Vice mayor, former DASH director raise concerns as proposal nears council
By Amy Will
A potentially $100-million-dollar project intended to increase bus ridership, build bike lanes and improve pedestrian safety on Duke Street is working its way through the public comment process – but is also running into opposition from both residents and community leaders. Duke Street In Motion is a concept built around transit improvements in the Duke Street corridor from the former Landmark Mall site to the King Street Metro station.
The road’s redesign would, in the plans being proposed by city staff, reduce automobile travel lanes along the city’s most heavily traveled and most congested road in favor of dedicated bus lanes and bike lanes.
“This project will provide an efficient and desirable bus rapid transit option along Duke Street by improving the transit bus experience for current and potential riders,” according to a statement on the project’s website. “With multimodal enhancements to the corridor, Duke Street will become a safe, efficient and desirable community connector for people riding the bus, walking, biking and driving,” according to the statement.
Transit Programs Manager Jennifer Monaco said Duke Street in Motion would provide a variety of options for getting around to the thousands of people who use the corridor daily.
“[The plan] aims to make the bus a better option of transportation, but also make Duke Street safer and more pleasant to be on,” Monaco said.
Problems with the corridor were highlighted back in 2008, when a Transportation Master Plan identified Duke Street as one of three high-capacity areas in Alexandria. Fast forward to 2016, when the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority awarded $12 million to the project for environmental work and design and an additional $75 million in 2020 to help construct the first phase of improvements.
In 2021, staff launched a feedback effort for the proposed $87 million project that included a public survey and the establishment of The Advisory Group, a mix of representatives from various city commissions, the Federation of Civic Associations and other members of the community.
According to a detailed overview of the project presented at an April 20 open house, the vision was based on the Bus Rapid Transit model, which operates similar to a rail system. The goal would be to provide faster and more reliable bus service, encouraging commuters to ride the bus and leave their cars at home.
There are two primary models for the plan: Corridor Concept A and Corridor Concept B.
Concept A would include a mostly center-running bus lane, a design that city staff contend would avoid residential service roads and lessen Telegraph Road congestion while adding more pedestrian refuge areas.
Concept B would be mostly curb-running. Buses would share a lane with right-turning vehicles. Additionally, significant impacts to Alexandria Commons – a popular shopping destination for many – would be avoided.
“We’re just getting to about 10% of concept design. We’re still in the very preliminary stages; it’s technically in the planning stage. We’re hoping to begin the design, the formal design in 2024. And, that process can take about a year and a half or so and then looking to begin construction soon after that,” Monaco explained.
There has been considerable communication and engagement with the public during the project’s development, but some say the focus is on the wrong problem.
Former DASH director Sandy Modell, who helped develop the bus system and then ran it for almost 30 years, said the primary issues the city should be addressing are safety and congestion. Modell, who now owns Wholistic Hound Academy just off Duke Street, said there have been concerns with these issues on Duke Street for years.
“I think we can all agree that Duke Street, especially in the peak period, is a nightmare,” Modell said. “And, the question
is, ‘What is the city going to do about it?’ This project, although it’s very noble, what’s not being addressed is the congestion and safety issues that are caused by the backups forming at Telegraph Road. And, by not dealing with that first, by not making some pretty important improvements that the city’s been talking about for 20 years now, I think that that’s my biggest concern.”
The Duke Street In Motion presentation collected data from the city’s Vision Zero viewer to determine the number of left turn crashes on Duke Street between 2016 and 2020.
Monaco said those crashes made up 1 out of 3 fatalities and 4 out of 10 severe injury crashes in Alexandria during that time. Monaco could not confirm, however, how those numbers were calculated.
In a Duke Street In Motion concept overview report, Concept A is projected to reduce left turn crashes by 70%. The informational one-pager states data was “based on community feedback and technical analysis.”
When addressing the city’s current and future development, Monaco said West Taylor Run, Landmark redevelopment and West End Transitway are expected to increase the daily volume of traffic by 10% and rush hour delays on Duke Street by 20 to 30%.
Modell questioned the statistics and said although some information reflects new developments, much of the data that has been used is outdated. “Some of the data they’re basing this whole project on is pre-COVID data. Now, they’ve done some additional ridership studies. But I haven’t seen it where they’re claiming [what] that ridership is,” Modell explained.
Vice Mayor Amy Jackson expressed views similar to those of Modell and said she will need a lot more information before signing off on the project.
“The transitway is not going to be a complete idea, vision and mission in the next month. The planning for it has been hit or miss,” Jackson said. Jackson said that while she believes Duke Street will be redone, she’s not sold on the current proposals.
“Do I see it at the level thatneveryone thinks it’s going to be redone at? No. And, I do believe that it should be done in sections,” Jackson said.
Monaco said predicting the future of congestion can be hard, but when you make the situation more appealing for drivers, you get more cars. “We’re just trying to see how we can move more people more efficiently to the corridor with moving more people on buses and making intersections work better,” she said.
Both Modell and Jackson added that a plan centered around attracting new transit riders is alarming.
“We’re gonna go around the congestion. We’re not gonna deal with the congestion – because that’s the big elephant in the room,” Modell said.
Jackson noted that although the idea of improving Duke Street sounds promising, it may not be worth a project of such magnitude. “If we’re talking about the quality of life of everybody, then everybody needs to be taken into consideration,” Jackson said. “I don’t see this happening and coming to fruition in the near future.”
Monaco concluded that the final Advisory Group meeting is being held on May 25, and project leaders hope to go to City Council with a preferred concept at the end of June.
The estimated cost for Corridor Concept A is $100 million and $80 million for Corridor Concept B.