Newsletter
South-facing ramp in the I-395/Seminary Road interchange, image via VDOT

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is hosting a meeting next week to discuss plans to add the option of non-HOV vehicles to access the Seminary Road ramp to I-395, but with a toll.

The ramp would still provide free access to the express lanes for vehicles with three or more occupants but would open up access to vehicles with fewer than three occupants who pay a toll.

The meeting will be virtual and is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 6, from 6:30-8:30 p.m.

“This south-facing reversible ramp at I-395 and Seminary Road falls within the limits of and provides access to the 395 Express Lanes,” VDOT said on its website. “Currently, this ramp operates as an HOV-only ramp, providing access to the 395 Express Lanes at all times for carpools and buses. VDOT’s private operator of the 395 Express Lanes, Transurban, is proposing to convert this ramp from an HOV-only ramp to an express lanes ramp.”

The plan has been in the works for a while, with meetings in 2019 before the project was delayed by the pandemic. The city website said in November, VDOT informed the city that they were planning to move forward with the project once again.

“The south-facing ramp, opened in early 2016, was planned to remain restricted high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) and transit traffic traveling north in the morning and south in the evening, even after completion of the I-395 Express Lanes,” the city said.

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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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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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In the midst of everything else that’s happened over the last year, the Seminary Road debate can feel like a relic of another age, but there was a time when the Complete Streets program was at the center of a community-wide debate.

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. A form put out by the city allowed locals to weigh in on street resurfacing.

“In 2018, the City began issuing an annual Citywide feedback form for residents to provide input on streets that are being resurfaced,” staff said in a report. “Feedback is usually collected for non-local streets where striping improvements are potentially feasible. Staff analyzes all public comments and produces a report for each street to summarize resident feedback.”

A staff report said that each Complete Streets announcement often comes with significant feedback.

“Every year, staff develops a repaving feedback form to solicit community input on streets that are scheduled to be repaved in the coming paving season, accompanied by an eNews release, webpage updates, and social media engagement,” the report said. “Staff receives hundreds of community comments related to repaving each year, which are then analyzed and summarized in a report for each street. The intention is that this feedback would then be used to inform potential changes to those streets via repaving. The original of this effort was to garner feedback to improve service delivery.”

At a Transportation Commission meeting tomorrow, the city will consider a proposal (page 36) from staff to eliminate a form that allowed locals to offer input on the project, saying the form was often misused and wastes staff resources:

  • Much of the community feedback is related to issues beyond the scope street resurfacing
  • This results in wasted staff effort and a potential erosion of trust between City staff and
    residents
  • Much feedback does not end up getting used
  • The repaving form sometimes creates speculation about what the City is planning to do to
    streets that are repaved, which can increase tensions in the community
  • This approach fails to set accurate or reasonable expectations

Staff are recommending that the form but eliminated in favor of more targeted local outreach.

The report also recommends longer-term planning for the Complete Streets program to help make implementation occur on a more reliable timeline.

“Staff recommends the development of a five-year work plan for Complete Streets with input from the Transportation Commission,” the report said. “This approach would generate clear expectations for residents, City Council, City boards and commissions, and staff for what Complete Streets improvements will be done. Staff anticipates this work plan would be developed in Fiscal Year 2023 and would consider crash data and equity to support and align with Vision Zero efforts.”

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Electric DASH bus, photo via DASH/Facebook

Alexandria bus network DASH has been charging ahead on its electric bus program, but DASH leadership said the initiative has also faced a few bumps in the road.

At a meeting of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission last week, DASH General Manager Josh Baker shared some of the city bus service’s experience with implementing electrical buses.

“At DASH, we are endeavoring to have a fully zero-emissions fleet by 2025 with phase-out of diesel and hybrid buses by 2027,” Baker said. “The 2025 benchmark is to understand that buses have a minimum 12-year duty cycle.”

While Baker said that electric buses are a big short-term investment — approximately $5.1 million for six battery-electric transit buses and fast chargers — the idea is that electric buses will counter-balance that with long-term benefits to maintenance and fuel costs. So far, Baker said that’s been borne out by electric buses requiring half maintenance cost compared to diesel counterparts, though it’s worth noting that the electric buses are also newer than the diesel buses.

“We’ve been operating electrical buses for over a year,” Baker said. “They were first implemented in October last year. We’ve seen some success, and they’ve been well received by the community and riders.”

Baker also admitted that the electric buses have some challenges, specifically that “they don’t love hills and they don’t love highways, which is something to keep in mind as the program moves forward.”

Baker said the biggest problem, though, has been with the bus chargers.

“The biggest issue we’ve had has been with charging,” Baker said. “As long as they’re charged they’re out there running, but chargers have a tendency to go down for various reasons. We’ve had troubles with installation and contractors and getting them serviced when they break down.”

As winter starts to approach, Baker said the other issue is heating on the buses. Baker said that the electric buses don’t have an engine to generate the same levels of heat that diesel buses do.

“If you’re generating heat from the battery, up to 60% of that can go into heating,” Baker said.

As technology advances, Baker said the heating system in electric buses are likely one of the things that will change over the next few years.

Photo via DASH/Facebook

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Traffic backed up off Duke Street, courtesy Jill Hoffman

The city is moving forward with a pilot program that could — deliberately — make traffic slower on residential streets near Duke Street to push more drivers onto the main arterial roads.

Phase 1 of the new program, scheduled to start in January and run through March, would change signal timing along Duke Street and nearby roads, punishing drivers using residential streets to get to Telegraph Road and I-395 beyond that with longer wait times. Phase 2, which would start next fall, would prohibit access to Telegraph Road from West Taylor Run Parkway.

The goal is to push drivers, many of whom are using shortcuts recommended by navigation apps, back onto the intended main routes.

The city cautioned that, while this is aimed at alleviating the traffic difficulties for residents on the city’s side streets, there could be some growing pains.

“In the first few weeks, more vehicles could queue on neighborhood streets until they realize those routes are not faster,” the city said. “If you live in the neighborhood and want to access Duke Street before 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., it could take you longer.”

Overall the presentation said the city will monitor the impact of the pilot to see if there’s a decrease in travel times on arterial routes and an increase of travel times on neighborhood streets, and to see whether traffic increases on nearby Quaker Lane as drivers adjust.

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Morning Notes

Alexandria residents along Telegraph Road demand action from state — “Residents who travel along a busy roadway in Northern Virginia are demanding answers from the state’s department of transportation.” [Fox5]

COVID-19 booster shots readily available in Alexandria and Fairfax County — “Thanks to all the work done setting up the infrastructure to provide initial vaccines to residents, it’s pretty easy to get a booster shot in both Alexandria and Fairfax County, as long as you qualify.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

New rain and stream gauges active in Alexandria — “The City has new rain and stream gauges to give residents early warning for dangerous conditions. Check levels near your neighborhood at http://alxfloodwatch.onerain.com.” [Department of Transportation & Environmental Services]

800 People Participate in Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Walk in Alexandria — “Those walkers raised more than $135,000 through donations and sponsorship. But News4’s Derrick Ward reports that participants were raising much more than money.” [NBC Washington]

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Morning Notes

Cortado Cafe opens in Alexandria’s West End — “A new coffee shop has opened in the Shoppes of Foxchase shopping center in Alexandria’s West End.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

Council amends, renames Transportation Master Plan — “City Council approved an amendment to the Alexandria Transportation Master Plan during Saturday’s public hearing that aimed to expand the city’s focus on alternative modes of transit while addressing concerns such as congestion, accessibility and equity.” [Alexandria Times]

Voting starts for Del Ray Halloween contest — “Voting is now open for the People’s Choice Award for Del Ray’s Best Decorated Halloween House” [Visit Del Ray]

The Chamber ALX hosts business awards — “Tonight was epic! Best in Business 2021 did not disappoint with 200+ attendees and 14 restaurants.” [The Chamber ALX]

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The Metro is operating at 40% service after the 7000 series railcars were pulled from service to be inspected for the same defect that recently caused a derailment in Arlington.

Metro has said that passengers should expect to wait up to 40 minutes for service on the Blue, Orange, Yellow, Green and Silver lines.

The service cuts come just as the transit system was starting to recover from a pandemic that caused ridership to tank. Even before that, there were concerns that Metro ridership was in a death spiral, and elected leaders like U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly have blasted the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for ongoing issues that have eroded public trust.

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A new report from DASH shows that the bus network has received significantly fewer angry public calls about the new bus network overhaul than had earlier been expected.

A report made at a meeting of the Alexandria Transit Company’s Board of Directors last week indicated that the bus systems’ new DASH network has been a success in terms of recent complaints. According to the network’s customer service report call volumes and complaints regarding DASH operations have fallen below projections for the month of September. 

The report breaks down the number of calls and complaints made in the first four weeks after the networks’ launch on Sept. 6. The projections forecasted 1,050 calls to be made over that time period, however, the actual call numbers were 524 which is slightly less than half of the projected number. The best number came in at week 2 where the actual call volume came in at 93 calls down from a projected 250 calls.

All the calls made to DASH were in regards to questions about bus routes and schedules. 

Another encouraging number from the report was the number of complaint calls made to the customer service line. The total amount of calls for the four weeks came in at 43 which fell far below expectations.

The report also contained a rare sight of four commendations made to the customer service line about good performance from buses. It was noted in the meeting that this number of commendations was over the usual of what they would normally receive in a month which had been one to two at most. This number of commendations is also considered a rare occurrence by DASH authorities, especially when major changes such as the launch of the DASH network occur.

Board Chair David Kaplan reported that DASH received recognition for the network at an event held at the Van Dorn Street Station on Sept. 22. Alexandria City Mayor Justin Wilson presented the recognition to DASH Director of Planning and Scheduling Martin Barna, who was touted by Kaplan as being a longtime proponent in the development of the network.

At the same meeting, the bill for the new fare-free policy also came in.

The board was presented with the General Manager’s Proposed Operating Budget for Fiscal Year 2023 which showed the Dash network’s operating costs for that year to be projected at a combined $637,578 for the network’s operations and maintenance. The projected budget shows an increase of $3.1 million or 13.5 percent for a total of $26.9 million.

This increase comes not just from the Dash Network itself but from the change over to 24/7 service, expansions funded by the Interstate 395 Commuter Choice Program, and operating at a fare-free status. The Alexandria City Council has applied for funding from the Virginia Transit Ridership Incentive Program which if accepted could bring in $7.2 million over the course of four years. 

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