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DASH buses (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

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One year into the city’s permanent dockless mobility program, data shows electric scooter ridership still hasn’t recovered to its pre-pandemic highs.

In a meeting of the Transportation Commission earlier this month, Sean Martin, shared mobility coordinator, told the Commission that electric scooter and bike ridership has crawled its way back from the lows of 2020 but is still around 65,000 riders shy of pre-pandemic levels.

Scooters were one of the big conversation pieces in Alexandria in 2019. During that first year of scooters operating in Alexandria as part of a pilot program, there were 248,711 trips on electric scooters.

Then, as with many things, that high ridership was cut dramatically by the pandemic. In 2020, there were 98,663 electric scooter trips in Alexandria.

It got a little better in 2021, with 141,191 total trips. In 2022 it continued to rise, hitting 174,009 total trips, but it’s still a far cry from the ubiquity of that first year.

Dockless ridership trends (image via City of Alexandria)

Martin said a permanent program for scooters was approved in 2021 with the first permits approved in April 2022.

“We’re wrapping up the first year of permanent dockless mobility in Alexandria,” Martin said.

There are currently 1,200 electronic scooters in Alexandria, the maximum allowed under the current city ordinance, and 500 e-bicycles — lower than the 800 bicycle cap.

Martin said there are currently five operators permitted in Alexandria:

  • Bird
  • Helbiz (withdrew in December)
  • Lime
  • Superpedestrian (doing business as Link)
  • Veo

Martin said one of the newest technologies in dealing with the scooters is better tracking. The city has been using the tracking to identify whether scooter companies are complying with equity requirements that compel scooter companies to place some scooters outside of wealthier, tourist-hub neighborhoods like Old Town and Del Ray.

Martin said the tracking initially showed that 71.7% of scooters in Alexandria were being used in “non-equity zones” like Old Town. Since the city alerted those electronic scooter companies, though, that’s dropped to around 59%.

The city, meanwhile, is looking for more opportunities to expand electronic scooter opportunities in the West End, like additional dockless corrals for bikes and scooters.

One of the newest changes is a proposed “slow zone” for scooters around the Robinson Landing neighborhood of Old Town. Martin said a “zero mph zone” was considered, but the concern is riders might think the scooter was broken and end up abandoning them inside the slow zone.

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Currently, electric scooters are only allowed on city streets. While some say that rule makes sense for a place like Old Town, there has been discussion in city meetings recently that it might not be the best policy for the rest of the city.

At a Transportation Commission meeting last week, commissioners and city staff discussed giving the scooters-on-streets policy a second look.

“There are safety concerns on both sides,” said Hillary Orr, deputy director of Transportation and Environmental Services. “There are safety concerns for scooters riding on sidewalks and safety concerns for scooters not being allowed to ride on sidewalks. That’s something City Council included in a final plan and that’s in the city code.”

Whereas bicycles are allowed on sidewalks outside of certain areas, like King Street, electric scooters are prohibited from all sidewalks in Alexandria.

The area has seen multiple crashes in the region where scooter drivers were killed by car drivers. In Alexandria, a scooter driver was killed by a car driver in August. At the same time, a study from 2020 found that most scooter injuries occur on sidewalks.

“We did have a pretty robust discussion of whether scooters should be allowed to ride on sidewalks outside of Old Town,” said Commissioner Bruce Marsh. That’s something I think Council should revisit… whether it’s safer for scooters to ride on a street like Duke Street, where I’d argue it’s not safe [as compared to] a sidewalk.”

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The City of Alexandria is looking at adding protected bike lanes (page 21) to Eisenhower Avenue and South Pickett Street in the Van Dorn neighborhood.

A report to the Transportation Commission last week reviewed some of the plans for adding protected bike lanes around the city. The plan, as recommended in the Complete Streets Five-Year Plan reviewed in June, includes adding these new bike lanes sometime in the next five years.

Protected bike lanes are facilities that are fully separated from vehicular traffic with a physical divider, like a curb, bollards or planters.

The protected bike lanes would run on:

  • South Pickett Street (from Duke Street to Edsall Road)
  • Eisenhower Avenue (from South Van Dorn Street to Holmes Run Parkway)

While that stretch of Eisenhower has traditionally been industrial areas and small clusters of local businesses, the area is gradually urbanizing with large swaths of new residential development planned.

According to a report filed at the Transportation Commission:

Staff have taken steps aimed to streamline decision-making regarding bicycle lane design and implementation. The adoption of the Curbside Prioritization Framework in the Alexandria Mobility Plan (AMP) helps staff identify where bike lanes would be a high priority. As part of this framework, bike lanes, among other items included in City plans, were identified as the highest priority use in all land use contexts.

The report said protected bike lanes are an important strategy for meeting the needs of riders of all ages and abilities.

Bike lanes have not always been fondly received in Alexandria: bike lanes were paired with a road diet on Seminary Road that stirred up some local controversy in 2019.

Image via Google Maps

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A VRE train crosses a bridge over King Street (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

A new authority responsible for promoting railways in Virginia said the only real solution to a degraded bridge over King Street is full replacement.

The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA) made its recommendation to the Transportation Commission earlier this month. The CSX bridge over King Street is nearly 120 years old and is notorious for causing closures and shutdowns.

The bridge has repeatedly closed after issues ranging from rail debris falling onto the street to repeated strikes by trucks and other vehicles.

At the Transportation Commission, Todd Hopkins — part of a group from the VPRA — said the bridge is also subject to occasional crashes with trucks and that the bridge does not meet current height requirements.

“Bridge strikes do occur by high trucks that try to pass through there,” Hopkins said. “When a bridge strike takes place, a safety inspection has to occur. All traffic gets shut down for at least a couple of hours. That leads to operational delays.”

Hopkins said a study weighed four options, ranging from various types of repairs and lifts to the bridge to full replacement.

King Street bridge repair or replacement options (image via Transportation Commission)

The presentation noted that there are five criteria for screening bridge repair or replacement options, which include: adding 50 years of functional life to the bridge, minimizing rail operations, and meeting current railroad requirements and roadway clearance requirements. A full replacement was the only option that hit all five criteria.

VPRA Planning Manager Naomi Klein said bridge replacement met all criteria and is the recommended design option.

A report from the VPRA said the replacement would include increasing the bridge height and possible width under the bridge. Replacement would also reduce maintenance requirements and minimize rail service interruptions.

Klein said a feasibility study is scheduled to be completed sometime in the next month to be published early next year. After that, the VPRA will review public feedback and complete the environmental clearance process before progressing with a preferred design option.

Once a design is chosen, construction is scheduled to start in the second quarter of 2024 and continue until midway through 2026.

The Transportation Commission also voted to include a note along with the report saying the city should add more signage to the bridge in the meantime with more visible warnings to truck drivers about the bridge height.

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Tentative location for Landmark pedestrian bridge (image via City of Alexandria)

The City of Alexandria is looking into building a pedestrian bridge over I-395 to connect the Landmark Mall site to neighborhoods west of the highway.

Last week, the Transportation Commission reviewed a potential grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to provide funding to study the potential bridge.

The idea is to give West End residents better access to the large new development — including a new hospital and mixed-use district — currently under construction.

“The City is seeking technical assistance funding from the DOT to study the feasibility of a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over I-395 to connect the Landmark Mall site to the neighborhoods west of I-395,” a city memo said. “This will provide safe and direct access to jobs and amenities that will be available once West End Alexandria has been redeveloped.”

At the meeting, staff said without the bridge the only pedestrian access to the Landmark site for residents west of I-395 would be to either go down to Duke Street or cross on the Holmes Run Trail, which is currently still impassable following damage from a storm in 2019.

The bridge is recommended in several planning studies focused around the site, though members of the Transportation Commission said one of the challenges will be finding the right spot for the bridge in an area that’s a patchwork of private development. Transportation Commission member Melissa McMahon noted that the final bridge location could be more dependent on agreements with private land owners than any optimal connection.

The total cost of the study is $300,000, with a $240,000 grant request to the Department of Transportation and $60,000 in local matching funds. The Council is set to review the application at a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 28. City staff said grant recipients are announced in early 2023 and, if approved, the study would start in 2024 and take about a year.

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S. Van Dorn Street bridge (photo via Google Maps)

Two projects in Alexandria will receive $5 million apiece from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA).

The NVTA awarded the amounts as part of its six-year budget adopted on Thursday (July 14). The two projects are: to make S. Van Dorn Street and its bridge more transit and pedestrian-friendly for the West End Transitway, and replacement of a fair-weather crossing on the Holmes Run Trail, just behind William Ramsay Elementary School (5700 Sanger Avenue).

The West End Transitway project is needed as significant redevelopment and a new bus rapid transit route are planned for the area.

The South Van Dorn Street bridge near the Van Dorn Metro station is a four-lane crossing that connects the Van Dorn neighborhood with Landmark just to the north. The project will design dedicated transit lanes for the future West End Transitway on S. Van Dorn Street and the Van Dorn bridges between Metro Road and McConnell Avenue, a report states.

This project will also improve non-motorized facilities along the bridges for better connections between new developments and the Van Dorn Metrorail station. The existing Van Dorn Street bridge has a narrow sidewalk along the east side and no bicycle facilities.

The Holmes Run Trail crossing will be replaced with a prefabricated pedestrian and bicycle bridge.

“The project will allow trail users continuous, safe and reliable access to the City’s off-street trail facilities, as well as other regional trails, and the future West End Transitway,” according to the report.

NVTA gave out about $625 million to 20 projects total across the region with its latest program, with more than half the money going to projects in Fairfax County.

Photo via Google Maps

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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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Nestled away in a budget presentation for the Transportation Commission, a report on ten years of crash data shows that crashes in Alexandria are overall on the decline.

The report includes data collected from 2011 to 2020, with a note that the COVID-19 pandemic likely impacted crash data from the final year of the study. But even pre-2020, the total number of car crashes in Alexandria had been fairly consistently declining year after year.

Crashes that involve kills or serious injuries (KSI) were more erratic over the years, remaining at a fairly consistent 3% of all crashes throughout the reporting period..

“Crash totals from 2011-2020 show a downward trend for all crashes, including those that involved fatal or severe injury,” the report said. “The 2016-2020 annual crash averages by all modes (vehicle-only, pedestrian, bicyclist) and crash type (all and KSI) are less than those seen during 2011-2015. Year over year, vehicle-only crashes had the highest number of KSI crashes followed by pedestrian and then bicyclist crashes.”

The report only covered crashes on city streets — not including crashes from major highways like I-395 or I-495. Vehicle-only crashes account for most of the KSI crashes each year, followed by those involving pedestrians then cyclists.

The study tracked other information on crashes, like location, time, weather, road conditions and more. The information put together a portrait of which crashes tend to be most fatal.

“During the weekday, high crash frequencies are seen during the evening commute,” the report said. “Early spring had the highest proportion of KSI crashes for bicyclists, while the late summer months were the highest for pedestrians.”

The report found that vehicle occupants who were not wearing seat belts were 20 times more likely to be killed or severely injured.

“Most vehicle occupants wore their safety restraint (e.g., seat belt) during crashes,” the report said. “However, vehicle occupants who did not wear their seatbelt were approximately 20 times more likely to be killed or severely injured compared to those who did wear their seatbelt.”

The report also noted that 58% of all KSI crashes occurred at intersections, and intersections with five points or more had the highest proportion of KSI crashes though the total number of crashes at these intersections were relatively low.

There were roughly the same number of crashes for bicyclists in locations where bike infrastructure was present as areas where there wasn’t, but areas without bicycle infrastructure had a higher fatality rate.

“Out of the eight KSI bicyclist crashes,” the report said, “seven had no presence of bike infrastructure.”

The full report is available in the docket (page 31 of the pdf, page 4 of the docket) for the Transportation Commission’s March 16 meeting.

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In a meeting with the Transportation Commission, city staff said earlier reporting about the city axing the city-wide feedback form for the Complete Streets program sounded “scary”, emphasizing instead that the city will be focusing on feedback more local to the affected areas.

Quick refresher: Complete Streets is an Alexandria program that aims to redesign roadways for the benefit of all users, with pedestrians and cyclists in mind along with motorists. The program stirred up some local controversy over plans to reduce travel lanes on Seminary Road in favor of bike lanes.

The form in question here is a city-wide feedback form meant to collect public responses to Complete Streets proposals. But, as might be expected given some of the intense debates over a couple of earlier Complete Streets programs, the city said it was finding that the feedback collection was being bogged down with responses that might not have been relevant to the streets in question.

“The Complete Streets policy was adopted in 2011, began this feedback form in 2018 to get feedback from residents,” said Transportation Planning Division Chief Christopher Ziemann. “This hasn’t worked as well as we thought.”

Ziemann said public engagement will continue, particularly on major projects like the Rayburn & Reading Avenue Complete Streets Project and the Commonwealth Avenue Complete Streets Project, but for other Complete Streets initiatives, the focus would be shifted to outreach to areas closer to the project.

“Discontinuing [the] feedback form frees up resources to focus more targeted engagement on these types of projects,” Ziemann said.

Staff at the meeting said the decision is about how the city allocates its resources.

Other parts of the staff’s proposal include doing more to divest the Complete Streets program from the repaving schedule. In the presentation, staff recommended a “more proactive approach versus reacting to the paving schedule.” While the Complete Streets program would continue doing improvements alongside repaving, more complex projects could be implemented outside of the resurfacing schedule.

Alex Carroll, an urban planner with the city of Alexandria, explained the decision:

What we end up doing is either A. taking all hands on deck approach on [Complete Streets], which pulls away from other projects, B. rush projects into a short timeframe, or C. we end up having to delay the surfurfacing of the street which results in frustration with residents who just want their potholes fixed.

Staff is also recommending a more comprehensive five-year work plan for the Complete Streets program.

“The headline is very scary, that ‘the city doesn’t want your input’ but it’s a little bit more nuanced than that,” Carroll said.

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