Metro Greenlights Initial Budget Proposing Some Service Expansions, Higher County Costs

Metro is moving forward with its new budget, proposing sweeping service increases to bolster ridership with the need for a modest budget increase from Arlington.

The WMATA Board of Directors gave initial approval for the transit agency’s draft $3.5 billion, FY2020 budget during a meeting today (Thursday). The budget paves the way to start running Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt and Red Line trains all the way to Glenmont, eliminating the Silver Spring turn-back.

The budget asks Arlington to contribute $77.6 million to the agency’s operating budget, a $2.6 million increase from last year.

“Yellow and Red extensions help any Arlingtonians heading to those end points and expand the commute/travel shed into Arlington to accommodate growth in Pentagon City and Crystal City,” Metro Board member and Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey told ARLnow after Thursday’s meeting.

“Better service helps us all,” said Dorsey.

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed $45.6 million in the county’s next budget to be allocated to Metro’s operating budget, a $5 million increase from budget adopted last fiscal year. The remainder of the county’s $77.6 million in funding is from a small increase in the portion of the county’s capital improvement program (CIP) funds set aside for Metro.

Arlington County Board members advertised a 2.75-cent bump to the real estate tax in Arlington’s next fiscal budget, in part, to cover rising expenses at Metro.

The idea was Dorsey’s, who said the increased funds to Metro allowed the transit agency’s budget “to do more service, reduce the price of some fare pass products including on bus where ridership is cratering while having no fare increases and staying within legislatively mandated caps.”

The budget also included a small, $1 million proposal provide $3 subsidies for late-night rideshare trips that area workers take, now that Metrorail’s own late-night service is no more.

One uncertainty the transit agency’s budget continues to face is its ridership rates, which have now plummeted to a 20-year low. The budget banks on that number stabilizing this year, a result WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld hopes to achieve with the increased service.

Wiedefeld initially proposed even more sweeping service increases, including an expansion of rush-hour service, but the expense prompted consternation from county officials. Those proposals were ultimately stripped from the budget.

The budget proposal Board members approved Thursday did not include service cuts or fare increases. 

Metro Board member Corbett Price, representing D.C., thanked Dorsey at the end of the meeting for his “political leadership” in assembling the budget, reported WTOP.

“My only hope is people say such things about me when I’m dead,” joked Dorsey.

Metro Board members will convene again this month for a final vote on the budget, which goes into effect in June.

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Cyclists Can Now Test Out Experimental Protected Bike Lanes in Crystal City, Potomac Yard

Bicyclists in Potomac Yard and Crystal City might’ve noticed some funky new protected bike lanes around town — but some of them won’t be sticking around for long.

The lanes popped up this week to coincide with the “National Bike Summit,” a gathering of cycling activists held at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City.

Some of the protected lanes are located along S. Eads Street in Crystal City, near the road’s intersection with 22nd Street S. They’re part of the “BikeRail” product backed by Minneapolis-based firm Dero, and are a bit sturdier than the plastic poles the county has installed along other protected bike lanes.

The Crystal City Business Improvement District says Dero donated the BikeRails for pilot program purposes, and county staff installed them this week. They may not stay in their current locations, but the county plans to keep them a little longer, at least.

Another bike company sponsoring the conference, Bike Fixation, donated some even more unusual looking lanes for cyclists to try out.

The county set up the wave-shaped barriers along a stretch of S. Potomac Avenue in Potomac Yard, leading up to where the bike conference was held.

Those, however, are merely temporary, according to the League of American Bicyclists (which sponsored the conference). They could be gone as soon as sometime this week.

Photo 1 via @mttrgrs, photos 2 and 3 via @juddlumberjack

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County Considers Lowering Speed Limit Along Busy Pentagon City Street

Drivers along a busy stretch of road in Pentagon City could soon need to slow down a bit.

County officials are proposing changing the speed limit along S. Hayes Street as the road runs between Army Navy Drive and 15th Street S. It currently has posted speed limits of 35 and 30 miles per hour along different stretches of the road, but the county could bump that down to 25 miles per hour.

The Crystal City Business Improvement District requested a study of the speed limit along that section of the street, which runs past major developments, including the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City and Pentagon Centre, as well as the neighborhood’s Metro station.

Staff wrote in a report for the County Board that the “high volumes of pedestrian crossings and higher density land development” in the area justify bumping down the speed a bit.

Similarly, staff noted that an examination of the last four years worth of crash data for the area suggest that a lower speed might be beneficial for the area.

If the Board approves the change, the county will spend $1,500 to install signs advertising the newly revised speed limit along the road.

The Board is set to consider the issue for the first time at its meeting Saturday (March 16), where members are scheduled to set a public hearing on the matter for April 23. The Board could then approve the change immediately afterward.

Photo via Google Maps

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County Plans Another Meeting to Discuss New Strategies for Easing Traffic Around DCA Rideshare Lot

County officials and representatives from ridesharing companies are planning another community meeting to talk through traffic headaches generated by a staging lot for Uber and Lyft drivers serving Reagan National Airport passengers.

Arlington leaders will convene another gathering on the subject next week — in tandem with Uber, Lyft and airport executives — though they hope they’ve managed to alleviate many of the issues the community raised last fall.

At the time, many people living near the lot (located at 2780 Jefferson Davis Highway in Crystal City, adjacent to S. Eads Street and a Holiday Inn hotel) said the surge of rideshare drivers in the area had snarled traffic in the neighborhood.

Airport officials only started directing drivers over that way to account for National’s massive “Project Journey” construction effort, requiring drivers to wait in the lot until would-be passengers request rides. But, back then, the lot only had one entry/exit to reach S. Eads Street, prompting big traffic backups and encouraging drivers to cut through other parking lots in the area to more easily reach the airport.

The county responded with an “interim” fix designed to make a difference in the short-term — officials opened up another entrance/exit to the lot along Route 1, installing a temporary traffic light to allow drivers to turn onto the road and jump onto an exit ramp leading directly to the airport access road.

Since then, county staff say they’ve recorded a 73 percent drop in the number of cars exiting onto S. Eads Street each day. Officials say they’ve also met with Uber, Lyft and airport executives to discuss additional steps, like “exploring the use of technology and messaging through the [rideshare] apps to reduce the volume of vehicles coming to the lot and seeking additional staging locations to reduce demand.”

The county is also mulling another, more costly change.

Officials are currently exploring the possibility of aligning the lot’s temporary exit onto Route 1 with 27th Street S., which sits directly across from the staging area. That would allow cars from the lot and 27th Street to turn at the same time, perhaps cutting down on wait times at each traffic light.

“Implementation would require relocating a traffic signal pole, replacing [the] temporary traffic signal with a permanent traffic signal pole on Route 1, and reconfiguring the [rideshare] lot to allow proper ingress flow,” county staff wrote on Arlington’s website.

That project comes with a $250,000 price tag and take at least a year to complete — plus, it requires the County Board’s approval.

Staff plan to discuss that option and others at the upcoming meeting. It will be held in the Crystal City Community Room at the Crystal City Shops (2100 Crystal Drive) on March 18, from 6-7:30 p.m.

Photo 1 via Arlington County

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Developers Could Soon Send County Cash to Help Fund Long-Stalled New Ballston Metro Entrance

Some local developers are now set to hand over more than $6.8 million to help the county afford a second entrance to the Ballston Metro station, a project officials have hoped to finish for years in order to open up access to the subway stop for people living and working along N. Glebe Road.

The newfound cash stems from the long-stalled redevelopment of an office building at 4420 Fairfax Drive, which sits above the county’s planned spot for the new Metro entrance. The project’s backers are now offering up the money to help fund the entrance’s construction, in exchange for the County Board agreeing to extend deadlines for the redevelopment through end of 2022.

Originally, development firm JBG Smith was backing the project, known as “the Spire at Fairmont,” and it planned to build a new Metro entrance station at the same time as it constructed a new mixed-use building on the site. But that effort languished for close to a decade, and JBG sold the property to its current owners — Washington Capitol Partners, Kettler Development and Bognet Construction — in 2015.

That group has made little progress, however, and the “site plan” the county approved governing the redevelopment effort is rapidly nearing its July 2020 expiration date. Accordingly, the developers are looking for an extension, and negotiations with the county heated up earlier this year.

As part of that back-and-forth, Arlington officials told the developers that they weren’t interested in waiting for the new, 23-story structure to be built before moving ahead with the Metro entrance project. Instead, they asked for a simple cash contribution, and the companies eventually agreed, according to a staff report prepared for the County Board.

“The county has decided that it may be prudent to proceed on its own with the complete design and construction of the Ballston West Entrance… which would be more efficient considering differing time frames for completion of the developer’s project and transit improvement,” staff wrote.

Some of that urgency stems from the fact that Arlington previously won about $26 million in state funding for the project, but has yet to spend much of it. Officials don’t see any imminent threat that the funding could be “clawed back,” but are nonetheless anxious to show some progress on the project.

In general, it’s been tough sledding for the county to find any cash to power the construction in recent months.

Arlington was counting on regional transportation dollars to kickstart the project, asking for $72 million from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to wrap it up. But the group declined t0 hand out any cash for it — after losing out on tens of millions as part of the vagaries of the deal to provide dedicated funding to Metro — and Arlington was forced to push back its plans for the entrance by several years.

Any timeline for the project is still murky, however. The staff report notes that JBG paid an engineering firm to prepare some designs for the new entrance, but those plans were never “accepted by WMATA or the county.” The new developers have taken control of those plans, and if the county finds they’re up to snuff, Arlington officials could agree to reduce the cash payment they need to pony up.

The developers are also set to send the county just under $410,000 to secure some other zoning changes to allow construction to move ahead. Current plans call for 237 apartments and 9,200 square feet of retail space to be built on the site, in addition to a garage with 237 parking spaces.

The County Board is scheduled to sign off on the details of this deal at its meeting Saturday (March 16). The matter is slated to be considered as part of the Board’s consent agenda, which is largely reserved for noncontroversial items approved without debate.

File photo

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Plans to Guide Transformation of Rosslyn’s Streets Taking Shape, With Another Open House Set Tomorrow

Plans are coming together for a major transformation of Rosslyn’s streets, as county officials advance a series of proposals designed to someday make the neighborhood a bit more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians.

The county is holding a public meeting tomorrow (Wednesday) to unveil a newly revised design for the future of Rosslyn’s street network. Known as the “Core of Rosslyn” study, planners have been working since 2017 to finalize a redesign of the neighborhood that comports with the “Rosslyn Sector Plan” the County Board adopted in 2015.

Some of the proposed changes, revealed in detail last fall, are quite substantial.

Perhaps the largest one is the removal of the Fort Myer Drive tunnel under Wilson Blvd, transforming it into a traditional at-grade, signalized intersection. The county could also follow through on long-contemplated plans of building a car-free, “pedestrian corridor” running from 18th Street N.’s intersection with N. Oak Street to N. Kent Street, replacing the Rosslyn skywalk system to make the Metro station more accessible.

Another major change included in previous proposals was the conversion of N. Fort Myer Drive, N. Lynn Street and N. Moore Street into two-way streets. But officials are now rolling out a revised set of plans that would keep the latter two streets as one-way roads, after hearing feedback from the community on the study.

Planners have indeed seen Lynn Street as a particularly challenging option for opening up to two-way traffic. Though officials expect the change would make things a bit less confusing for drivers, it would also force the county to find new access points to the G.W. Parkway, I-66 and the Key Bridge.

Other proposed changes include 14 new or improved crosswalks for pedestrians, and more than 1.3 miles of new protected bike lanes. Those are largely set to run along Fort Myer Drive, N. Moore Street and N. Nash Street, and are designed to ease bike connections to the Key Bridge and the Mt. Vernon and Custis Trails.

The public meeting on the “Core of Rosslyn” plans is set for the Observation Deck at CEB Tower (1800 N. Lynn Street), located on the 31st floor of the massive office building, tomorrow from 4-7 p.m.

The county hopes to have final results of the study ready for consideration sometime this summer.

File photo

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Digital Screens Displaying Local Artwork Set to be Installed at Five Arlington Metro Stations

Arlington Metro riders might soon notice some digital screens displaying local artwork popping up at five stations sometime this spring.

WMATA plans to install the new screens at a dozen stations across the Metro system over the coming weeks, including several stops in Arlington itself: Crystal City, Ballston, Pentagon City, National Airport and Rosslyn.

The screens are part of Metro’s “Art in Transit Program,” which seeks to “work with cultural organizations and stakeholders to integrate art content into the new digital displays,” according a report by county staff. The County Board is set to approve an agreement this weekend that would allow Arlington Cultural Affairs to submit content to be displayed on the screens.

“Through this collaboration, WMATA is seeking to create a dynamic transit experience that increases community awareness and pride, and provides customers and the public with additional access to vibrant art produced by partnering organizations,” staff wrote in the report.

Other groups contributing artwork include the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the NOMA and Golden Triangle business improvement districts.

Arlington’s artwork is set to appear on the screens for “20 seconds at least every six minutes for a period of at least 28 days,” according to the report.

The Board is set to sign off on the project at its meeting Saturday (March 16), but riders should start noticing the screens as soon as this week. WMATA is scheduled to install the Crystal City screen from March 11-15, then bring the screens to the other Arlington stations sometime between April 29 through May 3.

This wouldn’t be the first public art project bound for the Ballston station, in particular — the station is set for a colorful, LED-light makeover sometime within the next few years.

File photo

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Newly Revised Cycling Infrastructure Plan Cuts Some Proposed Trails, Strikes Compromises

Arlington transportation planners’ latest attempt at crafting the future of the county’s cycling infrastructure has left neighbors, bicyclists and environmental advocates both pleased and disappointed.

The first draft of the 5o-page document, known as the bicycle element of the county’s Master Transportation Plan, originally included 26 cycling infrastructure projects including new trails and on-street bikeways. Since then, county staff has cut a few bike trails from the document, including two major projects: the Arlington Hall trail in Alcova Heights and another connecting the former Northern Virginia Community Hospital in Glencarlyn to Forest Hills, which were chopped after outcry from neighbors and environmentalists.

Still, bike advocates expressed broad support for the plan, but some think the latest draft doesn’t go far enough to ensure pedestrian safety and combat climate change.

“We made a number of changes in response to what we heard,” said Richard Viola, the project manager for updating the plan at the transportation division of the Department of Environmental Services (DES) told ARLnow Thursday. “I don’t think it negatively affects the overall plan, but it certainly shows a little more consideration of our natural resources.”

The plan is a sort of guiding “wish list” for the county, which some refer to as the “Master Bike Plan.” Viola’s group has been revising the document for more than a year, with the final version expected to be adopted later this spring. The latest edition will be posted publicly next week, he said.

During this latest revision, the county dropped its proposal for an off-street, half-mile trail connecting 6th Street S. to S. Quincy Street in the Alcova neighborhood at S. Oakland Street. The trail became a point of controversy because it could mean 6th Street residents lose some backyard privacy, and the county would cut down some important trees.

“We heard from a number of people from that Alcova Heights neighborhood that they did not want to see the trail built,” said Viola. “And then later we heard from a number of people in the neighborhood who want to see the trail build.” Ultimately, his working group shelved the Alcova trail idea for another time.

Another nixed idea was to extend the Four Mile Run Trail a half mile to connect with Claremont Elementary and Wakefield High. The Audubon Society wrote a letter in January warning that the proposal could cause “potential harm” to the rare magnolia ecosystem in the area.

“It’s a useful connection,” Viola said of the proposed trail. “People walk it today. But it would not be a suitable bike route when we thought about it because of the steepness [of the trail] and the proximity to this magnolia bog natural preserve.”

Another plan that became bogged down was a Glencarlyn/Hospital Trail connecting Glencarlyn and Forest Hills neighborhoods via the old site of the Northern Virginia Community Hospital. The half-mile project was envisioned by Viola’s team as a “low-stress route” between Arlington Boulevard and Columbia Pike because it could link up with other bikeways on S. Lexington Street, S. Carlin Springs Road, and 5th Road S.

The Audubon Society wrote that a trail passing through the old hospital site would “destroy valuable natural resources” in the conservation area that protects Long Branch Creek.

As a compromise, Viola’s team suggested instead widening the sidewalk on the east side of Carlyn Springs Road, so bikes and pedestrians can share.

“There are other comments they did not address in their plan,” said Audubon Society member Connie Ericson, referring to the organization’s January letter. “But we are pleased that they took some of our suggestions.”

However, members of the Arlington County Transportation Commission were “not wild” about the sidewalk idea, according to Commission Chair Chris Slatt.

Slatt told ARLnow Friday morning that members felt a paved, woodsy trail was too rare an opportunity pass up.

“There aren’t a lot of places where you could jog or bike without cars next to you,” he said. “It would seem like a shame to give up on that.”

In general, the plan drew praise from Ericson, and other advocates like D.C.-based Wash Cycle who said they couldn’t “spot any holes in the plans” in a January blog post.

Bruce Deming, who runs the Law Offices of Bruce S. Deming, Esq. and is known as the “Bicycle Lawyer,” also praised the Master Bike Plan for being “very thorough” and having a “cohesive strategy.” But he also told ARLnow in a phone call that, when it comes to safety, the “sense of urgency should be greater” in the latest draft.

The plan contains no mention of speed cameras — something Deming admitted is “politically unpopular” but reduces the injury and mortality rates in crashes with pedestrians and cyclists.

Deming also critiqued the plan for not prioritizing more bike lanes protected from cars, something 64 percent of respondents surveyed by the county wish for according to the Master Plan.

“According to the latest version of the plan, we’ve got 29 miles of bike lanes and 10 percent are the protected bike lanes,” said Deming. “I’d like to see that percentage increase substantially.”

Viola told ARLnow that the plan has been updated to language about “traffic safety education.”

The updates to Arlington’s Master Bike Plan are the first in 10 years, and according to Viola, the county doesn’t expect to undergo the process again for another decade. This comes a few months after the U.N.’s report indicating humans have 12 years to cut emissions before global warming causes permanent ecological damage, and reducing trips by car is one way to do this.

The Master Bike Plan acknowledges this, writing that improving the county’s pledges to improve air quality and reduce its emissions “depend greatly on shifting more travel to energy-efficient travel modes such as bicycling and walking.”

For Slatt, this means ensuring the infrastructure is so good it makes people want to ditch cars for bikes — something that would be easier to figure out how to do if the county allocated more resources and invested in high-end data analysis.

“People don’t people pick their transportation option because it saves the planet,” he said. “People pick their transportation option because it works for them because it’s faster or cheaper or makes them happy.”

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Bolt Brings Its Dockless Scooters to Arlington, Becoming Seventh Company in the County

Yet another company is now offering dockless electric scooters around Arlington, as Bolt has now becomes the seventh firm operating in the county.

Bolt first began renting out its scooters in Arlington last Wednesday (Feb. 27), county transportation spokesman Eric Balliet told ARLnow. Like its six other competitors, the company is participating in the county’s pilot program for dockless vehicle providers, which is set to run through the summer and help Arlington officials determine the best way to regulate the technology.

February was a busy month for scooter companies in Arlington, with three winning the county’s approval for participating in the program in the last few weeks alone: Skip, Spin and Jump.

Bird kicked off the flood of scooters onto county streets this past summer, when it dropped hundreds of devices around the county. That prompted the County Board to sketch out a more formal pilot program to guide the process, clearing the way for Lime, Lyft and the others to follow suit.

Under the terms of the pilot, the companies are restricted to operating 350 vehicles for their first month in the county, and can then apply for gradual increases each month (so long as they can meet certain ridership targets).

Thus far, county officials haven’t recorded many problems with the scooters, though they remain a bit vexed in how to dissuade younger riders from using them or how to enforce the county’s ban on the scooters on local trails and sidewalks.

The pilot program is set to wrap up in July, when the Board will subsequently consider passing a formal ordinance governing the devices.

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County Plans Incremental Transportation Projects Alongside Major Efforts to Prepare for Amazon

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With Amazon hoping to open a headquarters in Arlington, Crystal City’s transportation network can’t seem to stay out of the spotlight.

Major redevelopment is coming whether or not local resistance turns the e-commerce giant away, but the attention-grabbing headlines and all-at-once infrastructure proposals don’t reveal how mobility investment is a gradual process – or how Crystal City has been steadily improving its transportation infrastructure since long before the HQ2 contest even began.

Crystal City has long been slated for some major transportation investments: Long Bridge reconstruction could enable MARC to bring commuters straight from Maryland to Crystal City and let people bicycle straight to L’Enfant Plaza. A new Metro entrance would make it much easier to connect to bus service. A remodeled VRE commuter rail station would enable larger and more trains, Metroway expansion will strengthen ties with Pentagon City and Alexandria, and a pedestrian bridge to the airport would take advantage of the fact that DCA is three times closer to Crystal City than any other airport in America is to its downtown.

These projects are big: big visibility, big impacts, big cost. They have all been in the pipeline for years, and Amazon is bringing them renewed attention and new dollars.

However, these major investments aren’t the only projects that will update Crystal City’s decades-old transportation infrastructure. Just as important as these headline-making proposals are the more incremental projects that, block by block, are making Crystal City an easier place to get around — and, just like their larger counterparts, these smaller projects have been given some extra weight by HQ2.

Old Visions, New Funding

One document has guided much of Crystal City’s development for the past decade: the Sector Plan. The Crystal City Sector Plan made many suggestions for possible improvements. Not all of them have yet come to fruition, but many have, and the plan continues to drive Arlington’s conversation about Crystal City.

That conversation has recently become a little more ambitious. Amazon’s HQ2 announcement brings not only attention, speculation and more than a little resistance — it will also bring very definite funding. Arlington and Alexandria, combined, “have secured more than $570 million in transportation funding” while the commonwealth of Virginia has committed to $195 million for the same.

This new funding flows mostly toward old designs, all of them focused on alternatives to the car. Arlington’s Incentive Proposal discusses 10 transportation “example projects.”  Five of them fall within Crystal City itself, of which all but one follow ideas that originated in the Sector Plan (the remaining project, VRE station expansion, isn’t new either).

Moving Block by Block

Most of Crystal City’s streets were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and followed the “modernist” school of city planning.

They separated pedestrians from cars as much as possible, often putting pedestrians in bridges or tunnels; located stores in malls rather than on sidewalks; and spaced out intersections widely so that cars could accelerate to highway speeds. The Sector Plan calls to convert these into “Complete Streets” that will “accommodate the transportation needs of all surface transportation users, motorists, transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians.”  

It can be easy to think of transportation investments as one-off projects. The CC2DCA pedestrian bridge to the airport, for example, is an all-or-nothing endeavor. Half of a bridge wouldn’t be very useful for anybody.

Because of its focus on the street level, the Sector Plan calls for gradual change. It endorses street transformation projects that can be completed incrementally — block by block, street by street, improving the area’s transportation network over time. It seeks “to balance any proposed investments in transportation infrastructure with improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of the existing network, so that the maximum benefit can be delivered at the lowest cost.”  

This approach pairs well with Crystal City’s desirability for land developers. Most significant developments in Arlington are governed by the site plan process, through which the county negotiates with developers for community benefits — which might include a street renovation. Robert Mandle, chief operating officer of the Crystal City Business Improvement District, explained that “as a redevelopment plan, many [Sector Plan] improvements were anticipated as occurring in conjunction with opportunities presented from redevelopment.”

For example, the Crystal Houses III residential project includes a 0.7-acre public park paid for by the developer as well as improvements to the surrounding sidewalks that will enhance pedestrian mobility.

Another example of incremental transportation investment is the conversion of Crystal Drive to a two-way street for its entire length. The process began in 2004, funded at first by a private developer, but since 2013 all work has been county-funded. It began its third and final phase of construction on Feb. 22 and is expected to be finished by December. No streets will be closed.

Mandle, of the Business Improvement District, speaks highly of the project: “improving the pedestrian streetscape and the public realm has been a key priority for all of the two-way projects, including new street trees, wider sidewalks, and bicycle infrastructure… [the projects] enabled the creation of a strong retail main street, a key amenity for attracting businesses to the area.”

Mark Schnaufer, capital projects manager for Arlington County’s transportation division, adds that the two-way project “has helped create a grid system where people have multiple options for traveling around Crystal City, providing direct access from any direction.”

Another incremental street project, also under Schnaufer’s lead, is the block-by-block creation of Clark-Bell Street. Clark-Bell will run between Route 1 and Crystal Drive, parallel to them, and help create a more mobility-friendly environment by breaking up large blocks and providing an alternate north-south path.

Because county-led projects are gradual, they’re not likely to get swept up in the excitement of sudden news. Schnaufer emphasizes that the street improvement projects “are progressing as they did before Amazon’s decision.”

However, developer-led projects like Crystal Houses III follow the private sector’s schedule — and Amazon might kick that up a gear.

Route 1: An “Urban Boulevard”?

For many Arlingtonians, the archetypal image of Crystal City is of angular brown office buildings blurring past from a driver’s seat on Route 1.

The road is legally called Jefferson Davis Highway, which Arlington can’t change because it’s under VDOT authority, and it is the central spine that reaches from Pentagon City to Alexandria. At the moment, though, this road does as much to sever as it does to connect — and the most ambitious, most important project in the Sector Plan is an attempt to change that.

Specifically, the Sector Plans calls to “[m]aintain the capacity of the current Jefferson Davis Highway while enhancing its physical environment into an urban boulevard, and direct traffic primarily to arterial streets to minimize adverse impacts of cut through traffic into surrounding neighborhoods.”

So, what does “urban boulevard” mean?  It means wide, comfortable, welcoming sidewalks, bicycle and e-scooter accessibility, tearing down overpasses and designing buildings that form a natural, coherent enclosure to the street. It doesn’t mean slowing down cars — Connecticut Avenue in Northwest D.C., for example, carries similar volumes of traffic in a setting that is much for pleasant for pedestrians and bicyclists.

One major advantage of a more urban Route 1 is in the development that it will enable. By cutting off access ramps and frontage streets, and by potentially narrowing lanes, the reconstruction of this boulevard will actually free up substantial amounts of land along the sides of the street.

The Sector Plan dedicates much of this space to new development. New development brings many potential benefits — a more practical, mixed-use environment, new residential structures (perhaps for Amazon employees), and, by pressing closer to the street, a more coherent, urban atmosphere.

Another advantage will be closer connections to Pentagon City.  Mandle hopes that an improved Route 1 will “better unify the Crystal City and Pentagon City neighborhoods into a singular downtown area.”

Two intersections will be centerpieces of any attempt to change Route 1. First, in the north, the elevated crossing of 15th Street S. defines an automobile-oriented connection between Crystal City and Pentagon City. The Sector Plan calls for the overpass to be demolished and for the streets to intersect directly.

According to Schnaufer, this project could soon be taken up by VDOT as part of the agreement between Amazon and the commonwealth of Virginia, although specifics are still unclear.

Second, in the south, Route 1 meets the Airport Access Road. As it stands, the intersection is all but impossible to cross on foot.

The crown jewel of the Sector Plan is a proposal to convert that intersection and its looming overpass into a beautiful, green circle with Route 1 through traffic diverted into an underpass — just like, for example, Dupont Circle in DC. This proposal, dubbed ‘National Circle’, has never left the drawing board, and there does not seem to have been any new planning or design work done since the Sector Plan was published.

Crystal City in the 21st Century

Amazon chose Crystal City for HQ2 in large part because of the transportation that’s already there. Between 2001 and 2014, because of federal employment changes, Crystal City lost about as many jobs as Amazon will bring, leaving the area with empty Metro seats and a surfeit of parking. “As a result,” says the county, “there is tremendous capacity on existing transit services to carry many more people than we do today.”

Furthermore, Amazon itself is prepared to implement ‘transportation demand management‘ strategies, like transit commuter benefits. These strategies, in which Arlington is considered a national leader, help reduce the car commuting that clogs our streets with vehicles and our air with exhaust.

For Schnaufer, of Arlington County Transportation, this is a story about Arlington as a whole just as much as it is about Crystal City.  

“Arlington County is known as a leader, in Virginia and across the country, for how we design transportation infrastructure projects,” he said. “Both the quality of our existing street infrastructure and the County’s plans for future improvements help attract companies like Amazon to Arlington.”

Mandle agrees, saying that “Arlington’s commitment to both incremental and larger infrastructure projects, even prior to the Amazon deal, illustrates an awareness that these infrastructure improvements were critical to enhancing the area’s economic competitiveness and long-term growth.”

Ultimately, the Sector Plan’s goals for National Circle and its other high ambitions for a gradually-improving Crystal City will remain guideposts for the area long after Amazon’s arrival.

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Rosslyn Set to See New Pedestrian Safety Improvements at Busy Road Crossings

Rosslyn is set to see a few more pedestrian safety improvement over the course of the next year or so.

The neighborhood’s Business Improvement District, which advocates for Rosslyn businesses by collecting a small property tax, is planning a variety of short-term fixes to make the bustling streets a bit safer for walkers.

In plans delivered to the County Board Saturday (Feb. 23), the BID says it hopes to use some of its tax revenue to work with county police on the fixes, as part of a broader initiative to make the area more walkable. County officials have even contemplated the more drastic step of make certain roads in Rosslyn “car-free,” though they have yet to settle on a precise strategy for the neighborhood beyond some guiding principles.

In the short term, the BID plans to build new “crash-grade planters to help delineate safer pedestrian crossings” at several intersections. Many of the roads crossing Wilson Blvd are often the site of robust crowds in the morning and evening rush hours.

The BID also hopes to expand some of its “wayfinding” efforts “that will eventually encompass not only pedestrian signs, but also traffic signage” to better brand each section of Rosslyn. The BID has already done some work in that department, setting up area maps, and even rolling out efforts to improve green space in the area, including the county’s first “parklet.”

In the long term, the BID plans to continue to work on efforts to someday convert streets like N. Fort Myer Drive, N. Lynn Street and N. Kent Street into two-way roads, though those changes are still a ways off.

Other, more ambitious efforts could someday remove the Fort Myer Drive tunnel under Wilson Blvd, or replace the existing Rosslyn skywalk system in favor of an all-pedestrian and cycling corridor leading up to the area’s Metro station. Some new developments in the area could help spur progress on the latter effort.

But all of these changes won’t be on the way until the new fiscal year, according to the BID’s proposal. The group is also asking the Board to hold its tax rate on local businesses level at $.078, though ever-rising real estate values will send the BID an extra $166,000 in revenue from a year ago.

Photo via Rosslyn BID

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New Budget Proposal Calls for Service Cuts Along Two Arlington Transit Bus Routes

Arlington Transit could soon roll back some of its bus service on two different routes, with county officials arguing that ridership isn’t robust enough on the routes to justify keep them going.

County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing the service reductions in his first draft of a new county budget for fiscal year 2020, which he forwarded on to the County Board for consideration last week.

The service cuts would primarily affect ART Route 53, running from the Ballston Metro up to the Chain Bridge Forest neighborhood in North Arlington and then down to East falls Church and Westover.

Schwartz is proposing eliminating midday service on that route, noting that it’s currently averaging about 7.4 riders per hour on buses along the route during the day — the bus service has a “minimum service standard” of 15 passengers per hour, according to documents forward along by Schwartz to the Board.

The manager is also calling for the elimination of rush-hour service to Westover on the route, as that section of the route is averaging just three riders per hour. Buses currently stop there near the intersection of Washington Blvd and Patrick Henry Drive.

Schwartz estimates that the changes would save the county about $244,000 each year, though staff also wrote that the elimination of that service “significantly impacts neighborhoods in the northernmost portion of the county that will lose all midday bus service.”

The buses currently provide service adjacent to five county elementary and middle schools north of Lee Highway, and staff estimate that the changes would leave the following neighborhoods without midday service:

  • N. Sycamore Street between 26th Street N. and Williamsburg Blvd
  • Williamsburg Blvd between N. Sycamore Street and N. Glebe Road
  • N. Glebe Road between Williamsburg Blvd and Military Road
  • Military Road/Quincy Street between N. Glebe Road and Fairfax Drive

However, Schwartz does point out in his message to the Board that Metrobus routes 2A, 23B and 23T also partially cover the area, as do ART routes 52, 55 and 72.

He’s also proposing cutting weekend service along ART Route 43, which runs between Courthouse and Crystal City.

With an average of four riders per hour, Schwartz argues that it isn’t coming close to meeting ART’s minimum ridership numbers, though weekday service remains robust and would remain under his current plans. That move could save the county nearly $196,000 each year.

These latest service reductions would follow persistent ridership declines for the bus service, as part of a broader decline in bus ridership nationwide. Schwartz also proposed eliminating two ART bus routes last year, and the Board ultimately agreed to those reductions in a budget defined by some difficult spending cuts.

Schwartz is proposing a total of $5.2 million in cuts this year, paired with a tax increase, though he has not proposed the sort of drastic spending slashes he initially feared. The Board will spend the new few weeks tinkering with the spending plan, with plans to adopt the final budget (perhaps including the ART service cuts) in April.

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As I-66 Widening Work Ramps Up, VDOT Plans County Trail Relocations and Improvements

Construction is ramping up on the widening of one of the most congested sections of I-66, and that will prompt some changes on county trails and streets lining the highway.

The County Board gave the go-ahead yesterday (Tuesday) for VDOT workers to relocate some local trails and build a noise wall and storm drain associated with the project. Once it’s completed, I-66 eastbound will boast an extra travel lane between Exit 71 in Ballston and the highway’s intersection with the Dulles Connector Road, long one of the worst traffic choke points in the region (and even the country).

The construction will impact areas along the highway throughout Arlington, however, prompting the Board’s latest action.

Perhaps the largest change is the relocation of part of the W&OD Trail near East Falls Church to a new pedestrian bridge running over Lee Highway, and county officials formally gave VDOT workers permission to start work on that project last night.

VDOT just finalized plans for the bridge this past fall, following a bit of controversy over its design, and hopes to start work on it sometime this spring.

Workers also now have the county’s permission to build a new noise wall near the N. Harrison Street bridge over I-66 in the Bluemont neighborhood. But that wall will block off a portion of the Custis Trail as it runs alongside the highway, and workers plan to create a new connection from the trail onto the bridge itself, according to a county staff report.

Additional construction on the highway widening will also force workers to connect a portion of the Custis Trail near Bon Air Park to an underground tunnel beneath I-66.

The county will also construct “park benches, trail signage, lighting, bike shelter and racks, railing and fencing” along the new sections of the trail, the staff report said.

State officials awarded a contract for the $85.7 million project in 2017, and they’re currently hoping to have the new lane open by fall 2020.

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Ballston’s Metro Station Set to Become Home to Colorful, Motion-Activated Public Art Project

Ballston’s Metro station could soon see a colorful, motion-activated, LED light display as part of a new public art project.

Dubbed “Intersections,” the project is being backed by the Ballston Business Improvement District and is still many months away from completion.

But the BID is picking up steam on the effort, according to documents prepared for the County Board, and it’s designed to “create a dynamic, ever-changing feature that will turn an ordinary subway entrance into a place of surprise, wonder and delight.”

The BID is teaming up with a Dutch “design/art collective” to create the art installation, which will consist of spotlights projecting a variety of different colors onto the canopy stretching over the Metro station’s entrance.

The lights will also come equipped with a “a grid of sensors” to “pick up the activity of the people moving in and out of the Ballston station, making the pedestrians active participants in the work,” according to a description of “Intersections” on the BID’s website.

“Pedestrians have a direct influence, in that their presence under the canopy will effect the spawning of lines that travel over the canopy,” the design team wrote about the project, according to a county staff report. “Where these animated lines intersect one another, they will give life to ‘autonomous artifacts of light.’ Once these artifacts pass a threshold, they will form the basis of a more involved visual effect. Afterwards, the installation will reset to its initial state.”

The BID is funding the project with the help of a collection of Ballston businesses, and it’s one in a series of public art installations the group has commissioned over the years.

In a report to be reviewed by the Board at its meeting Saturday (Feb. 23), the BID says it has yet to receive Metro’s approval for the project, but it expects to win WMATA’s sign-off soon. Once that’s done, it’ll take about 15 months to fully design and construct the installation, likely to be completed sometime in fiscal year 2021.

The BID described these changes as part of its annual funding request to the Board. The business group is funded by a property tax in Ballston, and the BID is asking the Board to hold the tax rate steady this year to maintain its existing operations.

Board members agreed to a small rate hike last year to account for a dip in property values in the area, and the BID argues that it still needs the extra cash. The Board will begin its full round of budget deliberations in earnest Saturday, in what could be a challenging year.

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Construction Work Set to Close Sections of W&OD, Four Mile Run Trails Starting Next Week

Some work to repair stream erosion will prompt a weeks-long closure of two trails in the Dominion Hills neighborhood starting next week.

The W&OD trail and Four Mile Run trail will both be impacted by the construction, aimed at reversing the impacts of erosion along Four Mile Run as it nears I-66. Construction is set to kick off on Monday (Feb. 18).

The work will force the closure of the W&OD trail for about a month, the county says, shuttering a section between N. Ohio Street and its intersection with the Custis Trail.

The section of the Four Mile Run trail in the area, between N. Madison Street and Patrick Henry Drive, will be closed for about six weeks.

“Tree impacts will be avoided to extent feasible,” the county wrote on its website. “Some trees will be pruned along the Four Mile Run trail in the vicinity of the staging/access area.”

Workers will post detour signs near the closed sections of the trails. Cyclists and pedestrians will be directed onto N. Manchester Street, then 10th Road N. to avoid the construction.

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