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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:

  1. Provide frequent and convenient bus service that connects communities and promotes housing affordability, regional equity and economic growth
  2. Give buses priority on roadways to move people quickly and reliable
  3. Create an excellent customer experience to retain and increase ridership
  4. 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

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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

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