BY BILL ROSSELLO
When a city government settles on a solution before it defines the problem, it usually means they are on the path to a policy misstep. When it consumes $87 million of state grant money, it may turn into a major policy disaster. But that’s exactly the path that city hall has chosen with the proposed overhaul of the Duke Street corridor.
Duke Street is the busiest east/west arterial road in the city, carrying between 30,000 and 55,000 motor vehicles daily between I-395 and Telegraph Road. It is the supply route servicing scores of local businesses and the only route for trucks that need to access some of the city’s key industrial zones. In other words, Duke Street may be the most critical arterial road in Alexandria.
Yet, the city is rushing to transform it despite any significant community support. An advisory committee to City Council will soon review alternative designs for dedicated bus and bicycle lanes. Those changes promise to eliminate motor vehicle lanes and valued frontage roads on which several residential neighborhoods depend, while fundamentally hindering mobility for most of the approximately 43,000 city residents that live along that corridor.
Such a transformation of Duke Street would inevitably lead to neighborhood safety and parking challenges, and much slower trips to work, the grocery store, school and the doctor’s office. It would also promise greater congestion and severe limits on left-hand turns, particularly into neighborhoods for the 97% of road users who are likely to continue using their cars on Duke Street.
All this to help an average of approximately 1,500 weekday bus riders – accounting for about 3,000 daily rides – save a few minutes making their way from one end of the city to the other. The cost equates to nearly $60,000 of taxpayer investment for each rider. And that does not include the inevitable increase in annual city maintenance costs.
City staff’s favored design concept is called Bus Rapid Transit. Not new nationally or in Alexandria, it is controversial. The $42 million Metroway, known to most of us as the dedicated bus lane that runs down the middle of Route 1 at Potomac Yards, has
had low ridership since it opened in 2014. Many in Arlington and Alexandria believe it costs too much to deliver too little value to too few. That seems to be the likely outcome of the Duke Street project as well.
The rush to completely overhaul Duke Street is also fraught with process problems. Among them, the city has not defined what problem BRT will solve for the community. A survey of residents performed by external consultants revealed that Duke Street users are concerned primarily with congestion, which is particularly acute between Quaker Lane and Telegraph Road. The second biggest concern is safety. Reduced bus travel time was not emphasized by respondents, not even those who are regular bus riders.
More troubling is that no one at city hall seems to know the travel patterns of West End residents. They assume that a large proportion of them travel regularly from west of Quaker Lane to Old Town, but they have no evidence to support that notion.
There is substantial anecdotal evidence to the contrary. So, their other assumption, that West Enders will give up their cars and current commuting patterns to use BRT, seems irrelevant.
So, here we go again. As with the Seminary Road debacle of 2019, city hall is embarking on “a build it and they will come approach” to transportation planning. When will they learn that hearing the voice of the community and protecting the quality of neighborhood life is more important than pumping out an award-winning project that many residents clearly don’t want or need?
The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and long-time Alexandria resident.