By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)
City councilors restated their support at a meeting last month for a proposed West End Transitway that would connect the Van Dorn and Pentagon Metro stations.
Council first approved the project in 2012 with instructions to staff at the city department of transportation and environmental services to make improvements to the proposal.
Since then, city staffers said in a presentation they had refined the project further, including minimizing the amount of property acquisition required, ensuring a minimum impact on residential parking and aligning with Landmark Mall among other tweaks.
Under the plan, the two Metro stations will be linked by a bus route and a combination of dedicated transit lanes in one or both directions and travel in mixed traffic. The buses will travel in mixed traffic along some of the route, and also join some of the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate-395 leading to the Pentagon.
Also included as part of the route are safety improvements, new sidewalks, bicycle facilities and priority for buses at traffic signals, similar to what is available along sections of the Metroway bus rapid transit system along U.S. Route 1 near Potomac Yard.
The $140 million project is slated for funding through a combination of grants from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and the Federal Transit Administration. The NVTA already has approved spending $2.4 million on the project in fiscal 2016 for design, while staff said it has been rated as the authority’s No. 2 project in its fiscal 2015-16 funding program.
But much of council’s deliberations in its March 29 meeting centered on the transitway’s impact on the tree canopy along the Beauregard Street section of the planned corridor. Mayor Allison Silberberg and City Councilor Del Pepper both were critical of the plan to remove trees in that section to install the dedicated transit lanes, adding that they were responding to neighbors’ concerns.
“This is such a special place now,” Pepper said. “Without those trees, it turns into a very ordinary place with very ordinary developments. It just seems such a shame.”
Transportation director Yon Lambert said the department will work with members of the community to plant new trees, and that overall the net tree canopy will increase by 43 percent.
“It’s very important to envision what the ultimate corridor is going to look like,” he said.
Silberberg continued to push for greater assurances and a greater commitment to planting more trees along Beauregard, while Pepper asked for guarantees that the new trees would not be mostly planted by the Van Dorn Metro station. Silberberg also questioned why the trees had to be replaced with dedicated lanes at all.
“It just seems random that in certain sections we have bus sharrows and in others where it’s really beautiful we have something else,” she said.
Several times, Allan Fye, the project’s manager, and Lambert emphasized that the project had to be coherent across the corridor as different parts were moved around.
“Basically, we spent a lot of time moving things back and forth across the corridor,” Fye said.
In the resolution voted on by council to reaffirm its support, Silberberg looked to include firm guidance on the types of trees to be planted, something Vice Mayor Justin Wilson argued was the purview of city arborist John Noelle and his staff. The resolution included a firm commitment to continue to explore increasing the tree canopy, with City Manager Mark Jinks noting that those kinds of project details will be firmed up as it evolves.
“I’m going to count on you to remember the difference between a very special place and a very ordinary place,” said Pepper.
City councilors also questioned the level of economic impact of the new bus route. According to the staff’s presentation, the transitway is slated to bring 10.2 million square feet of net new development, bringing a value of $2.1 billion. Fye said those numbers were conservative estimates based on the additional density brought by mass transit and envisioned by the Beauregard small area plan.
Wilson expressed his concerns about the pace of development and whether it could happen quickly enough, but Fye said building the transitway would encourage investment.
“It just makes it even easier to make these [development] organizations invest in that corridor,” Fye said, noting the recent approval of The Gateway project at King and Beauregard streets as another catalyst for development.
Lambert emphasized there is still plenty of work that lies ahead on the project, which now requires the submission of the final environmental impact study to the FTA. Staff said that there are no negative impacts to the environment from the project, while the improvements to stormwater management among others would be beneficial. The project is scheduled to enter the design phase this summer.