City Hall Watch with Bill Rossello: Last stop on Duke Street

City Hall Watch with Bill Rossello: Last stop on Duke Street
Bill Rossello. (Courtesy photo)

By Bill Rossello

The more we see of city policy-making these days, the clearer it is that nearly every major initiative ties directly to development. The emerging proposal for the Duke Street bus rapid transit project, with the marketing tag “Duke Street in Motion,” is a perfect example. Your chance to stop it ends at the June 27 City Council public hearing.

The project was touted as an effort to bring “transportation equity” to the corridor by saving a few minutes at peak hours for a diverse group of some 1,500 bus riders. However, those in the city’s inner circle have slowly been revealing the truth with comments regarding a redevelopment of Alexandria Commons – home of our local Giant food store – complete with high-rise apartments.

Other comments have alluded to redevelopment of some Duke Street neighborhoods, perhaps including the diverse Strawberry Hill and Wakefield-Tarleton residential communities lying between Jordan Street and Wheeler Avenue.

And it’s likely curtains for businesses across Duke Street from Alexandria Commons. They would be replaced by dense housing stock. The convenient restaurants, carry outs, bakery, doggy day cares and auto repair shops will all likely be displaced.

Perhaps the same will happen to the businesses between South Pickett and Jordan streets. And who knows the fate of the Witter athletic fields situated behind the old Land Rover car dealership, where plans have already been approved for an apartment complex.

And then there’s the sheer folly of the BRT design itself.

The most successful BRT projects in the U.S. have been several times longer than the one planned for Duke. And for good reason. To make it worth the investment, a BRT needs to significantly reduce the travel time. At 4.5 miles, this one is not likely to have much impact.

The most likely source of time savings will come from a reduction in the number of bus stops from 20 to 12. That could be done now without disrupting the corridor. No one knows how many riders will walk significantly farther to access buses.

The BRT design features are also convoluted. In one stretch, buses will travel in dedicated lanes in both directions. In two other stretches they will travel in just one direction. And there’s a spot where they’ll be mixed in with other vehicles in the middle. Good luck getting in or out of the Clover-College Park, Taylor Run or Seminary Hill neighborhoods at peak hours without even greater difficulty than today. Of course, the city will include bike lanes, even though Eisenhower Avenue already provides a safe, serviceable east-west bike route.

The design could cause greater challenges for the far West End, where Duke Street is busiest. There, a lane of traffic in each direction would be removed. The Landmark flyover, which reduced Duke Street congestion in the mall’s heyday, is already being torn down. It will be replaced by several intersections with traffic signals. These changes will affect residents living between Watergate and Cameron Station.

So, if you think Seminary Road is slower, more confusing and less safe after the road diet of a few years ago, this redesign of Duke promises to be that project on steroids.

What can save us from gridlock and the displacement of homes and businesses along Duke Street? First is cost.

Some officials and transit experts know that the $87 million in grant funding won’t cover the full cost of BRT. The rest will be on us. But large overruns on the Potomac Yard Metro station, and already on the Landmark redevelopment, add to a strained city cap- ital budget replete with stormwater and school projects.

At what point do developer-friendly projects offering little benefit to residents begin stressing the city’s borrowing capacity?

The other thing that may help is residents writing to City Council and showing up at that public hearing on June 27 to voice opposition. Do one, the other or both, or forever hold your peace.

The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and longtime Alexandria resident.