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The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) said in a report that the fare-free ride program created a noticeable bump in ridership during September, though it’s unknown how much that will linger post-promotion.

In a report (page 60) prepared for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), the VRE said the commuter rail service offering free rides in September caused a 21% increase in ridership. The promotion continued into October for Alexandria and areas further south during the ongoing Metro shutdown.

“VRE offered Fare Free September, which allowed for fare-free travel during the month of September, to promote VRE service and build ridership, as well as a thank you to those riders who stayed with VRE throughout the pandemic,” the report said. “Additionally, the free fare promotion allowed VRE to serve as a major contributor to the regional mitigation efforts during the Metrorail Blue and Yellow Lines shutdown south of Reagan National Airport. VRE continued to provide free fares during October for riders traveling between Zones 1, 2 and 3 until Metrorail service south of the airport reopens.”

The shutdown of the Metro lines was originally scheduled to conclude in October, but with the Potomac Yard Metro station delay that was pushed to November and the fare-free program is recommended by VRE staff to continue until services resume.

The report provided some numbers behind how the fare-free month impacted ridership, with the uptick mainly among riders who has ridden the train before the pandemic but had not resumed VRE travel since.

“For the month of September, ridership increased by 21% compared to the previous month,” the report said. “The rider survey showed that the Fare Free September promotion was especially successful in getting riders who took VRE pre-pandemic back on the service.”

The rail system is also currently in the middle of a study looking at what commuter train demand looks like in a post-pandemic era with many of the office jobs having transitioned to work-from-home.

“The market analysis and baseline 2030 and 2050 ridership forecasts by line and station, using the currently adopted Transforming Rail in Virginia (TRV) Phase II service plan, will be completed in November 2022,” the report said. “VRE staff plans to return to the Operations Board prior to the end of the calendar year to provide the results of the market analysis, ridership forecasts, and to request authorization to initiate Phase II of the System Plan 2050 update process. The 2025 System Plan will be brought to the Commission for action in 2023.”

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For years, local first responders have been dispatched for worrying signs of decay at the CSX bridges over King Street and Commonwealth Avenue. Streets have been closed for emergency fixes and rail debris can regularly be found on the nearby streets and sidewalks. Finally, Mayor Justin Wilson said a new organization could help Alexandria address this problem.

In a newsletter where Wilson also addressed Holmes Run issues, Wilson also said there may be a way of getting the bridges back on track.

“For decades, the City has expressed concerns regarding the condition of the railroad bridges owned by CSX that cross King Street and Commonwealth Avenue near Alexandria’s Union Station,” Wilson wrote. “These bridges form part of a critical rail link for freight and passenger service through our City. Under the auspices of the new Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA), it is possible that these bridges may finally get a new look.”

The VPRA was created in 2020 is responsible for promoting, sustaining, and expanding the availability of passenger and commuter rail service in the Commonwealth, according to the VPRA website.

“The VPRA is a new entity that was created by the Commonwealth to preside over a massive expansion of rail infrastructure and service for the state,” Wilson wrote. “Earlier this year, the VPRA began a feasibility study to look at the future of these two rail bridges. This study is now on an accelerated timeline that assumes construction beginning as soon as 2024.”

Wilson said the VPRA’s study is currently soliciting input from the community, which could be Alexandria’s chance to make a ruckus about the crumbling bridges.

“The VPRA is seeking input from our community,” Wilson wrote. “Tomorrow evening at 6 p.m., VPRA is hosting a virtual meeting to provide more information on this study. Sign-up online to participate in this meeting. These railroad bridges are critical infrastructure for our community, but I am hopeful that this project will lead to aesthetic and functional improvements in support of our City.”

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A $30 million overhaul of Alexandria’s Union Station, a Virginia Railway Express stop, is in the final design phase and is working through some final permitting ahead of project construction next year.

An update scheduled to be presented to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) tomorrow (Thursday) noted that the project is going through permit coordinating with the City of Alexandria as part of the final design phase.

“Passenger safety will be improved by replacing an at-grade pedestrian track crossing with elevators to connect the two platforms,” the NVTC description said. “The elevators, along with
the current and proposed stairs, will connect to the existing tunnel between the two platforms. Adjustments to platform elevation will eliminate the need for stepboxes to access VRE and Amtrak trains. The center platform will be widened and lengthened to accommodate trains on both tracks.”

The widening of the center platform will allow the station to accommodate two trains at any given time, cutting down on the regional bottleneck around the D.C. area.

The VRE site also says the project also takes into consideration the Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s plans to build a fourth track through Alexandria, though the fourth track won’t stop at the VRE station.

“This project will take into consideration the design for DRPT’s planned Alexandria Fourth Track Project,” the VRE site said. “The new fourth track will not have platform access and will be built next to Track 1.”

Permit pending, the project is scheduled to start construction next year.

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Morning Notes

Alexandria Black History Museum director speaks on anniversary of George Floyd’s murder — “Yes, there have been changes – Diversity and inclusion training are being taught in universities and the American workplace, some racists are being held accountable, corporations have promised new more transparent hiring procedures that would add African Americans to leadership positions, TV shows and advertisers have hired people of color in record numbers and The Oscars are not quite so #OscarsSoWhite anymore. All of this is meaningful, but it must be more than a quick fix. Everyone needs an ally, but being a true ally goes deeper than the protests. To be a real ally, you need to be there for the hard work, the messy work, and the unpleasant conversations about race and racism. You need to turn the mirror inward and make the personal changes that will help make your community a better place.” [Zebra]

Local chef appearing on FOX baking competition tonight — “Erinn Roth still can’t believe she was chosen to compete on FOX’s new baking competition show. ‘Crime Scene Kitchen’ premieres this Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET… The contestants are allowed to explore a kitchen that was recently used to bake a specific treat. They must use their baking skills and the clues left behind to determine what was baked and then they have two hours to recreate what they think it was. At the end of each episode, after two rounds, a team is eliminated.” [Alexandria Living]

Roy Rogers to reopen year and a half after Belle View Shopping Center fire — “The Roy Rogers in the Belle View Shopping Center will celebrate its long-awaited grand re-opening on June 1, the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce announced. Located at 1506 Belle View Blvd., the restaurant closed in October 2019 following a devastating multi-alarm fire that spread along the roofline of the shopping center. An investigation by the Fairfax County Fire Marshal’s office determined that fire began in a walk-in cooler at Yido Ramen and Sushi, which had opened just days before. [Alexandria Living]

Old Hat Bar opening delayed in Old Town by staffing challenges — “Residents eager to see Old Hat Bar open its doors in Old Town Alexandria will have to wait a little longer. The gastropub was set to open Friday, May 21 at 112 N. Saint Asaph Street, the former location of King Street Blues. But like other businesses in the food service industry, Old Hat Bar faces staffing challenges.” [Patch]

City to Host Town Hall on Anti-Asian Violence — The City of Alexandria invites the public to attend a virtual Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Town Hall, “Contextualizing Anti-Asian Violence in the Age of COVID,” on Thursday, May 27, at 7 p.m. The virtual panel discussion focuses on the wave of racial incidents and attacks directed toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel features Elisabeth Chan, Sue Jean Cho, John Min, and Alexander Purrugganan,  faculty members of Northern Virginia Community College. Their presentation will be followed by an interactive question and answer session. The presentation is free, but attendees must register.” [City of Alexandria]

PHOTOS: Alexandria Fire Department train on the Potomac River — “Yesterday, some of our first responders participated in swift water boat operator training. #traineveryday #stayready” [Twitter]

Today’s weather — “Partly cloudy in the morning followed by scattered thunderstorms in the afternoon. Gusty winds and small hail are possible. High 93F. Winds SW at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 40%… Scattered thunderstorms in the evening. Partly cloudy skies overnight. Low 68F. Winds WNW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 40%.” [Weather.com]

New job: Crew at AMC Theatres — “AMC amazing. That’s the promise we deliver to nearly 35,000 associates, 240 million guests domestically, and 350 million guests worldwide each year. AMC has propelled industry innovation since 1920, and we continue to innovate by delivering premium sight and sound, new and improved food and beverage options, and diverse content in our state-of-the-art theatres.” [Indeed]

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Morning Notes

Mayor gets vaccinated — “On Christmas Eve our Health Dept vaccinated 251 healthcare workers. Since that time, 51K+ Alexandrians have received at least a dose. Today, my name was called. I’m excited to receive the J&J vaccine. Thanks to our staff and volunteers!” [Twitter]

Council considers changes to taxi regulations — “Since the arrival of taxi network companies, TNCs, like Uber and Lyft in 2015, the taxi industry has been struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing market. The COVID-19 pandemic did not help the situation for an already challenged industry, and the city’s proposed code amendment aims to provide support for local taxi companies by easing specific regulations.” [Alex Times]

Wilson, Silberberg differ on stream restoration plans — “Wilson advocates moving forward with natural channel restoration; Silberberg wants to go back to the drawing board.” [Alexandria Living]

Alexandria Sportsman’s Club hosting famed sportswriter — “Len Shapiro, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated sportswriter, editor and columnist for more than 40 years for the Washington Post, will be the featured speaker for the April 21st meeting of the Alexandria Sportsman’s Club.” [Gazette]

Today’s weather — “Partly cloudy skies during the morning hours will give way to cloudy skies and rain in the afternoon. High 66F. Winds N at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 60%… Showers in the evening, then cloudy overnight. Low 48F. Winds NE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 60%.” [Weather.com]

New job: Sushi helper — “The Handover is hiring sushi assistants willing to work hard and be open to learning new skills. We are a small restaurant looking for candidates with the ability to accurately prep, cut vegetables, prepare maki rolls and follow chef’s direction. Both full- and part-time positions are available. Competitive hourly pay commensurate with experience level.” [Indeed]

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Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg joined Governor Ralph Northam, Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th) and regional railway leadership at Alexandria’s Union Station to mark a $3.7 billion investment in Virginia rail and the signing of the Transforming Rail in Virginia agreement.

The investment and agreement is designed to pave the way towards increased VRE and Amtrak service, greater connectivity to other parts of Virginia, and to lay the groundwork for a high speed rail corridor — something that’s been a talking point for Buttigieg over the last few months.

“Every day at stations like this across America, transportation workers are serving on the frontlines of America’s response to this pandemic,” Buttigieg said. “They have been delivering vaccines, getting people to essential jobs, and getting goods to wherever they need to go. Their service has been extraordinary, but the challenges facing them and our entire transportation system have been daunting… We are proud to say, on behalf of this administration, help is here.”

Buttigieg also highlighted the $43.2 billion in transportation funding included in the American Rescue Plan.

“We know the cuts these agencies were facing disproportionately harm workers,” Buttigieg said. “It’s a matter of equity; doing right by so many heroes of the pandemic.”

Northam said the rail investment is part of a gradual push to get more people out from behind the wheel of their cars and into passenger trains.

“America is still a nation of drivers,” Northam said. “We tend to like our cars. but all those cars on the road come at a price.”

Northam said that the state, Northern Virginia in particular, is plagued with congestion to levels where adding more capacity to the highways is no longer a viable option.

“Adding more highway lanes isn’t the answer,” Northam said. “A study of I-95 found adding a new lane in each direction would cost 12.5 billion dollars — and by the time it was done, corridor would be just as congested as when we started. Rail can add additional capacity at a third of the cost.”

Photo via Governor Ralph Northam/Twitter

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One of the most visible congestion points in the city is about to get revamped.

On Tuesday, the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved roadway improvements the the intersection of King Street, Russell Road and Callahan Drive, as well as a conversion to one-way for the service road leading up to the George Washington National Masonic Memorial.

I think it’ll be safer for one and all,” Alexandria City Councilwoman Del Pepper said.

Roadway improvements in the area include:

  • Signal timing optimization to reduce vehicle delay by 45 seconds
  • Upgraded crosswalks and pedestrian signals
  • A curb extension for shorter crossing and to slow turning vehicles
  • Bike facilities through the intersection

Improvements at the intersection have been in the works since 2015, when the city received a $1.2 million Federal Transit Administration grant. The next few years were spent collecting and analyzing data, and were met with delays due to “the combination of staff capacity and implementation of the King Street Metro Improvements Project and the 2019 Metro Summer Shutdown,” according to a city staff report.

The George Washington National Masonic Memorial Association wanted the access road shut down to vehicle traffic.

“Part of this project involves the access road around the traffic island, which connects the Memorial’s driveway to Callahan Drive,” the Association wrote in a letter to Council. “While the Memorial Association believes the modifications before Council for approval are a positive step, it is the viewpoint of the Memorial Association that this access road, which is used by motorists as a way to circumvent the traffic light at King and Callahan, should be permanently closed to vehicle traffic.”

Christopher Ziemann, the city’s Transportation Planning Division chief, said that the one-way conversion was a compromise.

Mayor Justin Wilson said that the traffic island in the center of the intersection will not be impacted, as it is designated as a national historic landmark.

“I think this is a step forward and certainly enjoys broad-based community support, which is great,” he said. “I appreciate staff’s efforts to build consensus on the changes on this intersection. I know this has been a long time coming.”

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Morning Notes

Alexandria Tech Firm Raises $1.1 Million in Seed Funding — “Clowder has quickly become the leader in modern member communication. Our apps are able to take organizations who’ve long relied on web and email-based engagement strategies and place them in the 21st century with an on-hand tool that provides instant access.”[Clowder.com]

Metro Expands Train Service Hours — “The pandemic has posed challenges never before faced by Metro, and I want to extend my thanks to our customers – especially essential workers – for their understanding as we took unprecedented action to protect our essential frontline workforce and the public health.” [Zebra]

What Will Happen to Halloween in Alexandria This Year? — “In a ‘normal’ year, local children would start running from house to house by 5 p.m. collecting as much candy as possible, but it’s not certain that most homes will be welcoming strangers to their doorsteps, no matter what type of mask the little goblins (and their parents) are wearing.” [Alexandria Living]

Beyer Refutes Trump Tweet to ‘SAVE THE POST OFFICE!’ — “Trump blocked financial support for the US Postal Service all year and last week admitted he was sabotaging USPS to prevent people from voting.” [Twitter]

Police Remember First Alexandria Officer Who Died in Line of Duty — “We remember Constable Elijah Chenault killed in the line-of-duty on August 4, 1823, 197 YEARS ago. Constable Cheault was the earliest known line of duty death in Alexandria. His death was 47 years before the City of Alexandria Police Department was founded. We will never forget.” [Facebook]

Fire Department Rescues Stuck Canine — “This past weekend, E207C responded to a residence to help save a family’s pup. The crew helped free the dog from being stuck between a piece of plywood and a water heater behind the washer and dryer. Glad the pup was OK!” [Twitter]

Today’s Weather — Mostly sunny skies during the day with a high temperature of 86. Winds NW at 5 to 10 mph. There is a 40% chance of partly cloudy skies in the early evening followed by increasing clouds with showers developing later at night. Low 68F. Winds light and variable. Chance of rain 40%.” [Weather.com]

New Job: Food Community Coordinator — “ALIVE! Job Opportunity for a Food Community Coordinator. This is a full-time temporary position.” [Facebook]

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A series of new improvements to Alexandria’s Union Station — a Virginia Railway Express stop — proposed late last year are moving forward toward city approval.

The plan is to create new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant access with a grade-separated pedestrian tunnel and elevator access. The expansion will also allow the station to take two trains at any given time, with one at each platform. The change is part of a regional effort to reduce the system’s bottleneck around the D.C. area.

According to the VRE website:

The project will provide an ADA-compliant, grade-separated pedestrian tunnel and elevator access between the two platforms at the VRE/Amtrak station in Alexandria and modify and extend the east platform at the station to accommodate eight-car trains and enable the platform to service two trains simultaneously, from a track on each side of the platform. The west platform adjacent to the station building will also be modified to raise its height relative to the top of rail as part of the project. Project funding sources include state SmartScale and Federal funds (through VDOT) to eliminate railroad grade crossings. Currently the project schedule is slightly ahead of the final year of funding allocation, which must be addressed with VRE’s funding partners through either reprogramming of funds or short-term borrowing.

The project is scheduled to go to the Planning Commission on September 1. The project was originally scheduled to be presented to the City Council in May, according to the VRE website, but the pandemic limited the scope of council meetings.

Construction on the project is estimated to start in 2022.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Morning Notes

Freedom House to Expand — “An expansion of the Freedom House Museum and renovations to the historic building it is in are in the works. Earlier this year, the Northern Virginia Urban League put the historic townhouse at 1315 Duke St. it owns up for sale for $2.1 million, after going through a difficult period keeping up payments on the property.” [Alexandria Living]

Former NFL Cheerleader Opens Salon — “From a loft-like space off a busy street in Alexandria, Stephanie Prinzbach runs the one-woman-show that is District Chic Hair Co., providing hair styling to over 115 customers spanning from Washington, DC to Richmond.” [Northern Virginia Magazine]

Treatment Court Shows Results — “In August, the City of Alexandria launched the Alexandria Treatment Court (ATC) as an alternative to jail for people accused of nonviolent felonies with significant substance use disorders… re-arrest rates of treatment court graduates are approximately half or less than that of non-treatment court graduates — which not only saves the judicial system money but also changes lives.” [Zebra]

New Rail Bridge, Expanded VRE Service Announced — “Virginia will build a new rail bridge over the Potomac River connecting Arlington and the District to significantly expand commuter and passenger train service over the next decade, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Thursday.” [Washington Post, ARLnow]

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