall. The closure is part of the ongoing redevelopment of Landmark Mall.”

The demolition is part of a redevelopment plan that aims to turn the site into a new hospital and mixed-use development. The project is currently slated for completion in 2026.

A chart on the DASH site outlines what transfers bus riders on lines 30, 32 and 35 should make.

DASH transfer chart for Landmark closure (image via DASH)
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While DASH won’t be able to cover the service gap from the upcoming Metro closures, WMATA announced some new measures yesterday that will attempt to replace Alexandria’s upcoming loss of Metro service.

There are two Metro shutdowns coming to Alexandria that will, together, eliminate or reduce Metro service in Alexandria from September to next May. The first is a shutdown of all stations south of the new Potomac Yard Metro station. The Potomac Yard closure is expected to last from Sept. 10 to Oct. 22. The Potomac Yard closure overlaps with the start of work on the Yellow Line Bridge from Sept. 10 to 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 the Potomac Yard shutdown, Metro said in a release that it will be operating additional Blue Line trains, running every seven to nine minutes, from National Airport to New Carrollton stations. At the same time, Metro said customers traveling between Pentagon and L’Enfant Plaza stations should plan for approximately 15 minutes of extra travel time.

Metro also notes that if the 7000-series trains remain out of service the trains will operate less frequently.

During this first phase, WMATA said that free shuttle service will be offered in Virginia with three shuttles crossing the Potomac.

Local shuttles will be available during all Metrorail operating hours.

  • Blue Line Local: Local service between Franconia-Springfield, Van Dorn St, King St-Old Town, Braddock Rd, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport stations every 10-20 minutes
  • Yellow Line Local: Local service between Huntington, Eisenhower Ave, King St-Old Town, Braddock Rd, and Crystal City stations every 10-15 minutes. Yellow Line shuttles do not stop at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport Station

Express shuttles will be available most of the day (from 4:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., 6:30 am to 9:00 p.m weekends).

  • Blue Line Express: Franconia-Pentagon Express service between Franconia-Springfield and Pentagon stations every 6 minutes
  • Yellow Line Express: Huntington-Pentagon Express service between Huntington and Pentagon stations every 6 minutes

Limited shuttles will be available during weekday rush hours only.

  • VA-DC Shuttle 1: Crystal City-L’Enfant Service between Crystal City, Pentagon City, Smithsonian, and L’Enfant Plaza stations every 12 minutes. Shuttle does not stop at Pentagon Station
  • VA-DC Shuttle 2: Pentagon-Archives Service between Pentagon, Smithsonian, and Archives stations every 12 minutes
  • VA-DC Shuttle 3: Mt. Vernon-Potomac Park (11Y Route) Service between Mt. Vernon, Alexandria, and Potomac Park every 20 minutes. Peak direction service only

Meanwhile, during Phase 2, the Potomac Yard Metro station will be reopened but the bridge will remain closed. All Yellow Line stations will be served by the Blue or Green Lines. Blue Line trains will run every 12 minutes between Largo Town Center and Franconia-Springfield stations and every 12 minutes between Huntington and New Carrollton stations. The Green Line trains will operate every eight minutes.

Metro said there will continue to be a limited rush hour shuttle service during this time.

  • VA-DC Shuttle 1: Crystal City-L’Enfant: Service between Crystal City, Pentagon City, Smithsonian, and L’Enfant Plaza stations every 12 minutes. Shuttle does not stop at Pentagon Station
  • VA-DC Shuttle 2: Pentagon-Archives: Service between Pentagon, Smithsonian, and Archives stations every 12 minutes
  • VA-DC Shuttle 3: Mt. Vernon-Potomac Park (11Y Route): Service between Mt. Vernon, Alexandria, and Potomac Park every 20 minutes. Peak direction service only

Additionally, Metro said riders could opt to take the 16Y Columbia Pike-Farragut Square Line, Metroway, or ride the Virginia Railway Express.

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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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DASH is making some changes to the bus network in Old Town, including one change that has residents concerned.

At a meeting of the Transportation Commission yesterday, DASH Director of Planning & Marketing Martin Barna outlined plans to adjust DASH service in coordination with the opening of the Potomac Yard Metro station. Among those changes is one Barna said has proven contentious to residents along the affected route.

Route 34, which currently runs from the Lee Center to Braddock Road Metro station, will be changed to connect up to the Potomac Yard Metro station instead. As part of that change, DASH is planning to realign the route from N. Fairfax Street to N. Pitt Street.

“This is far and away the most contentious part of our proposal,” said Barna. “We’ve received 30-35 comments from residents along Pitt Street who don’t want to see DASH service along that street for parking and noise concerns.”

Barna said residents along the street have expressed concerns at more congestion caused by the new bus route, while DASH is hoping the shift will provide a more useful route through Old Town North.

“N. Fairfax street is well served by the 30 and 31, which are more frequent,” Barna said. “Nearly all ridership along that stretch are those [lines].”

Without this change, Barna said there will continue to be a four-block gap in DASH coverage between Washington Street and Fairfax Street. With new apartment complexes and grocery stores coming to that area, Barna said DASH saw the change as a good opportunity to potentially provide more service.

One of the other changes for Potomac Yard DASH routes is that the 33 and the 36, which currently go to Potomac Yard, will continue serving the shopping center but will go to the Metro station first.

“We’re trying to make sure the people trying to catch trains can go directly there,” Barna said.

Barna also provided the Transportation Commission with an update on the fare-free and electric bus programs. With DASH ridership going up, Commissioners asked Barna how much money was being taken off the table by the fare-free program.

“Last year council increased budget by $1.5 million to offset lost revenues,” Barna said. “Before the pandemic we were making $3.5-4 million in revenue but we’re not back to that point. It’s hard to say whether riding because fares are free or because they’d normally be riding.”

Barna said that $3.5 million could pay for around three electric buses, which are more expensive than diesel ones, but that DASH doesn’t currently have the infrastructure to support the additional buses anyway. DASH is currently “aggressively pursing grants” to boost the bus system’s electric infrastructure, Barna said, as well as working through the development process for a facilities expansion.

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Starting today (Monday), Alexandria’s DASH bus network is going through some changes to how riders board buses and how strollers can be used.

While passengers before could only enter buses through the front doors, DASH is changing its policy for riders to be able to use either door.

“When it is safe to do so, riders may board using the front or rear doors,” the bus service said in a release. “Passengers with limited mobility are encouraged to continue using the front of the bus which can be lowered for easier boarding.”

Riders had earlier been encouraged to board using either door as a Covid precaution during the first year of the pandemic, though it changed back to front-boarding last year. Now, with bus fares eliminated, DASH said it’s returning to all-door boarding on all buses.

“The benefits of all-door boarding include easier passenger boarding and reduced dwell time at bus stops, which provides faster, more reliable service,” the release said. “As with the front door, passengers boarding at the rear door are encouraged to allow others to step off the bus before attempting to board. Passengers with mobility devices, or who have difficulty boarding the bus are encouraged to continue using the front of the bus, which has a ramp and can be lowered.”

Another change is allowing strollers to be used on the bus if the ADA-accessible space is not in use. Previously, all strollers had to be folded and stowed upon boarding. Under the new guidelines:

If ADA accessible seating is not in use, strollers are permitted in this space without being folded or stowed as long as the wheels are locked, the child is properly secured in the stroller seat, the parent or guardian maintains control of the stroller, and the aisle is not blocked.

The release said the change was guided by input from riders.

“It’s important that DASH service continues evolving to meet the needs of our community,” DASH Planning and Marketing Director Martin Barna said in the release. “Allowing strollers to be used during trips and opening all doors for boarding will improve our riders’ overall experience and encourage more people to consider using DASH.”

The changes come as DASH is starting to see ridership rebound from low figures during Covid and an omicron-related slump in January.

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DASH has been on a roll recently with a variety of factors conspiring to push the bus service up to 300,000 total boardings in March, a 73% increase over ridership last fall.

Some of that’s thanks to changes within the DASH bus system: like eliminating fares and shifting toward a system that prioritizes frequent service in high-density corridors.

Some factors outside of DASH’s control have been windfalls for bus ridership as well, like a recent spike in gas prices at the start of the war in Ukraine and declining Covid cases.

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Electric DASH bus, photo via DASH/Facebook

The Alexandria bus system has seen a significant uptick in ridership over the last few months, thanks in part to the new fare-free policy, changes to the DASH network and declining Covid numbers.

DASH said ridership hit nearly 300,000 total boardings in March, a 73% increase over ridership in August before the change to the new network. Ridership dipped significantly in January during the Omicron variant.

“In the first four months after the new network launch in September 2021, DASH saw a 50% increase in monthly boardings, which was the largest four-month ridership surge in over a decade,” the bus system said in a release. “After briefly receding in January and February due to the Omicron variant, ridership spiked again in March with a nearly 46% increase over February. DASH has now achieved 95% of pre-COVID ridership levels. The 73% increase from August 2021 to March 2022 marks the largest ridership increase over a seven-month span in recent DASH history.”

DASH said the largest ridership increases have been middays and weekends, in part due to the changes to the bus schedule. The new schedule provides more off-peak service in the West End, Arlandria and along King Street. The release also noted that higher gas prices may have been a windfall for bus ridership.

The city announced plans to make DASH fare free last April and the change went into effect in September. The city has pursued state funding to help make the change long-term.

“We are absolutely thrilled to see that the Alexandria community is embracing the first phase of our long-term Alexandria Transit Vision (ATV) Plan,” said DASH General Manager/CEO Josh Baker in the release. “Our shared goal with the City of Alexandria in implementing the ATV Plan is to provide more useful bus service that makes transit a more relevant option for more trips in Alexandria. As we continue to get more people on the bus, the entire Alexandria community benefits from less traffic congestion, reduced parking demand, reduced climate impact, and a better overall quality of life.”

Photo via DASH/Facebook

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A DASH bus pulls into Landmark Mall (staff photo by James Cullum)

The Landmark Mall Transit Center will be closed for about a week starting tomorrow (Tuesday) for construction as the facility serving DASH and Metrobus is relocated ahead of the mall’s demolition this spring.

DASH sent out a notice that the transit center would close Tuesday, March 29, for about one week, meaning DASH Line 30, 32 and 35 buses will not stop at Landmark Mall. It wasn’t yet known whether the transit center will reopen at the relocated spot in front of the former Macy’s, or if that relocation would happen at a later date.

Landmark Mall will be demolished ahead of Inova’s construction of a new hospital campus. Inova recently filed concept plans with the city, showing the campus will include a new Level 2 trauma hospital, a cancer center and a specialty care center.

The temporary transfer chart for DASH and Metrobus customers as the Landmark Mall Transit Center ic closed for construction (via DASH)
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Alexandria’s DASH bus service is headed back to regular service after the omicron surge of COVID-19 forced the bus system to operate with a reduced schedule.

DASH scaled back its weekday bus service in December, with many lines operating on the reduced weekend hours and frequency.

“All DASH buses will resume regular weekday service beginning Monday, Feb. 28,” the service said in a press release. “The Alexandria Transit Company, which operates the DASH bus system, temporarily adjusted service schedules in January due to COVID-19 related staffing shortages.”

While DASH has recovered enough to resume normal service, the release did say that DASH continues to face a shortage of transit workers and bus operators and will continue monitoring ridership and staffing to make changes as needed.

Despite the omicron-related hurdle, DASH ridership has gradually been climbing back to pre-pandemic levels.

“We are excited to resume regular weekday service because it provides greater bus frequency to Alexandria,” said DASH General Manager/CEO Josh Baker. “Thank you to our riders and our community for weathering these challenges with us.”

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