City councilors discuss DASH upgrades, controversial paint at legislative meeting

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By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

City councilors discussed a wide range of issues at their Tuesday night legislative meeting, including the General Assembly legislative agenda, transportation projects, DASH bus replacement and policies surrounding unpainted masonry in Alexandria’s historic districts.

The city’s Director of Transportation & Environmental Services Yon Lambert presented a list of projects the department was applying for with the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority totaling $88,228,652 in funding over six fiscal years, with $60,750,000 requested for the West End Transitway’s northern segment. Other requested funding from T&ES include the transit signal priority on Route 7 and Route 236, a technology upgrade for DASH, the expansion of DASH’s fleet and facility, King Street pedestrian and bike improvements and the Duke Street bus rapid transit.

City council approved the requests.

Alongside those requests, DASH General Manager Josh Baker made a presentation about efforts to upgrade the fleet. The DASH board made a decision earlier this month to purchase a replacement bus fleet that’s ‘clean diesel’ instead of the current hybrid, with the intention of eventually purchasing an all-electric fleet of buses.

Baker said using buses fueled by ‘clean diesel’ would reduce overall emissions and would be more in line with DASH’s budget. The cost for a ‘clean diesel’ bus is about $480,000, while a fully electric bus is about $1 million to $1.2 million, without the added cost of the charging infrastructure.

Baker said in his presentation that time is of the essence, as new buses have to
be ordered in advance, and that DASH already has buses in service that are more than 18 years old.

“Getting these vehicles off the road is important to us. We have regular issues with them, and maintenance is getting more and more expensive,” Baker said.

Baker said DASH plans to purchase six electric buses as early as 2020, and will be applying for money from a settlement fund.

“This is where we’re going and I think Alexandria is the place for it,” Baker said. “It’s not to be taken lightly.” Baker said, at the moment, most DASH buses that break down are hybrids. DASH started using hybrid buses in 2011.

“DASH has a stellar record. A high on-time rate, very few failures with equipment that causes residents to be stranded,” Baker said. “It does happen, most often with longer-running buses. But if you see a BUS being hitched to a tow truck, it’s likely a hybrid bus.”

On the other hand, Baker said it was better to invest in electric buses slowly in order to see how they perform on the road.

“We have to be careful with this because if we suddenly invest in electric buses and all of them die on the side of the road, Alexandria is paralyzed,” Baker said.

Council didn’t take action on this issue, as it was a presentation.

Members from Alexandria’s Department of Planning & Zoning also made a presentation concerning regulations surrounding the painting of unpainted masonry. This presentation was made following controversy that unfolded at the Nov. 18 public hearing regarding owners of a home at 402 S. Pitt St. in Old Town who painted their house gray without a certificate of appropriateness. Those regulations have been in place since 1992.

The question on the table was if any action should be taken by city staff to reexamine the regulations.

Most city councilors thought the system was fine as is, including Mayor Allison Silberberg.

“Someone moved into the historic district, they stated emphatically that they did not know the rules, there was a stop order and the contractor continued,” Silberberg said. “Then the system continued to work in that it was brought to the attention of the city, the BAR voted for them to remove the paint and they appealed it to us and we voted to remove the paint … These things don’t come up all the time, but in this case, the system worked. Those are the facts.”

Councilor Tim Lovain agreed that the system didn’t need to be remedied.

“The system isn’t broken, so it doesn’t need to be fixed,” Lovain said.

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said, though he thought the process was working, that he didn’t believe painting unpainted masonry constituted removing something of historical significance in all cases.

Councilor Paul Smedberg, who was one of two votes at the Nov. 18 public hearing in favor of the homeowners’ appeal, said he believed the call on the paint was, ultimately, a judgment call.

“Painting it that nice gray, I personally think it looks better and a lot of the neighbors do. It’s a judgment call,” Smedberg said. “When it gets to us, it’s a judgment call … I just question ‘is this the one to draw a line on?’”

Ultimately, council voted to table examining the regulations 6-1, with Smedberg
voting against it.

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