As the city prepares to head into 2021, staff and Transportation Commissioners have been putting together a New Year’s resolution of top transit priorities for the next two fiscal years.
In a report prepared for tomorrow’s Transportation Commission meeting, 20 planned transit projects were ranked by their priority to staff and commission members.
The top scoring item was the Landmark Transit Hub, a planned nexus of bus rapid transit, Dash and Metro bus traffic in the West End.
“[The goal is to] provide an urban transit hub within the neighborhood… to serve as a stop and transfer point for bus rapid transit, DASH, and Metro Bus service,” staff said in a description of the project. “Bus stops will be provided as on-street parallel spaces.”
The new transit hub was listed as costing over $5 million with a ten-year timeframe to start construction. A presentation from staff in 2018 said that Landmark Mall is the most-used non-Metro station transit location in Alexandria and is a critical transfer hub for various bus lines.
Part of the new hub would be a series of bus terminals to allow smooth transfer between bus routes, as well as access to the planned transitway in the area.
The next highest ranked priority was the expansion of bike trails in Alexandria based on earlier-identified needs.
“Bike and multi-use trail projects were prioritized for the 2016 update to the Ped/Bike Chapter of the Master Plan,” staff said. “This project compiles at least 7 of the 10 prioritized projects that call for the construction of 4.8 miles of new trails.”
Image via City of Alexandria
The update on the Transportation Master Plan Pedestrian and Bicycle Chapter wasn’t planned to coincide with a sudden uptick in bicycle ridership and walking around the city, but it could help explain why many Alexandrians exploring their local pedestrian/bike infrastructure might find it different than they remember.
An update prepared for the canceled June 17 Transportation Commission meeting shined some light on the progress the city has made since it a chapter specifically about that infrastructure was added to the city’s Transportation Master Plan in 2016. The primary goals the city laid out at the time were to improve safety, engineering, encouragement and education of bicycle and pedestrian facilities in Alexandria. The move corresponded with a push towards Vision Zero — a project that aims to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2028.
Data shows that crashes and fatalities for pedestrians have generally gone down over the last four years — though the numbers are low enough that it’s impossible to accurately extrapolate trends. Crashes have gone down from 69 in 2016 to 60 in 2019. Fatalities have gone from 4 to 2 in that same timeframe, though not with consistent year-after-year declines. The number of serious injuries has gone up from 6 to 8.
The city has added substantial new infrastructure, though.
“There has been a 43% increase in intersections with pedestrian countdown signals at crosswalks from 68% in 2016 to 97% as of the end of May 2020,” city staff said in the report. “Over 9,000 total linear feet of new sidewalk has been installed and over 1,600 linear feet of sidewalk have been upgraded with widened sidewalks or adjustments to provide improved access for wheelchair users since FY16. Approximately 1,300 linear feet of temporary, protected shared use path space was installed to fill the sidewalk gap on the #9 highest priority sidewalk on Seminary.”
The update also included information about progress made for off-street trails, though noting that flood damage has set back some of the city’s progress on that front.
“One additional off-street trail (a segment of Four Mile Run Trail leading to a future bridge) has been installed since plan adoption, bringing the citywide total to approximately 21 miles,” staff said in the report. “A new 150-foot pedestrian bridge was completed on the Four Mile Run trail that connects the Four Mile Run Wetlands Trail to the larger Four Mile Run trail network. The City suffered a setback with the July 2019 storms that severely damaged the trail and recent completion of a bridge connecting Holmes Run Parkway to N. Ripley Street as well as other bridges along Holmes Run. A 2021 budget request is made for the repair work.”
The report also notes the progress made for new bicycle infrastructure.
“Since 2016, 11.9 miles of shared lane mile markings and 11.4 miles of bike lane miles were installed making for a total of approximately 39 lane miles of on-street bicycle facilities,” staff said. “This is a nearly 46% increase in facilities since 2018.”
Staff photo by James Cullum
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:
- Provide frequent and convenient bus service that connects communities and promotes housing affordability, regional equity and economic growth
- Give buses priority on roadways to move people quickly and reliable
- Create an excellent customer experience to retain and increase ridership
- 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
Alexandria officials are still working through the details, but there’s an unmistakable air of excitement from city staff and leadership when it comes to turning part of King Street into a pedestrian-only zone.
The proposal would close one block of King Street — between Lee Street and Union Street — to car traffic on weekends and turn it into a pedestrian-only zone.
Staff presented the latest on the plan to the Transportation Commission on Wednesday, Jan. 15, after which the Commission unanimously approved the plan and speculated that the closures could become permanent if all goes well.
Outreach for the project is planned to continue over the next month, with meetings scheduled with the Small Business Development Association, Visit Alexandria, and Old Town businesses next week.
An open house for the project is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 23. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the project on Feb. 25 and, if approved, the closure would start on April 18.
Deputy Director for Transportation Hillary Orr told the Transportation Commission the main concerns they’ve heard voiced are about the safety of the project. Police have suggested the use of solid barriers that have to be screwed in (and unscrewed for removal), a proposal also endorsed by the Fire Department due to concerns about vehicles entering the pedestrian zone — inadvertently or otherwise.
City staff said they are also looking into types of plants and stones that could provide additional barriers.
Orr noted that the intersection of King Street and Union Street has been a transportation challenge for city staff for years, particularly with vehicles turning onto one of the most pedestrian-heavy sections of Old Town.
“Removing turning vehicles from that intersection actually makes it safer,” Orr said.
Orr described the project’s components as “pilots within a pilot,” saying that pieces of the project like changes to loading zones, parking, and vehicular traffic patterns could impact city policy beyond just this closure.
The owner of a few nearby properties raised some concerns at the meeting, noting that the alleyway to the south being proposed for deliveries and loading is very narrow and could pose a safety risk with cars increasingly using it to get around the closed King Street.
In addition to car access, the plan will remove parking spaces not just on that block, but on Lee Street and a block east on King Street.
If approved, the closures would last from April to October, but the Transportation Commission members already expressed enthusiasm for seeing the project extended or made permanent if the closure this summer goes well.
“I’m excited,” said Transportation Commission chair Melissa McMahon. “We’ll see what happens in October.”
Image (top) via City of Alexandria (middle) via Google Maps