By Amy Will – email@example.com
At approximately 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, with many attendees still seated patiently in the chambers, Alexandria City Council approved the $87 million Duke Street In Motion project unanimously.
When implemented, the project will provide designated bus lanes and other major landscape changes along the Duke Street corridor from the former Landmark Mall site to the King Street Metro station.
In the days and hours lead- ing up to Tuesday’s Legislative Session, an outpouring of emails flooded the inboxes of City leaders from community members pleading for their case; an overwhelming number of them showed up in person for one final chance to be heard.
The vote on the controversial project followed almost six hours of sometimes contentious discussion, as roughly 70 speakers – who were divided fairly evenly for and against the project – signed up to talk.
At the conclusion of the debate, Councilor Sarah Bagley emphasized the project’s safety aspects as she seconded Councilor Canek Aguirre’s motion to pass the plan.
“I want to emphasize that point that there are tradeoffs that many people in our community are willing to make, including two minutes of their travel time. If I were to say to you, ‘It will take you two minutes longer to get to the grocery store, but the odds that you or someone you love will be involved in an accident are 30% lower.’ I would make that choice. And I would like to believe a lot of my fellow Alexandrians would too,” Bagley said.
Hillary Orr, deputy director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, led the city’s presentation at the meeting.
“We know that if we do nothing along this corridor, the region is going to continue to grow and traffic will get worse, making this already tough corridor even more unpleasant,” Orr stated.
Tagging Duke Street as the “highest crash corridor in the city,” Orr reminded leaders of the project’s goals and how well it pairs with the plans and priorities adopted by Alexandria over the years.
Orr shared data collected by her team from March 2023 that found Duke Street is visited by more than 3,000 aver- age weekday riders and “traffic is anticipated to increase as the region grows and volumes are projected to increase by 10% by 2030.”
She also revealed further research conducted showed improvements in both travel time and safety.
“[The Transitway could achieve] up to 9.5 minutes in travel time savings for bus riders, a 70% reduction in left turn crashes corridor-wide, up to 5 minutes travel time savings for vehicles and a 50% reduction in pedestrian crashes at 29 inter- sections,” Orr said.
Orr stressed the project’s environmental benefits.
“Bus rapid transit aligns with our shared commitment to environmental sustainability, including reducing and managing congestion,” Orr said. “As we strive to combat climate change and encourage the use of public transportation as a reliable option for people. We can significantly reduce air pollution, improve air quality and work to mitigate the adverse effects of greenhouse gas emissions on our environment. The implementation of BRT creates safer streets for everyone.” Although there was some common ground for the speakers who voiced opposition at the meeting – mostly over the scale of the project – each speaker’s case differed.
Carter Flemming, a board member of the Alexandria Fed- eration of Civic Associations, urged Council to pause the project to revamp the proposal.
“We have closely followed the Duke Street in motion pro- cess. … It is clear from those briefings and community meetings that residents have far too many unanswered questions to reach an informed decision,”Fleming said.“Tonight, we know of no expiration date on this planning grant. So, to- night’s vote is an unnecessary artificial deadline. Thus, we ask council tonight, what is the rush for approval?”
Local business owner Paul Spina, who raised concerns over a lack of transparency, urged City Council members to vote “No.”
“On a personal note, it would impact my business. I have been there 50 years, I’ve never had anybody from a planning commission even give me a phone call. So, I don’t think that they’ve thought this through,” Spina said.
Lisa Porter, President of the Clover College Park Civic Association, addressed her disapproval of the corridor development, specifically Cam- bridge Road.
“Prioritize those plans further,” Porter said. “Our city should do everything possible to prevent that and to mitigate the burden that our residents will undertake.”
In an interview on Tuesday prior to the legislative meeting, Mayor Justin Wilson acknowledged those who may still be hesitant to jump on board.
“I think we can work through some of that [concern] in the design. Right now, we have a lot of additional design work to do over the next few years. As we work to bring this to fruition, we’ll work through some of these issues for sure.”
Much of the research in the presentation was familiar to those who had been following the proposed corridor development from the beginning. Orr emphasized that people should be asking “how” rather than “if” at this point.
“One of the things to think about with this is that this project was never about whether or not we were implementing BRT on Duke Street because staff had been directed for years to go down that path. And it was really about how we’re design- ing this corridor to best meet the needs of our community,” Orr stated. “We understand that change can be hard and it means that there’s going to be tradeoffs. But our goal was to come up with a near term plan for this corridor, the best balance of tradeoffs and pri- orities and still meet the ulti- mate goal of enhanced transit on Duke Street.”
Members of City Council raised numerous questions for staff on topics such as pedestrian and cyclist safety, the proposed elimination of bus stops, impact on service roads and local businesses.
Vice Mayor Amy Jackson noted the strong complaints from residents regard- ing a break-down in comm- unity engagement.
“How are we keeping track of who we’ve actually spoken to? So, that when they’re reaching out to us, we don’t sound like we don’t know any- thing,” Jackson asked.
Councilor Alyia Gaskins echoed similar concerns suggesting a more stream-lined outreach system as the project’s impact on neighbor- hoods develops.
“I would love to be thinking about how we can proactively have almost like a business strategy from a communication standpoint … for any questions they [community] may have.”
On the subject of cost, Council member John Chap- man pressed Orr for assurance that the project will be completed within its budgetary constraints.
“I was pretty clear about kind of frankly not wanting to spend a dime over what we have. Not because it’s not an important corridor. Not because what we’re doing is not important, but frankly because all of that the city has taken on.”
Orr responded adamantly that staff is cost-conscious about the project.
“We are designing to our budget and if there are things that need to get scaled back, we will scale them back. We are not planning on asking for any additional money and we are going to build the BRT we can with this money.”
The night was not without tension.
Following the testimony of former DASH Director Sandy Modell, who advocated that Council do more research regarding left-hand turn crashes and the project’s impact on lo cal businesses before approving it, Modell was on the receiving end of questions from Wilson.
“You noted your leadership of DASH and obviously your service in our city is legendary. I had the opportunity to work alongside you during a lot of that service. Twelve years ago, you sent me a memo and asked me to sign on to it and your memo said, ‘Access to high quality transit will be a critical component to the redevelopment of Landmark and future redevelopment in the West End. BRT is a cost-effective option that is flexible in terms of routing and does not require intensive capital investment. However, in order for BRT to be an effec- tive option, it must be accom- panied with dedicated lanes, super stops that allow for fair prepayment signal preemption and priority signalization. …’”
“What changed?” Wilson asked.
Appearing surprised, Modell defended her changed position on dedicated bus lanes on Alexandria’s main thoroughfare.
“Duke Street has changed and we’re trying to fit a round peg into a square hole – as many of the previous speak- ers have said – and I now own a business on Duke Street and I’ve seen the other side,” Modell countered.
Orr emphasized the project’s safety as an overarching reason to approve it.
“I just want to take a minute to highlight here is one thing that we have consistently heard throughout this process from people, regardless of how they feel about this project as a whole, is that safety is a key priority and it should be addressed. And with this project, we do have the opportunity to vastly improve the safety of this corridor for all users.”