By Sandy Modell
Alexandria is fortunate to have an excellent DASH bus system. However, while DASH has experienced phenomenal ridership since its inception in 1984, reaching more than four million annual trips in 2017, it has not reduced traffic congestion as regional population growth has spiraled. The reality is that most people still need their cars.
The Duke Street transitway project has been discussed since 2008, and current justification for this project comes from several outdated studies. A recent City of Alexandria staff memo states that since adopting the 2012 Feasibility Study, “transportation priorities, land use plans, and (more recently) a major change in home-to-work travel patterns have created the need to re-evaluate the transit plans for the Duke Street Corridor.”
Although city staff have conducted a series of community meetings and public outreach, a fundamental re-evaluation of this proposed project has not happened.
Metrorail, Metrobus and DASH started experiencing declining ridership even before the pandemic. Since COVID-19, many people are still working from home. Although DASH has implemented free fares and a new transit network, increasing service by 25% between FY18 and FY22, ridership decreased by 27% during the same period. In FY22, average weekday trips on DASH Route 30 – Duke Street – totaled 1,822, a 30% decrease from its height in FY17.
Although Route 30 is seeing some impressive ridership gains in the past few months, April showing 2,800 trips, not all buses are operating with automated passenger counters and data is lacking on where riders get on or off the bus. Passenger origin destination studies and also knowing where the car traffic is
traveling to and from are critical pieces of data. Knowing who’s riding and when – and where they’re going – are pretty important facts to know before embarking on such a costly and disruptive project.
This $100 million capital project would significantly impact travel on the corridor both during and after construction. Changes proposed include eliminating unprotected left turns and forc- ing cars to make U-turns at protected left turn intersections, often in complete gridlock. This change would be a recipe for disaster, as it would impact access to businesses along the corridor and make these already burdened
intersections even more unsafe. The elephant in the room is the congestion, gridlock and un- safe driving resulting from the Telegraph Road interchange back-ups. The busway de- sign purposely avoids the Duke Street/Telegraph Road area by moving the transitway to center running lanes at that location. Unfortunately, going from curb lanes to center to mixed traffic defeats the idea of an efficient and effective service.
There are an average of 30,000 to 40,000 daily car trips on Duke Street. A survey conducted by the city about 10 years ago estimated that 60% of the vehicles traveling the corridor are non-city residents. These are not potential transit riders going to the King Street Metro or Old Town.
The city is planning and implementing lower-cost transportation initiatives separately from this project that could address the daily Duke Street traffic nightmare and help DASH operate more reliably. The goals should improve pedestrian and vehicle safety without cutting off Duke Street businesses and reducing travel lanes.
I believe the following should be implemented and evaluated before the planning, design and construction of such a significant transit project as Duke Street in Motion:
1) Construct a new Telegraph Road access point.
2) Implement Adaptive Traffic Signal Control and modernize the city’s traffic controllers to improve signal timing and traffic flow, which can move cars and buses more effectively and efficiently along the corridor.
3) Implement Transit Signal Priority on all DASH buses, already slated for completion by 2025. Transit signal priority allows for extended green or shortened red time to improve the on-time performance of buses and increase service reliability.
4) Implement a “Don’t Block the Box” initiative at Duke and Quaker and Duke and Roth to reduce the gridlock at these intersections. The city could accomplish this quickly and at the cost of some paint, signs and an information campaign.
The above-referenced projects would reduce congestion, increase safety and gain efficiencies while improving our quality of life, air quality and the long-term success of businesses in the corridor.
In time, these changes would provide new conditions by which the transitway and other initiatives could be analyzed to further enhance mobility for all modes of travel on Duke Street.
The writer is owner of the Wholistic Hound Academy and served as CEO of the DASH bus system for 28 years. She helped start the system in 1984, serving as the lead transit expert for the City of Alexandria for more than 33 years.