My View with Frank Putzu: Duke Street denialism

My View with Frank Putzu: Duke Street denialism
Frank Putzu

By Frank Putzu

Seemingly against the wishes of residents throughout the West End, the City of Alexandria appears to be moving full speed ahead on the Duke Street in Motion project, which has been estimated to cost as much as $116 million. This initiative would result in two bus rapid transit lanes down the middle of that busy corridor for 4.5 miles between Landmark and Carlyle, purportedly to reduce commute times for bus riders.

Despite two significant efforts by a city survey consultant to “reach” the community, there just does not seem to be much support for the project. The city commissioned consulting firm RHI in 2021 to solicit public input. RHI specializes in reaching communities it says are difficult to reach and did so for this survey.

The consultants went to extraordinary lengths in their first survey to solicit input from the public. They received about 2,000 comments from a broad cross-section of residents. But there was a problem with the results. The public input did not support the city’s primary objective of reducing travel time through BRT bus lanes.

In fact, 64% of all road users surveyed identified reducing congestion as the top priority. Only 26% supported dedicated bus lanes. Strangely, the survey report dismissed and disparaged its own results – and the public that produced the comments – complaining about respondents by race, ethnicity, income and housing status.

Because the first survey did not produce the desired support for BRT, and after more than a year of “educating” the public, the city commissioned RHI to perform a second survey in 2022. The objective was to find more people who would support the project’s concept.

In order to achieve the city’s desired result the second time around, the survey consultants tilted the playing field to steer responses. It dropped any questions regarding congestion and safety, and did not inform the participant that, in multiple sections of the corridor, current design proposals would mean nonbus vehicles lose access to two full travel lanes – one in each direction. About 1,300 participants provided feedback form responses.

The ploy didn’t work.

The results of the second survey aligned with those of the first. Even with false hidden assumptions, only 27% of residents providing feedback forms strongly agreed to support improved bus service at the expense of “slightly” more traffic delay – doubtful since two full lanes would be lost – while 53% outright opposed it, with 42% strongly opposed. Only 12% supported dedicated bus lanes.

When asked to provide written comments outside the multiple-choice questions, residents’ top priorities were once again congestion and safety.

The second report again discredited its own results, citing disproportionate participation, e.g., children from newborns to age 17 are 17% of the population, but contributed only 1% of comments. They also claimed that the number of responding residents aged 35 to 64 – the largest age demographic in the city and vast majority of Duke Street users – was disproportionately high. In fact, the responses to both surveys were diverse and the responses across groups consistent. In a nice and revealing touch, the survey solicited discussions with interested bus riders, and only seven showed up over two sessions. Seven!

The bottom line of the report seems to be that the city’s scheme is great, but its residents are just plain ignorant.

That is desperation but it’s certainly not reflective of serious survey work.

In the end, the report’s claim that other residents – who they could neither identify nor locate twice, at great expense and effort – exist somewhere is ludicrous. Also ridiculous is the assertion that these other residents would unanimously share the city and contractors’ desired outcome of two BRT lanes down the middle of Duke Street. This exercise is yet another reminder that city hall views the public it serves as unworthy of its government.

What’s worse is the city’s ongoing strategy to predicate change on fake notions of different preferences along racial and class lines. The city should stop this inappropriate and divisive practice, which is also factually incorrect and desperate.

It appears city leaders don’t understand their own residents. Alexandrians have seen way too much of this city hall rhetoric in the last few years.

So, Alexandrians have now spoken with one voice supporting congestion relief and safety on Duke Street, but not BRT. Instead of manipulating public engagement through slanted surveys and gaslighting us about the results, perhaps the city can actually hear what residents have told them – twice.

The writer is a West End resident.