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Even as Transitway moves forward, cars are driving backwards

Even as officials and advocates continue to hail the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway as forward-thinking, there’ve been literal instances of backwards driving.

ARLnow has received reports of cars entering the Transitway’s bus lanes, often even driving the wrong direction in the lanes, which parallel Crystal Drive for about a mile. It seems to mostly stem from confusion over the roadway configuration.

Mark Stack lives in the Concord Crystal City apartments, directly across from a Transitway bus station at 27th Street S. and Crystal Drive. From the high-rise building he can see cars in the lanes that are intended only for Metroway buses.

Just today, [there was] one car on the wrong side of the road and two other vehicles traveling down the bus lane,” he told ARLnow. “It’s a daily, hourly occurrence. It’s not like once or twice. It happens pretty often.”

Walking in his neighborhood, Stack has also seen cars entering the lanes near the bus stops located 33rd Street S. and 26th Street S. along Crystal Drive. He’s fearful that drivers going the wrong direction will hit buses head-on or kids bicycling, which he also sees often in the lanes (which, technically, is also not allowed).

“I’m just surprised there’s never been any accidents,” Stack said. “It’s a miracle.”

ARLnow also checked out several of the intersections and Transitway bus stops that Stack spoke about. While no unauthorized vehicles were observed in the lanes at the time, it’s evident confusion could be possible, particularly at night.

There are right and left turn lanes leading directly into the bus lanes, as well as dark red markings that may not be clearly visible at night. There are, however, “do not enter” signs and medians that do prevent mingling of traffic.

Darren Buck, a member of Arlington County’s Transportation Commission, also has seen unauthorized cars going into the dedicated bus lanes. While the danger does concern him, he additionally worries that drivers are intentionally entering them to bypass traffic

“If that’s the case, the success of the Transitway is at risk,” he says, since one of the major selling points of rapid bus transit is that it removes buses from car traffic. “[There] probably needs to be a broader conversation about enforcement in bus-exclusive facilities.”

The county acknowledges that unauthorized vehicles using the bus lanes, intentionally or not, is an ongoing issue that dates back to the Transitway’s opening.

“[Arlington Department of Environmental Services] staff have been made aware of issues with operations on the Crystal City – Potomac Yard Transitway, specifically regarding private vehicles using and misusing the dedicated transit lanes in 2016,” DES spokesperson Nathan Graham wrote in an email to ARLnow. He  noted that they have received reports of this happening recently.

In response, transportation staff earlier this year applied red pavement markings to highlight the bus-only lanes at several of the Transitway segments, Graham said, including at 27th Street S. and Potomac Avenue, 33rd Street S. and Crystal Drive, and 26th Street S. and Crystal Drive.

“Moving forward, we will enhance this practice of clearly denoting entry points for bus-only lanes and at areas where there are reports of driver confusion with additional paint and signage, as appropriate,” wrote Graham. “We will also reach out to our colleagues at ACPD to review options for enforcement at these locations.”

All of these are issues that the county will keep in mind as the build-out for the extension to Pentagon City begins next year.

Some residents and transit advocates like Buck, however, are already frustrated by how the design process has played out for the Transitway extension.

In early September, when completed designs were presented by staff to the public, those designs were met with pushback, due to perceived lack of community engagement and not widening sidewalks to better accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists.

“My overall concern is that the Transitway was designed in a vacuum to only accommodate transit and, in doing so, they’ve ignored a lot of other community desires,” Buck said.

The plans call for moving a curb at Crystal Drive and 12th Street S., which Buck said will reduce the space that pedestrians, bicyclists, and scooters will have to use. With new development set to kick of along 12th Street soon, and with the newly-expanded Long Bridge Park nearby, Buck said wider sidewalks are needed.

“You put up a big building with adjacent retail and you keep the sidewalk the same width, you’ve already got a substantial volume of people walking, people biking, people jogging,” said Buck. “We call it friction in transportation planning… and there’s a lot more friction that getting introduced.”

In response to these concerns, Graham says the engagement process was “conducted in accordance with Arlington County’s 6-Step Guide to Public Engagement” and the staff has made “numerous changes” to address feedback from the community, he wrote.

As for the widening of the sidewalks, Graham said simply it can’t be done.

“Staff have received these comments but cannot expand the scope of the project to alter the streetscape along 12th Street as part of this project,” wrote Graham. “Our focus for this project is delivering the first phase of a high-quality transit facility extension that delivers on the promises made in the Crystal City Sector Plan and other related planning documents.”

Following up on the question about why the scope can’t be expanded, it was noted that changes at this point would “significantly impact our ability to keep our promises to deliver a safe, efficient and high-quality transit facility for a growing urban neighborhood on time and on budget,” wrote DES spokesperson Jessica Baxter.

Additionally, safety issues, underground utilities, parking structures, and how long it took to secure easements all pose a challenge to widening the sidewalk, we’re told.

While Buck is disappointed in the process and a few design elements of the project, he’s overall supportive of the Transitway, repeating what many have said.

“The entire Transitway concept of building the infrastructure ahead of all of the development that is still ongoing in Potomac Yard, I think, is really forward looking,” he said.

Buck notes that it’s important to get the project right, be it making sure the bus lanes remain safe and free of unauthorized vehicles or sidewalks that can handle multi-module transportation.

“It’s an important inflection point for our community,” he says. “If we are going to ask people to give up their cars to live here, we need to be investing in transit service… and build it correctly.”

This is the second of a four article series on the bus rapid transit system in Crystal City.

Previous: Seven years since debut, how’s the region’s first rapid bus transit system faring?

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