City Hall Watch: The deck is stacked

City Hall Watch: The deck is stacked
Bill Rossello. (Courtesy photo)

By Bill Rossello

The more we learn about the $87 million Duke Street Bus Rapid Transit project, the more troubling it seems for residents. In my Sept. 15 column, I addressed the lack of demand for dedicated bus lanes down the middle of Duke Street, the planned removal of traffic lanes and neighborhood frontage roads.

City officials are using the 2008 Transportation Master Plan and a 2012 Transitway Corridor Feasibility Study as their policy direction. But much has changed in Alexandria over the past 10 to 15 years. Since the late 1990s, government and other employers have scattered all over the DMV from downtown D.C., while a number have left Alexandria. No wonder 80% of Alexandria commuters travel outside of the city to their worksites. 

What hasn’t changed is residents’ preferences and needs. Motor vehicles are still the dominant form of travel across the city at nearly all income levels, reflecting a clear community preference and, for most households, a critical need. A 1995 Washington Post article reported that Alexandria had about one car for every driving-age resident. That’s still the case. By the city’s own projection, there will be 140,000 registered vehicles by year-end in our city of 158,000.

Coming more into focus is the project’s underlying premise and the special interests supporting it. We have learned about the advisory committee to City Council assembled to comment on design options for a “reimagined Duke Street.” The membership is stacked against the preferences and needs of residents voiced in the city’s own survey. Only one of the 11 members represents the 10 West End civic associations. None represent residents of the numerous high-rise building associations in the West End.

The group is dominated by some of the same voices that drive city policy-making, owing to the city hall’s mandatory cross-pollination of keyboards. Planning commissioner and construction executive Mindy Lyle is a dominant voice at meetings. Lyle has been involved in the redevelopment of Landmark and has unabashedly quashed resident concerns in public meetings. The inclusion of land use attorney Bob Brant, a partner at Walsh Colucci Lubeley & Walsh, is a clear conflict of interest as his firm is involved in many Alexandria development projects. Notably, his firm represents developers of both Landmark and the planned affordable housing project at the old Land Rover dealership site.

Perhaps most alarming is how little our elected officials knew about the project until recently. In meetings with civic associations this summer, City Council members learned much of what they should have known before re-committing to the project, including the low bus ridership on DASH’s line 30 that runs along Duke Street, despite being free to the public. Staff seem to know little about affected neighborhoods or businesses. In one advisory group meeting, they and their consultants learned – seemingly for the first time – that the frontage roads they intend to remove safely accommodate public school bus stops, 50 homeowner driveways and parking for 100 resident vehicles.

So, using dated planning decisions and informed by special interests, city hall has committed us to another density-related project that no one is clamoring for, and from which developers will be the major beneficiaries. Our new City Manager and City Council should call a timeout on the Duke Street BRT project before they proceed with what is shaping up to be another questionable and unpopular road project.

The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and long- time Alexandria resident.