Duke St. In Motion: a city divided

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Duke Street In Motion is backed by $87 million in grant funding and
is intended to increase bus ridership and address pedestrian and
bicyclist safety. (File photo)

Strong feelings held
for and against the
transit proposal
BY AMY WILL

Climate-conscious transportation, pedestrian safety and passionate talk of a more livable Alexandria have been front and center in the debate around whether to reduce automobile lanes in favor of dedicated bus lanes on Duke Street.

The proposed project, Duke Street In Motion, is backed by $87 million in grant funding and is intended to increase bus ridership and address pedestrian and bicyclist safety. The concept is built around transit improvements in the corridor from the former Landmark Mall site to the King Street Metro station.

City Council will hold a public hearing and is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its legislative meeting on June 27. Several residents turned up during the public comment period of Saturday’s City Council meeting to voice support for the project.

Alexandria resident Bonnie O’Day spoke candidly about the current foot traffic model, citing the dangers she feels she faces when walking along the corridor.

“Dedicated center-running bus lanes would be safer for pedestrians who would need only cross two lanes of traffic at a time rather than the current six lanes when crossing Duke Street. And, that’s important to me as a person with low vision and to my husband, who is blind,” O’Day shared with Council.

Molly Pugh who lives in the Seminary Hill Road neighborhood, told those present she used to walk to Alexandria Commons by herself, but would never take her children.

“The traffic flying by, the narrow, unshaded sidewalks, makes walking unpleasant and hazardous.”

However, Alexandria resident Frank Putzu said in an interview that the touted improvements in bus travel times are minuscule and the changes, particularly reducing the number of bus stops, may actually make it harder for people to get out of their cars and onto public transit.

“The principal benefit to this is shaving a few minutes off of bus time from one end of Duke to the other, right? What Council needs to decide
is it worth somewhere between $87 and $100 million to shave about three minutes off of bus time. That’s really what they need to decide,” Putzu said.

“And you know, to me reducing the number of bus stops defeats the purpose of the whole thing because now you’re making it harder for people to access buses harder than it is today.”

Putzu’s concerns reference the Advisory Group’s proposal regarding station locations, which state:

“Station locations should be approximately every 1/4-1/2 miles, taking into account current and potential ridership demand, accessibility, safety, topography, and right of way constraints,” the proposal reads.

Alexandria Traffic and Parking Board Chair James Lewis, who lives directly off Duke Street, said he has always

been in favor of improvements to the road, but echoed Putzu’s reservations with the proposed model.

“We all know Duke Street is broken and something needs to be done. That’s been my sort of position, my big concern here,” Lewis said. “The dedicated [bus] lane saves a couple of minutes, but almost all of the time saving is coming from reducing the number of stops … So, now I want someone who might be disabled or might have two kids in tow to
go from a quarter mile to a half mile walk. Is this still going to be equitable? Are we going to reach people or are we trading access, stop accessibility, for time?”

Transit Programs Manager Jennifer Monaco told the Times back in May that Duke Street in Motion would provide a variety of options for getting around to the thousands of people who use Duke Street 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 had said.

In that story, several options for potential changes to the corridor were on the table and the voices of opposition cited concerns with fewer automobile lanes, the possible elimination of left-hand turns and the effect a project of such magnitude would have on an already congested
main thoroughfare.

On May 25, the Duke Street In Motion Advisory group – a mix of representatives from various city commissions, the Federation of Civic Associations and other members of the community – submitted their updated recommendations to the city.

The new proposal showcases Busway Concept A and Curb Concept Y, both still in the early stages of planning.

The Advisory Group’s recommendation posted on the city’s website describes a long-term plan for the corridor that “should include center running bus lanes for the entirety of Duke Street with separate spaces for pedestrians and cyclists.”

It also mentions the proposed project is dependent on redevelopment along the corridor and also on the availability of funding.

“In the near-term, the City should work toward this longterm plan as much as possible, when finalizing a design that can be constructed with
available funding. To that end, the following busway treatments should be advanced on the Duke Street corridor, along with signal technology improvements, while maintaining two general purpose travel lanes in each direction along the entirety of the corridor,” the Advisory Group recommendation reads.

In an interview this week, Monaco acknowledged there are a lot of contingencies that come with being in the early design phase, but the objective is still to make Duke Street safer for all.

“Safety has been at the forefront of what we heard throughout this whole process and people appreciate all the different benefits that come from this project for biking and walking, for accessing bus
stops as well. That’s definitely a major area of support for this project,” Monaco said.

A separate two-way cycle track on the north side of the corridor is one piece of the proposed curb concept.

During the public comment period on Saturday, during which residents have up to three minutes to speak on a topic of their choosing, Alexandria resident Anna Gosling said she had recently been hit
by a car while riding her bike locally. Although she was in favor of the project prior to her accident, Gosling said she hopes the addition of bike lanes will ease her fears of riding in a high-traffic area.

“Duke Street In Motion is important to building Alexandria as a city that is climate-conscious, a city that is livable, a city where people want to live and work and play. But, more importantly, Duke Street In Motion is the only way to make Duke Street a safe space for everybody living here,” Gosling said during her testimony.

Former DASH director Sandy Modell, who helped develop the bus system and then ran it for almost 30 years, said a primary concern with the Duke Street in Motion proposal is the planned elimination of left-hand turns and the impact that could have on businesses along
the road.

“Between the consolidation of bus stops, which will force some riders to walk an extra half mile, and the elimination of left turns into at least a dozen businesses along the corridor, the negative impacts of the proposed transitway will be significant,” Modell said in an emailed comment.

Modell said she requested left turn data from the city between intersections where those businesses are located,
but has yet to hear back.

Monaco hopes the plan will be approved, but knows even if
it is, obstacles remain.

“It’s not going to solve all of the problems on the corridor. There’s going to be regional growth and increasing demand. But, we’re seeing travel time benefits from doing this project. We think it can help things.”

Modell disagreed, and said the plan should go back to the drawing board until it can be amended to address several key problems.

“City Council needs to defer this project and implement transportation improvements that will reduce the gridlock caused by the backup on the Telegraph Road ramp, before taking away traffic lanes, left
turns and bus stops. Adding more density to this corridor without addressing the traffic quagmire that already exists is foolhardy,” Modell stated.
–awill@alextimes.com

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