Another Seminary Road debacle? Duke Street redesign commences

Another Seminary Road debacle? Duke Street redesign commences
Duke Street In Motion is backed by $87 million in grant funding and is intended to increase bus ridership and address pedestrian and bicyclist safety. (File photo)

By Missy Schrott |

Duke Street is about to get a lot more buses.

In early 2021, city staff will begin collecting community input for the future of the Duke Street Corridor from Landmark Mall to the King Street Metro Station. The project’s goal is to add enhanced bus service along the corridor and attract more public transit riders, according to staff. It could also involve restructuring the corridor to incorporate part- or full-time dedicated bus lanes.

Following the uproar from the community when the city reduced the number of driving lanes on Seminary Road, both city staff and City Council appear to be taking a cautious approach to the Duke Street project. At council’s legislative meeting on Nov. 24, staff from the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services discussed possibilities and timelines for the project, but did not commit to a specific direction for the redesign.

Duke Street runs along the red line shown above, and is the most active east-west corridor in Alexandria. (Map/Google)

“We’re trying to meet our strategic plan goals by improving safety for everyone along the corridor and enabling people to get where they need to go and reducing driving alone trips throughout our city, but we want to confirm with this council that we’re making the right investments in the right place,” Hillary Orr, deputy director of T&ES, said.

Duke Street is one of three high-transit corridors in the city identified for enhanced bus service in the city’s 2008 transportation master plan, according to the project’s webpage. The city was awarded $12 million in funding for the project from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority in 2017 and another $75 million in 2020.

With the main goal of making the transitway more bus friendly, staff has identified several possibilities for a redesign. Changes could be as minimal as more frequent bus service and bottleneck mitigation, or as extreme as fully separated bus lanes, similar to the Metroway dedicated lanes along Route 1 in Potomac Yard.

“The corridor could look different on different segments,” Orr said. “There could be portions of it that have bus-only lanes, there could be portions that are shared lanes, but these are conversations that we want to have with the community, and once we understand what the community’s vision is, we can begin to work that in.”

Several councilors said they anticipate a high level of community engagement, not only because of what happened on Seminary Road, but because of the number of people who regularly travel on Duke Street.

This is why the city is beginning the community engagement process so early, Orr said. Discussion about the community’s “vision” for the transitway will take place starting in January 2021, then staff will introduce specific concepts with the community from summer 2021 to spring 2022. The final design would be up for approval in 2023, with phase one construction likely commencing in 2024 or 2025.

The city plans to put out a request for proposal for a community engagement consultant to lead the engagement process. The consultant will be responsible for engaging various stakeholders, such as drivers, walkers, bikers, transit users, people who rent and own homes along the corridor, business owners and civic associations.

Councilor Canek Aguirre questioned why an outside consultant was necessary, while Councilor John Chapman applauded the decision.

“I would normally say something about the fact that we’re using a consultant to do the outreach, but I do think this is going to be a big push, so I commend staff for kind of leaning in that direction and saying, ‘Hey, this is going to be tough. Let’s bring in someone who can hopefully help us sort through it,’” Chapman said.

Orr explained that the city is taking the unusual approach to the engagement process in order to build trust with community members.

“We’re going about this process a little bit differently than we have in the past because we really do want to build trust with the community and kind of come together around this project because Duke Street is such a key corridor in our city,” Orr said.

Duke Street is the city’s most active east-west corridor for public transit, according to Mark Schnaufer, the city’s Bus Rapid Transit program manager.

“Current [ridership is] at 2,600, and we anticipate possibly up to 9,000 ridership with improved service,” Schnaufer said. “People who might ride transit, that’s what we’re trying to target with these types of improvements.”

Chapman said he would like to see evidence that the city will be able to procure more ridership.

“We’ve got to be able to show, as we make these investments, that we are getting new riders on, particularly post-COVID when people are going to have concerns about being in other spaces with other people,” Chapman said.

Orr reiterated that nothing about the project has been predetermined and that the final result will be informed by public engagement.

If it’s anything like Seminary Road, the upcoming community engagement process for the Duke Street project could be the start of a lengthy, contentious civic battle. However, council and staff expressed optimism that they can do it the right way.

“One of the things we’ve heard from a lot of our recent engagement with the Alexandria mobility plan is that people don’t like Duke Street the way it is, and at least that’s a unifying starting point for us,” Orr said.

(Read more: Council approves Seminary Road lane reduction)