By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
A month into the three-month-long summer Metro shutdown, Alexandria’s commuters, residents and business owners are feeling the effects.
After the announcement in May 2018 that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority would be closing all Metro stations south of Reagan National Airport from Memorial Day to Labor Day for platform maintenance, the city and WMATA began working on a series of mitigation strategies intended to ease the impact of the shutdown.
While WMATA provided free shuttle buses to replace rail service between shuttered stations, the city expanded DASH bus services, made HOV lane modifications and implemented other temporary traffic changes. Local organizations, including the Potomac Riverboat Company, have also pitched in.
Most of the mitigation efforts have been in effect since May 25 and, like the shutdown itself, have been extended beyond Labor Day, to Sept. 8.
“So far I actually think the city did a really good job planning, and after the first couple of weeks where we had to mitigate some unexpected instances, we really haven’t been hearing too much from the community about it,” Hillary Orr, deputy director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said.
The first few weeks of the shutdown were a challenge for the city, Orr said. Commuters faced extended travel time, while residents and visitors had to adapt to new rules of the road.
“Our police department … worked to make people aware of the new restrictions on the HOV lanes, so they monitor that heavily,” Orr said. “And after the first week, people stopped parking in the HOV lanes as much. They did a number of citations.”
Early on, the city also faced issues with WMATA’s construction workers parking in neighborhoods, despite the 200 parking spaces provided for them at Landmark Mall. The city coordinated with WMATA to deter neighborhood parking and doubled the number of spaces at the lot, Orr said.
Since the shutdown began, the majority of people who would normally use Metro in Alexandria have used the free shuttle buses, Orr said. WMATA is carrying around 60 percent of its normal rail ridership on the shuttles, according to Tom Kaiden, chief operating officer of Visit Alexandria.
Residents reported that the free shuttles were useful and reliable, if not exactly expeditious.
Rosemarie Esber, a resident who regularly commutes into D.C. for work, said that the shuttles can add between 15 and 40 minutes to her commute.
“But I’m grateful that they’ve established a system to keep connecting people, because not everyone can afford taxis,” Esber said. “I don’t have a car. I get around on bicycle and public transport.”
Some residents said the shutdown has given them the chance to explore alternative modes of transportation – with surprisingly good results.
Eliza Voigt and her husband commute to the Wharf every week day for work. Before the shutdown, they were used to driving into the city and slogging through rush hour traffic. Now the couple travels by water taxi, taking advantage of the Potomac Riverboat Company’s extended hours.
While the city had previously barred water taxi service from operating before 9:30 a.m., it lifted the restriction for the shutdown. Now, seven water taxis depart Alexandria between 6:40 and 9:20 a.m. The Potomac Riverboat Company also offers a $199 commuter pass for unlimited water taxi rides during the entire shutdown.
In addition, the city is offering reimbursements for certain water taxi tickets and passes purchased for use during the shutdown. Residents can complete water taxi reimbursement applications through the city website.
“[My husband] is the happiest person in the world, and, I’ll tell you what, everybody else on that boat is,” Voigt said. “Hopefully we can just keep this going, and Metro should take a note of what happy commuters look like.”
Through the city’s mitigation efforts, residents have found ways around the summer shutdown, but extended commute times are the least of some residents’ concerns.
According to a Visit Alexandria survey, some business owners are seeing the effects of the shutdown hit their storefronts.
“You can’t close an asset as major as the Metro and not have it impact your business,” Kaiden said.
The survey collected 149 voluntary responses from businesses throughout Alexandria. Around 60 percent of the businesses that participated reported that revenue was either up or unchanged since the shutdown started, compared to the same period in 2018.
However, around 40 percent reported that revenue was down during that same period. Forty-six percent of retailers and 43 percent of restaurants reported that revenue was down more than 5 percent.
The shutdown is impacting some businesses more than others, and part of it has to do with location.
“The findings suggest that businesses along upper and middle King Street are hurting more than those near the waterfront,” Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker said.
Of the businesses closer to the King Street Metro station, on the upper and middle portions of King Street, 38 percent reported revenue declines greater than 5 percent, with many exceeding 10 percent, according to the survey. Constant noise from the construction on the nearby Metro station and distance from the waterfront were cited as possible reasons for decreased traffic.
Visit Alexandria is taking measures to ensure that the summer shutdown doesn’t mean a permanent shutdown for local businesses. The city implemented a $2 flat parking rate at city-owned garages and lots at night and expanded King Street trolley hours. It is circulating a flyer for visitors that outlines 10 different ways to get back and forth between D.C. and Alexandria and the airport and Alexandria.
“There’s a real push to get more restaurants to [take part] in restaurant week so that we have more activity associated with that,” Kaiden said. “And then on the marketing side, we increased our content on the website and increased our advertising specifically encouraging people to stroll the full length of King Street.”
Residents have also expressed concern about aspects of the shutdown.
During the heavy rain and flash flooding that occurred on July 8, commuters and travelers were left stranded at Reagan National Airport, as roads filled with water and shuttles and buses were delayed. Several residents said they have seen commuters filling up residential parking spaces along bus routes. Others have reported extended idling by WMATA and DASH buses that has resulted in noise and air pollution.
“There are city ordinances that restrict the idling to five minutes,” Esber said. “With this idling, we have enormous emissions, enormous noise [and] pollution that’s affecting people’s health, the atmosphere and, overall, climate change.”
Esber and other concerned residents have contacted city officials, WMATA and DASH about the issue, yet not much has changed since the issue started in January and became exacerbated by the shutdown. Orr said she had not heard about the issue and that finding a solution was WMATA’s responsibility.
Although the city has been slow to respond to some issues, according to residents, adjustments have been made when deemed necessary.
“We’re just working really closely with WMATA in terms of if they see jumps in ridership on certain routes, are they able to add additional buses,” Orr said. “And they have done that. Specifically, with the 11Y, we heard from people that the bus was full and so they did additional routes with that.”
Since the shutdown started, the city has also deployed teams to assist visitors and residents at Metro stations and worked to create more direct pedestrian connections between Alexandria and bus shuttle areas in D.C., Bennett-Parker said.
As T&ES compiles data and information in a report to present to city council later this month, residents, business owners and visitors hope the city keeps an eye on the ways that Alexandrians are being impacted: the decreasing revenues, parking conflicts and idling buses belching emissions into the air.
“We’re continuing to monitor everything closely because people have to get to work and we want visitors from the region and beyond to continue to come to Alexandria this summer,” Bennett-Parker said.