Few things are more soul-crushing than spending long stretches of time sitting in traffic, day after day after day. Some people make good use of time spent idling by listening to books on tape, podcasts or music. Many others, however, sit and seethe.
Frustrated drivers often attempt to lower their blood pressure by taking chances, such as neighborhood cut-throughs, racing through traffic lights or driving at high speeds the second the traffic jam eases. Traffic frustration can fuel traffic safety issues.
So we agree with Sandy Modell, who ran Alexandria’s DASH bus transit system for almost 30 years, that the intent behind the Duke Street in Motion proposal is “noble” – but misdirected. As Modell points out in today’s Times page one story, “Bus lanes on Duke Street?” the long-standing problems with Duke street center on traffic conges- tion and safety. There’s not a pressing need for bus and bike lanes, how- ever much we might like them.
City staff seem to be operating under dual, erroneous assumptions.
The first is that “if you build it they will come.” This line was made famous in the movie “Field of Dreams,” but it’s come to stand for ambitious projects of all kinds. Sometimes, as in the case of the iPhone, people do flock to something they didn’t realize they needed once it’s built.
More often, consumers are just fine with the status quo and reject the proffered “life-altering” new product. Witness the bankruptcy of several electric scooter companies, and the precarious financial status of those remaining.
Modell and Vice Mayor Amy Jackson both expressed skepticism in today’s story that Alexandrians will actually abandon their cars and ride bus rapid transit, even if it’s built, in significant enough numbers to make a difference. We think they’re right.
The second assumption is that, if the city is offered significant grant money to fund something staff deem desirable, then that project must be pursued. So the potential of up to $87 million means we must pursue a city-altering transit initiative on Duke Street.
There are multiple problems with this approach:
• It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog. Policy decisions – particularly if they have the potential to make Alexandria’s roads virtually impassable during rush hour, as Duke Street in Motion does – should never be driven by the availability of grant money.
• Grant money is not free. It’s tax money coming out of the pockets of all Virginians in the case of state grants and all Americans in the case of federal grants. Money spent on government projects is money that individual taxpayers could have been spending on their own. The public benefit needs to be extremely clear, and the probability of success really high, to justify spending tens of millions of dollars on any initiative.
• The initial price tag is never the final cost of a project of this nature. Witness the Potomac Yard Metro station, which went from a $150 million project at start to more than $350 million by ribbon cutting. Alexandria taxpayers are likely looking at a price tag that’s equal to or more than the grant amount if either of the current proposals are adopted.
Duke Street in Motion is ironically named, as are many big-government projects, as there is no doubt that automobile congestion would become even more intractable if this proposal were to be implemented.
We are blessed to have Modell, whose knowledge of bus transit in Alexandria is unmatched, weighing in on this issue. She is saying that a ramp at Telegraph Road and other congestion-mitigation and safety improvements are what’s needed on Duke Street.
Why don’t we listen to her?