Your view: Critics don’t know Metroway’s potential


By Dino Drudi, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:

Commenters criticize Metroway’s cost and ridership statistics, but their critiques are myopic, misplaced and guilty of misunderstanding history. Their arguments criticize something more fundamental than dedicated bus lanes.

Six decades ago, when the federal government went out on a limb to build the interstate highway system, the trucking industry opposed it. In the early years, each lane might average one vehicle every 45 seconds. By the ridership metrics Metroway critics are using, the interstate highway system could not have been justified. But over time, the new highways became fully utilized. Public attitudinal adjustments take time: Metroway needs years before the public overcomes its prejudice against buses and appreciates bus rapid transit as a truly “different kind of bus.”

Sooner or later, Metrorail will reach capacity, requiring either gargantuan investments in new lines or more economical alternatives such as bus rapid transit to siphon off some of the excess ridership. Economic growth, increasing employment, commercial development, which pays more in taxes than it demands in services, cannot happen without transportation infrastructure to support it.

Metrorail takes seven minutes to go from Braddock Road to Crystal City. The approximately equidistant Potomac Yard Metrorail station would take four minutes, whereas the Metroway bus takes 10 minutes to reach where city council wants to build the Potomac Yard station. Arlington is already building its segment of dedicated Metroway lanes and stops.

Moreover, eventually the traffic signals will be adjusted so they stay green longer or turn green sooner once a Metroway bus approaches. This is called signal priority. This should bring the time down to eight minutes. Adding dedicated lanes to East Glebe Road and Potomac Avenue could be done easily because the vicinity is already under construction, and that could cut the time down further to six minutes. The time difference between bus rapid transit and Metrorail would then be so small that it would not make sense to spend $250 million to build the Potomac Yard Metro station. The $25 million the federal government gave Alexandria to build bus rapid transit could spare us from spending $250 million on a massive Metrorail station.  That is Metroway’s real potential.

Unfortunately, council’s decisions are a roll of the dice: They can be brilliant like Metroway, catastrophic like the Mark Center or somewhere in between, like Capital Bikeshare, which broke even the first year in D.C. and Arlington, but only in Alexandria has to continue sucking city subsidies. What happens if we build the Potomac Yard Metrorail station and then the developers decide they can’t make commercial space work in that location?

City leaders envision Metroway as a circulator that will work in concert with the planned Potomac Yard station by distributing Metrorail riders through Potomac Yard and the southern tip of Crystal City. They do not understand that Metroway obviates the long-term need for an expensive new Metrorail station or that a new Metrorail station makes Metroway redundant.

The university from which I graduated had a “temporary” World War I building for its gymnasium.  The building today holds its architecture school and soon will be 100 years old. When noted architect Pietro Belluschi designed my church, the worship auditorium was intended to be temporary until a formal sanctuary could be built. But because the multipurpose worship auditorium works so well, no formal sanctuary has ever been built and, six decades later, the congregation still worships in the space intended only as a “temporary” worship space; concerts, plays, luncheons and dinners, sleepovers for children, voting, etc. all take place in that space by reconfiguring easily movable furniture. Good designs outlast and even confound their designers’ intentions.

Metroway is an incredibly good design, but both its critics and city hall share an inability to understand how transformative it can be.



  1. Metroway is absolutely a boon to residents in the Potomac Yard area and has potential beyond what we’ve already seen, but I completely disagree with the notion that it obviates the need for a Metrorail station.

    Without Metrorail, transit access to retail/development at Potomac Yard would be greatly limited. Outside of local residents who live within walking distance of the Metroway line, few people will bother taking Metrorail to Crystal City, transferring to a Metroway bus (w/ a potential 10+ minute wait), and then taking the bus to their shopping/dining destination.

    As a local resident (north Del Ray), I would be deeply disappointed if the Metrorail station isn’t built. Metroway has provided more reasonable access to the Metrorail system, but commuting beyond Crystal City/Braddock Road is still far less efficient than it would be with an actual Metrorail station.

    Ideally, Metroway would be extended in both directions in the future — south along Route 1 to Old Town and beyond, as well as north to Pentagon City and possibly the Rosslyn/Ballston corridor — to provide both expanded coverage and redundancy for Metrorail. Given cuts to Blue Line service, this could provide relief for many residents/riders who have been inconvenienced.

    • I wouldn’t worry about Potomac Yard Metro….the money is there, and the planning is coming along – every stage of the process complement each other.

      Further, Metroway and Metrorail are complementary, not competing transit services. Metrorail provides regional accessibility to points elsewhere in Virginia, DC and Maryland. Metroway provides sub-City level access to eastern Alexandria, such as local circulation among the Potomac Yard, Parker Gray, and Del Ray neighborhoods. Riders in that category may use it as feeder service to/from Metorail, but also to future(!) developments in the Potomac Yard corridor, most notably the future Potomac Yard North parcel (presently home to the Target, Shoppers, etc.

      The advantage of Metroway is its lower capital costs, which means you can build the thing quicker and cheaper than new Metrorail trackage, as well as lower operating costs, so it’s easier to ramp up frequencies if need be.

      I’m sure the same critics of Metrorail said the same thing about the system when it was being built (not enough riders, just use the $$ on roads and parks), but look at it now. It’s now completely integral to the local transit network. Alexandria’s BRT network (including West End corridor and Duke Street corridor) will become integral to City transit as well.

  2. Matt O’Brien’s cost-cutting alternative to run the Metroway bus lanes along Potomac Avenue (or maybe merely run the busses in Potomac Avenue traffic) would have built in a bad design feature, viz., there would be almost no riders coming from east of Matt’s proposed routing, only the Potomac Yard developments to its west, whereas with the routing city hall chose, Metroway can draw passengers from both sides of the route (Potomac Yard on the east and Del Ray on the west). This morning a young man, briefcase in hand, coming from the Del Ray side along Glebe Road ran to catch the Metroway bus I was riding. I doubt he would have been as likely to make Metroway his transit choice were it located farther away on Potomac Avenue.

    Moreover, although many of the scruffy industrial businesses on the west side of Route 1 provide useful products and services, they do not make a very nice presentation to motorists along a major arterial into Alexandria and would be better situated in an appropriate industrial area. The current Metroway routing allows the city to approve new developments with ground-floor retail and a few storeys of commercial and/or residential above on the Del Ray side to transition from Potomac Yard’s dense development to Del Ray’s single-family homes by providing a first-class transit amenity at their doorsteps.

  3. @Mr. Drudi
    “many of the scruffy industrial businesses on the west side of Route 1 … would be better situated in an appropriate industrial area.”

    Just keep in mind that such an area does not exist in the city. Oakville Triangle is one of the few industrially zoned spaces left. As part of the cost of progress, those businesses would be pushed out of the city. This would further skew the land use towards residential property. What could reverse that trend other than a Metro station at Potomac Yard?