By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
Sandy Modell showed up for her first day at work with DASH, Alexandria’s public bus system, in 1984, and plunged herself straight into improving it.
At her new desk at the burgeoning transit agency, Modell received several calls from older residents saying that they could not read the times on the printed schedules because the text was too small. So she created the system’s first ride guide, which was an overnight success.
“They were very happy to be able to read the schedule, and I was too,” Modell said.
That career with the city’s bus system is set to officially conclude at the end of this year, as Modell, now DASH’s general manager, retires from the agency having helped build it up from those early days.
She will leave behind a system that has seen ridership grow to 4 million riders a year, expanded service throughout the city, a fleet of 85 buses, hybrid vehicles and the operation of the popular King Street Trolley that runs from the water- front to the King Street Metro station.
Amid all those achieve- ments, Modell said the one that stands out the most is her campaign to build a new headquarters for the agency. At first, DASH was located in a trailer that was originally intended to be a temporary one-year solution, but was extended by another five years.
When DASH moved into a new building on the West End, it was a refurbished rail maintenance yard used by freight company CSX. After the retrofit, the facility had room for 30 buses and 30 driver lockers, but after six months the agency’s fleet was up to 34 buses.
In addition, Modell said the old facility was dark and liable to fill up with smoke and soot. It took some arm-twisting to get the ball rolling on funding a new facility, thanks in large part to a partnership with former transportation director Rich Baier.
“I brought him out and showed him the conditions in that building,” Modell said. “I also had [City Manager] Mark Jinks come out. He was chief financial officer at the time, so I had him come out at 5 a.m. to stand with me and watch the building build up all this soot and smoke because we didn’t have a decent exhaust system.”
But with funding constraints across the city budget, Modell and Baier had to get creative. Together, they looked through transportation-related capital projects that either had no chance of happening ever or had no chance of happening in the near-term. Then the city asked permission from the Virginia Department of Transportation to use that money for transit under a federal law that allows road money to be redirected.
Having found $35 million in funds and with VDOT’s approval, the new headquarters was built on Business Center Drive. Modell was project manager for a building us- ing the design-build method in which one contractor does both the design and construction. The first such project in the city, it received LEED Gold Certification for its environmentally friendly construction and operation, and opened in 2009.
“The day we moved in here, the look on everybody’s face,” Modell said. “They were happy over there, but the gloom of that building affected morale. We moved in here, people knew we cared about them.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however, especially in the early days. Modell had to do a great deal of community outreach to bring reluctant residents around to use the new bus service, especially with Metrobus already in operation.
“There were a number of people at the time that were very concerned that the city was using its taxpayer dollars to duplicate bus service in the city,” she said. “It was a taxpayer alliance at the time. They were very vocal, and they were very negative against the DASH system being created here and implemented.”
So Modell went out and spoke to citizens’ organizations and engaged with local businesses, emphasizing that DASH had to be on time, its buses had to be reliable and employees had to be focused on customer service.
Her efforts here built on her previous position in Harrisonburg, where she began her transit career. Having driven buses, had stints as a dispatcher and learned to maintain the vehicles among other responsibilities, Modell said she was ready to run an agency, especially after the opportunity arose.
“What I liked about Alexandria is that it was right outside of Washington but it was like its own small town,” she said. “And it’s a great city to be in. Did I think I was going to be here for 32 years? I wasn’t really sure. But I did know that I had this feeling that Alexandria was going to be a great place to be.”
As for the future, Modell said she intends to stay involved with the agency in some form, especially as it chooses her successor. Having spent more than 20 years training dogs, her new project will be opening the first canine academy and learning center in the city: Wholistic Hound Academy.
But she said her heart will remain at DASH.
“I’m not really retiring. I’m moving on to a new chapter,” she said. “I feel I’ll always be a part of DASH. It’s my baby, and I’m always going to be a part of DASH in some way, shape or form.”