By Sandy Modell
Had the mayor listened to my opening statement at the public hearing on June 27 instead of planning his “got-cha moment” by reading a memo I wrote over a decade ago in support of bus rapid transit, he would have heard me say “I am all for transit improvements, increased mobility and attracting more people to transit.”
After reading extensively from my 2011 memo, the mayor demanded to know what had changed. I answered that Duke Street had changed.
He cut me off when I attempted to elaborate and explain my concerns about the design and its impact on adjacent neighborhoods, small businesses on the corridor and bus riders. I also attempted to ask Wilson my questions as to why there was no small business representative on the advisory committee, as set out in the committee’s establishment. Sadly, he refused to let me ask the question.
The city’s presentation made it clear that the Duke Street Transitway project consultants relied on computer modeling to support the project’s goals and findings. Modeling, although useful, should not be solely relied upon in a project of this magnitude, cost and impact. Because with a project of this size, the devil is always in the details.
For example, did the consultants and staff actually come out to the corridor in the afternoon peak period and observe the traffic nightmare caused by the Telegraph Road ramp and the back- ups beyond Quaker Lane or did they rely on the models and cursory drive-bys?
How often did they observe the gridlocked intersections at Duke and Quaker, Duke and Sweeley and Duke and Roth where they are pro- posing new U-turn movements to access businesses?
How many business owners be- tween Roth and Sweeley knew about the proposed elimination of left turns into their parking areas? I visited several of those businesses and was told they either did not understand the impacts or did not receive a visit or information from the city.
At the June 27 hearing, the local business owner of the Caribbean Pool Service on Moncure stated that no one from the city called to inform him that the Duke Street service lane that he relies upon to access his business is proposed to become a one-way street. City Council seemed surprised that his service vehicles and customers will no longer have direct access to his business from Duke Street and instead will have to cut through the West Taylor Run neighborhood to get to it.
This is one of several proposed design changes that will significantly negatively impact both businesses and adjacent neighborhoods. In addition to citizen concerns regarding the major changes to service roads and limiting access to homes and businesses, there are also concerns about reducing bus stops from twenty to eight and the impact of those changes on bus riders, particularly riders with limited mobility. Although the staff had reached out to riders at some of the stops, I spoke with a number of riders who were completely unaware that the city is proposing to eliminate their stops and that they will have to walk an additional quarter to half a mile to access the transitway.
The Duke Street corridor is too fragile and too dysfunctional to build a transitway fraught with design problems. City staff writes it off by saying that “change can be hard.” But if the changes negatively impact businesses and their customers, bus riders, and overall traffic safety, particularly at already gridlocked intersections, then those proposed changes should be reevaluated before the BRT project enters into further design phases.
The city should first address the cur- rent peak period congestion and backups caused by the Telegraph Road ramp. The city plans to implement several transportation projects that could reduce congestion and increase bus re- liability, such as a new Telegraph Road access point, Adaptive Traffic Signal Control and Transit Signal Priority on DASH and Metro buses operating on the corridor.
City staff admits that the transitway will not reduce congestion, while these other projects will improve traffic flow and bus reliability. After all, it is the congestion that is causing the gridlocked intersections, making buses run late and impacting traffic safety.
Shouldn’t these projects move forward first, as new traffic conditions will change travel times and possibly al- low the city to design the transitway with fewer negative impacts?
I also recommend add- ing a “Don’t Block the Box” program at Quaker, Sweeley and Roth. If the city in- tends to eliminate left turn lanes and force cars to the next traffic light to make a U-turn, shouldn’t those intersections be able to handle the additional turn movements safely?
Have any studies been done to determine how many daily left turns are made to those businesses or how long it will take customers to drive to the next intersection, wait at the light to make a U-turn at intersections already overburdened and then drive back to the business in stop and go traffic? And, why are we discussing eliminating these left turns at all, and calling it a safety measure, when the city’s own crash chart shows the greatest number of left turn crashes occur at protected left turn lanes?
During the hearing, Councilman Canek downplayed the elimination of left turns and added forced U-turns by referencing his own experiences with U-turns in cities far less dense and congested than Alexandria. I invite Canek and all City Council
members, staff and consultants to join me one afternoon around 5 p.m. at Duke and Roth, where we can observe the gridlock, unsafe turning movements and the complete nightmare that exists there today. And, we can invite the neighbors, businesses and residents that will be impacted, too. I’ll bring chairs and popcorn.
As I said in my opening statement, I fully support transit improvements that positively impact bus rider- ship and safety. What I am not in favor of and unfortunately what the City Council has approved, is a poorly designed transit project that negatively impacts bus riders, residents, customers and the livelihood of local businesses.
Instead of approving the project as proposed, City Council should have been willing to tackle the most troubling and problematic segments before spending more money and time on the current design.
In the meantime, Alexandria could do what Arlington did after its light rail line on Columbia Pike was voted down over 20 years ago. They branded all the ART and Metro buses on the corridor with a new paint scheme and called the service Pike Ride. With the current frequency of DASH and Metro service every 5 to 10 minutes on Duke Street, a new branded service could be implemented quickly, making it easy to identify and attract new riders without negatively impacting them and the corridor.