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County Could Speed Up Design Work on Army Navy Country Club Access Road

County officials seem to have found some money to speed up design work on an access road to link the Arlington View neighborhood to Army Navy Drive.

County Manager Mark Schwartz initially proposed some hefty delays for the project, which is set to stretch across a section of the Army Navy Country Club, in his proposed 10-year plan for county construction efforts. Under his proposal, design work on the effort wouldn’t even start until fiscal year 2027, with construction set for 2029.

The county’s budget challenges have ensured that Arlington officials haven’t suddenly found enough money to build the road, and its accompanying bike and pedestrian trails, right away. But county staff did manage to track down about $230,000 to pay for design and engineering work starting in fiscal year 2020, officials told the County Board during a work session Tuesday (July 10).

That news is quite welcome for Board members and residents alike, considering that the county has been working to build the 30-foot-wide road since 2010, in order to better connect Columbia Pike to Crystal City.

The road would run from S. Queen Street, near Hoffman-Boston Elementary, to the I-395 underpass, where a country club access road meets up with Army Navy Drive. The process of securing an easement to even cross the country club in the first place was a challenging one for the county, but the two sides ultimately struck a deal after the county agreed to allow the club to build a larger clubhouse than county zoning rules would ordinarily permit.

Staff cautioned the Board that reallocating this money for design work won’t do anything to change when the project gets built, at least for the time being. But members supported the change all the same as a way to provide some more detailed plans for the Board to consider a few years from now, when the county’s fiscal picture could improve.

“At least it’s getting us somewhere,” said Board member Erik Gutshall. “We’ve got to move the ball forward.”

In order to get that design work moving, the Board would need to pull $105,000 away from some minor arterial road projects over the next two fiscal years, and another $125,000 away from the “Walk Arlington” program for pedestrian-centric projects. The latter move will leave just $50,000 available for the program in 2020 and 2021.

But Board members seem to believe the funding shake-up is well worth it, particularly as bicycling advocates stress the importance of the project.

“There is a compelling case to be made that this will allow one of our largest growing population centers, Columbia Pike, to have more access to one of our major commercial and office centers of Crystal City,” Board Chair Katie Cristol said. “The most important thing is we get the scope of this proiect to the point where we can have those conversations about feasibility.”

County transportation director Dennis Leach cautioned that additional examinations of the project could reveal that it’s too challenging for the county to pursue. He noted that the “steep grades” in the area, combined with its proximity to woodlands and I-395, could all combine to make the effort “extremely expensive.”

Initial estimates pegged construction costs around $5.2 million, but the county hasn’t updated that figure in years.

Cristol added that there are also “big questions” about whether the county can afford to bring the project into compliance with federal accessibility laws. However, she did suggest that one avenue for addressing those cost concerns might be redirecting some revenue generated by the commercial and industrial property tax on Crystal City businesses, as the area would potentially stand to benefit from the project.

“I look forward to the prospect of a taking a better scoped project and having a conversation with the business community about whether it’s a proper use of that tax money,” Cristol said.

The Board will make the reallocation of money for the access road official when it votes to approve a final Capital Improvement Plan on Saturday (July 14).

Photo via Google Maps

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Arlington Preparing to Embrace Dockless Vehicles With Pilot Program

Arlington is now gearing up to officially embrace dockless bikes and scooters, even though some scooters have already arrived in the county.

County officials have spent the last few weeks mulling how to respond to the sudden appearance of dozens of Bird’s dockless scooters around Arlington in late June. Though the county did receive some advance warning from the company that it planned to start operating in Arlington, County Manager Mark Schwartz and the county’s legal team weren’t sure exactly how to react to Bird’s arrival.

Some communities have even chosen to take legal action against dockless vehicle companies that start operating without the local government’s consent, but the county announced in a statement today (Thursday) that staff determined there “are no regulations currently in place that would prohibit the operation and use of these devices in Arlington.” The county doesn’t have any regulation prohibiting the scooters on sidewalks, but it does ban “motorized vehicles” from county bike paths, which would include the scooters.

Moving forward, county transportation spokesman Eric Balliet told ARLnow that officials are planning to unveil a “pilot demonstration project” to test out all manner of dockless vehicles this fall.

Much like D.C.’s current pilot program, Balliet says he envisions the effort helping to “provide structure to the deployment, operation and use of scooters and dockless bikes within the county and to evaluate the overall performance and gauge the impacts of these mobility devices.” He says the current plan is to deliver a framework for that effort to Schwartz and the County Board for approval this September.

Should the county design a program similar to the District’s efforts, dockless companies like Bird would be able to partner with the county to participate in the pilot. Lime Bike has already been working with the Crystal City BID, as it eyes the county for expansion. Skip’s CEO also says his company, the third dockless scooter outfit operating in D.C., is interested in Arlington.

Balliet did not immediately provide details on what form the pilot program might take, but County Board member John Vihstadt says he’d be broadly receptive to clearing the way for more dockless vehicles to become available around Arlington.

“New methods of mobility are something we need to embrace,” Vihstadt said. “Some people will say, with the greater consumer choice one has with mobility, is that undercutting the Metro system or our bus system… but I think they can work together. If people have to get to to the Metro, or get to the bus stop, we can utilize these other modes of personal transportation.”

In the meantime, the county is urging anyone using dockless vehicles around Arlington to be considerate of other drivers and bike riders. The county also released a new tip sheet today with suggestions on the best ways to use the scooters, while officials hammer out a more detailed policy.

Between Bird and the other dockless companies currently operating in D.C. and Maryland, the county estimates that roughly 100 dockless vehicles pop up in Arlington each day.

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County May Ask State for $78 Million for Second Crystal City Metro Entrance

(Updated at 10 a.m.) Arlington is getting ready to seek nearly $78 million in state transportation funding to build a second entrance at the Crystal City Metro station.

The County Board is considering submitting the project for “Smart Scale” funding, money handed out by the Commonwealth Transportation Board for big-ticket projects around the state. If approved, Arlington would have the money it needs to add an eastern entrance to the station at the northwest corner of the intersection of Crystal Drive and 18th Street S., perhaps by sometime in 2024.

The county has spent years studying the prospect of a second entrance to ease access to the Crystal City station, particularly as planners project substantial increases in housing development in the area over the next few decades, with or without Amazon’s potential arrival. The project would also include two street-level elevators and a new underground passageway and mezzanine to reach the Metro platform.

Yet the county has hit some roadblocks when it comes to finding funding for the $91 million project.

Arlington’s recent budget woes, brought on by declining commercial tax revenues and new funding obligations for Metro service, means that the county will need to rely on outside funding for the second entrance. The county expected to get most of that money from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a regional body that funds major transportation improvements.

But the NVTA recently told the county that it can only chip in about $5 million towards design work for the project, as the group adjusts its own funding plans after losing out on tens of millions in annual revenue as a result of a deal to provide dedicated funding to Metro.

That forced Arlington officials to turn to the statewide “Smart Scale” program to for funding, an outcome local lawmakers predicted as a result of the NVTA losing out on money as part of the Metro deal. The county is similarly concerned about how it might pay for second entrances at the Ballston and East Falls Church stations in the coming years due to these same factors, but officials only chose to submit the Crystal City project for “Smart Scale” money.

State transportation officials will evaluate the Crystal City entrance against other projects across the state, and award funding based on factors like how much congestion they will relieve and how much economic development they’ll spur. Should Arlington win the full $78 million it’s asking for, county officials plan to use the NVTA money and some local tax revenue to fund the remainder of the project’s cost, according to a staff report.

The county also plans to submit three more projects, with a total cost of roughly $10.1 million, for “Smart Scale” funding.

Those include the expansion of Transitway service in the Crystal City area, the installation of new equipment and software to create a demand-based pricing system for county parking meters and the procurement of software to better manage Arlington Transit (ART) bus service.

More on the parking meter proposal:

Performance Parking Deployment in Commercial Corridors ($6.1 million)

This project will install equipment and software to support demand-based pricing of on-street meters and improved public information about parking availability. On-street parking is limited by the finite length of curb on County streets and competing curb uses while offstreet parking is very expensive to build. Given these limitations, it is critical that the parking supply is managed effectively. Modern parking technology enables a much more efficient management of the system. County policy, as stated in the Master Transportation Plan’s Parking and Curb Space Management Element, supports the use of multi-space meters and other high performing technologies. The project will support the installation of hardware and software to monitor and display occupancy, turnover, and parked duration information from the curbside metered spaces and County owned and operated off-street facilities in order to support demand-based pricing of on-street meters and improved public information about parking availability.

The County Board will formally vote to endorse these “Smart Scale” applications at its meeting this Saturday (July 14).

Photo via Arlington County

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Hefty Metro Delays on Tap This Weekend on Silver, Orange, Blue Lines

Allow plenty of extra time if you’re planning to take Metro this weekend.

WMATA is planning for heavy delays across the rail system all weekend long, particularly on the Silver, Orange and Blue lines. Metro is warning riders to expect trains only every 26 minutes along those lines, according to a service advisory.

Trains will be single-tracking on the Orange and Blue lines between the Foggy Bottom and Smithsonian stations to allow for the “installation of cable/communication equipment to support cellular service in tunnels and [a] new radio system.” That work will also force WMATA to only run Silver Line trains between Wiehle-Reston East and Ballston.

Green and Yellow line trains will also have 15-minute headways this weekend, with Green Line trains single-tracking between the Fort Totten station and Prince George’s Plaza. Yellow Line trains will only run between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square to account for that work, as well.

Red Line stations are also set for a host of disruptions, per the advisory.

Photo courtesy of Metro

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Second Entrance at East Falls Church Metro Station May Be On Hold For a Decade Or More

Arlington likely won’t be able to add a second entrance at the East Falls Church Metro station until sometime in the 2030s, as county officials re-examine their funding priorities for the next decade.

The county has hoped for years to build a western entrance to improve pedestrian access to the station, particularly with plans to someday re-develop the parking lot and properties surrounding the station.

But the project’s roughly $96 million price tag makes it difficult to afford as officials grapple with a tight revenue picture. County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing delaying any funding for the second entrance until at least fiscal year 2028 in his new ten-year Capital Improvement Plan.

“Given the pipeline of existing, high-priority stations, it really made sense to move this out,” county transportation director Dennis Leach told the County Board during a work session last Tuesday (June 26).

Schwartz is calling for the county to dedicate $8.8 million in state and regional transportation dollars for design work at the station starting in 2028, pushing back any construction spending indefinitely. The Board’s last CIP, approved in 2016, called for the planning process to start in fiscal year 2022, and construction to start in 2024.

As Leach mentioned, the county is eyeing second entrances at both the Crystal City and Ballston Metro stations as well, and officials are also struggling to fund those efforts as the county copes with increased Metro spending to provide the service with dedicated annual funding.

Complicating matters further is that the county was hoping the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a group that hands out money for transportation improvements around the region, would be able to fund the bulk of the construction of all three projects. But the same dedicated funding deal for Metro involved pulling away about $80 million from the NVTA each year, meaning the group is scaling back how much money it can offer all but the most large-scale projects.

“We can’t do them alone,” Leach said.

For the East Falls Church Metro entrance, the county was hoping to earn about $57.2 million from the NVTA. But with the group barely able to find any money for the Crystal City project, and no money for the Ballston second entrance, the county doesn’t have any clear sense for where to find funding for East Falls Church if its fiscal situation doesn’t improve.

That’s not to say that the county is abandoning the project, however.

Sarah Crawford, the county’s assistant director of transportation, told the Board that she fully expects the East Falls Church entrance “would score well” and earn money generated by the tolls on I-66 inside the Beltway. The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission hands out some of that revenue as part of its “Commuter Choice” program for local transportation improvements, and Crawford said the county plans to submit the East Falls Church project for consideration in the coming months.

Karen Finucan Clarkson, a spokeswoman for the NVTC, says the group finished its most recent round of funding through the program last month, but will solicit a new round of projects “this fall, most likely in October.” The NVTC would then select its preferred projects sometime next spring, and the county is hoping to win roughly $6.6 million in funding for the effort.

Meanwhile, Leach also noted that the county will probably apply for more state funding through the “SmartScale” program for the Crystal City entrance project — applications are due by Aug. 1.

The County Board is set to vote on its final CIP by July 14.

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ART Prepares to Roll Out 13 New Buses Over the Next Few Months

Arlington Transit is prepping 13 new buses to start picking up riders in the coming months.

County transportation spokesman Eric Balliet told ARLnow the bus service received the new vehicles a few months back, and hopes to have three making the rounds before the month is out.

He expects the rest will hit the road as the county continues to beef up bus service in the coming months, likely “later this summer/early fall,” as part of the Transit Development Plan the County Board approved in 2016. That plan is designed to bridge gaps in bus service around the county, particularly along Columbia Pike, where ART and Metrobus just started teaming up to offer enhanced service last month.

ART has also dealt with a series of mechanical issues recently, particularly on some of its older buses, but Balliet says the county is still being cautious in putting these new buses in the field.

The 40-foot-long, natural gas-powered vehicles are the first buses the county has purchased from New Flyer of America, the same company that provides vehicles to WMATA for much of its Metrobus service. Accordingly, Balliet says ART’s service contractor “has been in the process of reviewing the buses for acceptance and training operators and technicians” since the agency got its hands on the buses earlier this year.

In all, the county’s Transit Development Plan calls for ART to expand its fleet “by over 20 vehicles” in total through 2026.

The county projects that these additions and service changes will help it boost ridership by 24 percent over the same time period, though ART’s ridership figures have flagged in recent months, similar to other bus services nationwide.

Photo courtesy of Abigail Wendt

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ART’s Phone Line for Seniors, People with Disabilities Goes Down, Prompting Headaches

(Updated at 3 p.m.) Arlington Transit’s phone system to connect disabled and elderly riders to bus service has been hobbled by technical problems all week, prompting big headaches for people who rely on the program.

ART’s “Specialized Transit for Arlington Residents” service, commonly known as STAR, has been dealing with “technical difficulties” at the agency’s call center since Tuesday (June 26), according to a series of alerts sent out to riders.

The main STAR phone line hasn’t worked since then and remains down today (Friday). County transportation spokesman Eric Balliet says ART is working on the issue with service provider Verizon and even the state’s technology agency, with a temporary solution on the way.

“The temporary solution, estimated to be in place later today, will forward the main STAR number to a number provided by Red Top Cab, which dispatches service for STAR,” Balliet wrote in an email. “STAR personnel have been taking calls on this temporary line and will continue until the issue is resolved.”

The phone system is designed to connect riders who might have trouble using ART’s regular service with a scheduled, shared-ride service to take them wherever they need to go around the county. Accordingly, this week’s outages have created big problems for riders with disabilities, in particular.

ART has also dealt with a series of problems with its real-time alert service in recent weeks, not to mention a host of bus maintenance woes necessitating some service disruptions.

Photo via Facebook

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Plans to Build New Ballston Metro Station Entrance Could Stall

Arlington officials worry that their plans to build a second entrance to Ballston Metro station could stall and be delayed indefinitely if the county and WMATA can’t make progress soon.

To get a move on and finally construct a western entrance for the highly trafficked station, county leaders say they need millions more in funding, and they’ve had trouble tracking down that money.

Arlington asked for $72 million from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to help pay for design work and construction, but the regional group passed over the project entirely in its new six-year funding plan. Without that cash, County Board Chair Katie Cristol worries that the roughly $25 million Arlington’s already received in state transportation funding for the project could go up in smoke, throwing its future in jeopardy.

“We have not spent down… very much of the design funds that have already been awarded,” Cristol told ARLnow. “I don’t think it’s imminent that they’re about to be clawed back if we don’t make progress. But I think they could be, especially in a time where resources are constrained everywhere.”

Cristol, Arlington’s representative to the NVTA, says the group ultimately chose not to award more money for the Ballston project because its leaders just didn’t see enough forward momentum on design work for the effort.

“We’re a little stuck, and we do need to show progress,” Cristol said.

It doesn’t help matters, as Cristol pointed out, that the group will lose roughly $80 million a year as a consequence of the deal to provide dedicated annual funding to the Metro system, and has had to scale back how many projects it will fund around the region.

Even still, the NVTA was able to send the county $5 million to pay for additional design work on a second entrance for the Crystal City Metro station, falling far short of the county’s $87 million request but still helping push the project forward.

What set the Ballston project apart from Crystal City, Cristol notes, is the work the county still needs to do with Metro to draw up what the construction will actually entail. Broadly, officials know they’d like to build another entrance near the intersection of N. Fairfax Drive and N. Vermont Street to improve access to the spate of new developments on N. Glebe Road.

Beyond that, however, Cristol says the county and Metro need to work out the details. As WMATA grapples with the existential issue of how to bump up service levels and lure riders back to the system, Cristol worries Ballston could get lost in the shuffle.

“It’s not opposition to the project,” Cristol said. “I don’t even think it’s a sense that the project is too complicated, it’s just a bandwidth problem.”

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld warned County Board members at a Tuesday (June 26) work session that the Ballston project is not without its challenges.

He expects that construction at such a busy station would have “huge impacts on service,” noting that Metro would likely need to build a “temporary platform” while work proceeded. Wiedefeld reiterated his commitment to the project, but he also told the Board that he’d like to see a lot more preliminary work done with such consequences for Orange and Silver line riders at stake.

“We need to make a commitment together that we’re going to spend dollars on it, look at this in detail and make some hard decisions on what will come out of that,” Wiedefeld said. “I’m not comfortable with any of the costs that been bantered around, to be frank, without that level of engineering.”

That sort of tone struck Cristol as good news, even as she urged Metro to address the project sooner rather than later. Fundamentally, she believes additional access to the Ballston station will help WMATA meet its goals of boosting ridership once more, so it should become a natural priority for Wiedefeld and company.

“I do believe this is a project that is good for Metro,” Cristol said. “It would help them get new riders, when they need them the most.”

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More Dockless Scooters Could Soon Arrive in Arlington, As County Mulls Policy

Dockless electric scooters only popped up in Arlington for the first time last weekend, but it seems like a sure bet that more are on the way.

Lime Bike is eyeing the county for its next expansion of its dockless scooter service, after starting up operations in D.C. last fall. The company even teamed up with the Crystal City Business Improvement District to offer free scooter rides for people walking along Crystal Drive today (Thursday), as part of a bid to build community support ahead of an eventual rollout in Arlington.

“You can’t just serve the District and expect to offer a transportation solution for the entire region,” Jason Starr, Lime’s D.C. general manager, told ARLnow. “But we don’t just want to operate without some good will and support from residents and businesses alike… While, yes, we do want to operate in Arlington, one thing we really pride ourselves on as a company is working with jurisdictions to create a viable source of support for this.”

Starr makes this point, in part, to draw a contrast with Bird, another dockless company in D.C., which first deployed its scooters in Arlington on Sunday. County transportation spokesman Eric Balliet says that county officials “did receive a heads-up” from Bird about its plans, at least, but he added that the county is very much weighing how to react to Bird’s sudden arrival.

“We will be having discussions with the county manager and the county attorney’s office on how to respond to their deployment in Arlington,” Balliet wrote in an email.

Some cities have chosen to take legal action in response to such tactics by the scooter companies. For instance, Santa Monica sued Bird over its failure to secure necessary business licenses and permits, while San Francisco has temporarily banned all electric scooters in the city as it hammers out a new permitting process.

Balliet says county officials have “met informally” with the various dockless vehicle companies in the region, in part to avoid any such conflict. In fact, Balliet says the county’s commuter services bureau is crafting a draft policy to govern how all manner of dockless vehicles can be used around Arlington.

He’s hoping that will be ready for presentation to County Manager Mark Schwartz and Transportation Director Dennis Leach by September, who will then be able to provide “guidance on next steps,” such as deciding whether the County Board will need to review the document.

Starr suggested that part of the county’s reticence to take action on a more formal policy just yet could be that officials are waiting to see how D.C. handles its ongoing pilot program with dockless vehicles, which is set to run through August. However, he stressed that he doesn’t think that’s “totally necessary,” considering the willingness of companies like Lime to work with the county.

Even with Bird’s arrival in Arlington, Starr doesn’t expect to change the company’s plans to work hand-in-hand with Arlington and its business community, however.

“There’s naturally a reason to act quickly, but I don’t want to do that at the expense of making sure we have a relationship with everyone here,” Starr said. “If we get the sense that this is something people are in favor of, that will be a natural time to approach Arlington and say, ‘We want to start operating the service now,’ but right now we’re still in the early phase.”

Yet it seems competition in the county is only set to increase in the coming weeks.

The head of Skip, the third dockless scooter company currently active in D.C., says their conversations with the county have been “incredibly positive” and hinted that Skip would also be interested in Arlington.

“We plan to invest in the local community and be a responsible partner in Arlington just as we’ve done in D.C.,” CEO Sanjay Dastoor wrote in an email.

Rob Mandle, chief operating officer of the Crystal City BID, expects that any competition among the dockless companies will only be healthy for Arlington.

He sees offering a full range of transportation options, dockless vehicles included, is crucial to attracting businesses to area. After all, companies tend to follow the demands of their potential workers, Amazon included, and young professionals are increasingly clamoring for the scooters.

“Mobility solutions is what top talent looks for,” Mandle said. “So if you don’t have those solutions, then you are at a competitive disadvantage.”

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Northam Pledges to Revive Tax Increases to Fund Metro, Send Transportation Money Back to Arlington

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) says he’ll renew his push for a set of Northern Virginia tax increases to fund Metro next year, a move that could help Arlington win back some critical transportation dollars.

Republicans in the General Assembly narrowly defeated Northam’s efforts to add the tax hikes to legislation providing the first source of dedicated funding for the rail service earlier this year.

The tax increases would’ve been relatively modest, bumping up levies on real estate transactions and some hotel stays, but they could’ve helped the state avoid pulling roughly $80 million in annual funding away from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. The group uses regional tax revenue to fund transportation improvements across Northern Virginia, and the NVTA has already had to scale back its plans to help Arlington pay for construction projects like second entrances at the Ballston and Crystal City Metro stations.

That’s why Northam says he plans to propose the tax hikes once again when lawmakers reconvene in Richmond in January, setting up another tussle over the issue several months ahead of an election where all 140 state legislators will be on the ballot.

“We’ve got to be so careful pulling resources out of the [NVTA],” Northam told ARLnow in a brief interview in Rosslyn. “It threatens other projects we were working on. It also makes Northern Virginia compete with other parts of Virginia. It was a bad idea, and that’s why I amended [the original bill]. We’re going to continue to work on that.”

There’s no guarantee that Northam’s second effort will be any more successful than his first, however. Republicans still hold a slim, 51-49 majority in the House of Delegates where GOP leaders, particularly Del. Tim Hugo (R-40th District), have pledged to beat back any tax increase to fund Metro.

But Democrats are eager to take up the fight once again, especially with other contentious issues, like Medicaid expansion or the freeze on state utility rates, off the table.

“It’s worth coming back and doing this right,” said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District). “The way we funded this thing was clearly shortsighted.”

Neither Hugo nor a spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox responded to a request for comment on Northam’s Metro plans. But Hope believes Republican lawmakers, particularly those outside of Northern Virginia, will come around on the tax hikes as they begin to feel the impacts of the funding deal’s structure.

Specifically, he points out that without seeing all the money they’d like from the NVTA, Northern Virginia localities like Arlington have already started applying for more funds from statewide entities. That will put Northern Virginia projects in competition with applications from cities and counties without the same level of traffic congestion as the D.C. region, meaning places like Arlington could end up winning out in plenty of cases.

“Everyone else is going to get less money,” Hope said. “Nobody likes to be stuck in traffic and nobody wants to get blamed for causing that.”

County Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey points out that applications for the state’s “SmartScale” transportation funding program have already “more than doubled” this year, with counties like Arlington on the hunt for more construction dollars. He expects that will only continue as time goes on, and he was similarly pleased by Northam’s plans to bring the tax increases back.

“It wouldn’t just relieve the funding pressures on us, but everyone else,” Dorsey said. “The way Metro funding was accomplished this year ends up hurting the entire state.”

In the meantime, however, Dorsey notes that the county can’t assume that Northam’s efforts will be successful.

As the Board has started work this summer on its latest revision of Arlington’s 10-year construction spending plan, county staff have repeatedly expressed hope that the Metro funding equation changes and opens up more room for spending on big transportation projects. But without any certainty on that count, they have to prepare as if things will remain the same.

“Hopefully, this is something we can correct in two years,” Dorsey said. “But we can’t know for sure.”

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More Than 100 Cyclists Flood Columbia Pike to Advocate for Better Bike Routes

More than 100 bicyclists hit Columbia Pike on Saturday (June 23) to draw attention to a new push to improve bike routes along the road.

The newly-formed advocacy group Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County organized the roughly two-mile-long “Bike for the Pike” protest ride, which ran down Columbia Pike from the Penrose Square Park to the intersection with with S. Four Mile Run Drive.

The group is lobbying county leaders to consider a slew of improvements to make the Pike corridor easier on cyclists, arguing that large sections of the road remain unsafe. County Board members Libby Garvey and Erik Gutshall attended Saturday to lend their support to the effort.

“Despite budgeting over $100 million in the current adopted capital plan to make Columbia Pike a complete street, the county’s current plans wouldn’t even provide a complete bike facility that runs the full length of the Pike, let alone one that is safe, direct and low-stress,” Chris Slatt, the group’s founder and a transit-focused blogger, wrote in a statement. “#Bike4ThePike was a chance to say ‘We’re here, we ride, we pay taxes, we deserve safe, direct, low-stress routes.'”

The county has indeed made efforts to improving transit options along the Pike, with long-awaited changes to Metrobus service along the corridor starting yesterday (June 24). But Slatt’s organization is pressing for a variety of new roadway improvements and policy revisions to make the Pike even more hospitable to cyclists.

In the near term, Slatt wants to see the county conduct a “comprehensive safety review” of the Pike’s intersection with Washington Blvd. In a news release, the group notes that the area “has been the site of numerous bicycle and pedestrian crashes” since VDOT finished a major overhaul of the interchange a few years ago, and Slatt wants to see the county commission a study of the area within the next year.

His group is also advocating for the construction of a parallel bike and pedestrian bridge over Four Mile Run in the next three years, arguing that the current bridge is “dangerously narrow and lacks any sort of buffer from speeding traffic.”

They’re also pushing for traffic signal changes to make 9th Street S. friendlier for bicyclists as it intersects with both S. Glebe Road and S. Walter Reed Drive, as well as the construction of an access road connecting the Arlington View neighborhood to Army Navy Drive within the next five years — the county likely won’t start work on the latter project until 2027.

Slatt’s group plans to hold additional advocacy events focused on bicycling, walking and public transit around the county in the coming weeks.

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Bird’s Dockless Electric Scooters Now Available in Arlington

Dockless electric scooters have now made their way to Arlington.

The electric vehicle company Bird scattered dozens of its scooters across the county on Sunday (June 24), becoming the first company to offer the vehicles in Arlington. Bird’s operated in D.C. for the past few months, in addition to several other electric bike and scooter “ride sharing” firms like Lime and Skip.

Company spokesman Nick Samonas says Bird scooters are now available in Ballston, Clarendon, Crystal City, Pentagon City and some areas along Columbia Pike, and he noted that “as ridership grows, the company will expand its fleet to serve all of Arlington’s residents and communities.”

“As Arlington rapidly develops, it’s clear there’s an urgent need for additional transit options that are accessible, affordable and reliable for all residents and local communities,” Samonas wrote in an email. “Birds are a great solution for short ‘last mile’ trips that are too long to walk, but too short to drive.”

Anyone hoping to use the scooters needs to download the company’s mobile app, then use it to find an available scooter. The app then guides would-be riders through the process of piloting the scooter, parking it and, of course, paying for the ride. Bird charges a base fee to “unlock” each scooter, then assess an additional fee based on how long riders use the vehicle.

Samonas declined to discuss how many scooters the company has made available across Arlington — though a quick scan of the app Monday morning shows more than 50 scooters around the county — but he said the company will only add more vehicles “when each is being ridden three or more times per day.”

Spokesmen for Lime and Skip, the other dockless scooter companies operating in D.C., didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they plan to follow suit and expand to Arlington. As of Monday morning, Lime’s app does show one scooter available just outside Crystal City; Skip’s scooters, meanwhile, remain on the other side of the Potomac River for now.

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Long-Awaited Columbia Pike Bus Service Changes Kick Off Sunday

Bus riders along Columbia Pike will see significant service changes starting Sunday (June 24), as part of the long-awaited “premium transit network” planned for the corridor.

Metrobus will soon offer five streamlined routes along the Pike, down from 11, and offer more frequent service across all of those routes, Arlington transportation officials told the County Board Tuesday (June 19).

The changes will move in tandem with some other Metrobus service alterations recently approved by WMATA’s governing board, and bring the county closer to delivering on its promise to improve transit options along the Pike after abandoning the contentious streetcar project four years ago.

“You may not necessarily move through the corridor faster, but you won’t have to wait as long for a bus to take you somewhere, particularly during the peak hours,” said Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey.

Lynn Rivers, the county’s transit bureau chief, noted that Metrobus will offer 30 additional hours of service across all the different routes on the 16 line, with the ultimate goal of running buses once every six minutes along the most crowded stops on the Pike.

The county has also kicked off the process of finding a contractor to build 20 new bus shelters along the Pike.

Dennis Leach, the county’s transportation director, told the Board that the county started soliciting bids for the project last Wednesday (June 13). By July, he expects the county will know how much each shelter will cost, a key point of interest for Board members after the Pike’s “$1 million bus stops” prompted community outcry years ago.

Yet Rivers believes the more noticeable change for riders right away will be the alteration to Metrobus routes along the Pike. She noted that buses won’t be changing where they drop off and pick up riders, but Metrobus will be tweaking how it describes its various routes to be less confusing.

“The idea was to streamline that to make it easier not just for those who are using it, but also bring more people onto the system,” Rivers said.

Moving forward, the five routes on Columbia Pike will be known as 16A, 16C, 16E, 16G and 16H. Rivers added that 16Y service will still be available as well during peak hours, though only to Farragut Square, and service along the 16X route to Federal Triangle will still be available during peak times as well.

While these changes came as good news to Board members, John Vihstadt did point out that “our communities have been frustrated with the pace” of the county’s work to implement bus service changes along the Pike. Rivers believes this first phase of improvements is the equivalent of starting off “with a bang,” but she did acknowledge there’s lots of work left to be done.

Eventually, the county and Metro plan to offer nonstop bus service between the Pike and Crystal City, and extend the Transitway, or dedicated lane bus service, out to Pentagon City — the latter effort just won some new regional funding as well.

“This is just the beginning of many more phases,” Rivers said.

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I-66 Tolls Have Yet to Convince Arlington Commuters to Choose Transit

The new tolls on I-66 inside the Beltway may be steep, but new data suggest they have yet to convince people to turn to Arlington’s public transit options instead of driving.

The rush hour tolls have been in place on I-66 between Rosslyn and the Beltway since December, but a new report by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission does not show any substantial increase in Metrorail or local bus ridership around Arlington.

The regional transportation planning group’s researchers did find some upticks in express bus ridership in Fairfax and Prince William counties, which benefits from fewer rush hour traffic delays on I-66 post-tolling. Yet NVTC staff stresses that there is currently no clear evidence that the tolls, designed to convince commuters to carpool or turn to public transit to ease congestion on the highway, are having their desired effect broadly.

“While public transportation systems transport significant numbers of commuters from the Washington, D.C. suburbs to downtown, overall transit ridership in Northern Virginia has shown a gradual decline, which is influenced by employer transit benefits, transit service reliability, telework, and real estate development, among others,” the NVTC report reads. “However, new commuter and express bus services supported by the I-66 Commuter Choice [tolling] program have demonstrated stable demand and are expected to grow.”

The group examined ridership data on Metro’s Orange and Silver lines, running between stations west of the Ballston stop and Ballston itself, as well as between Ballston and stations east of it. For the month of February, the NVTC found that ridership increased by about 4 percent from the same month in 2017.

However, staff noted that could be due to the transit system’s recovery from its “SafeTrack” maintenance program, noting that “it is difficult to discern the influence of I-66 tolling from these statistics.”

The NVTC also found that bus ridership in the I-66 corridor declined from a similar time period a year ago, particularly in Arlington. Staff found that Arlington Transit routes along the corridor dropped by a total of 12 percent when comparing February 2018 to the same month last year, and Metrobus ridership in the area fell by 10 percent.

The new tolls helped local bus services run some buses more frequently along the corridor, but the group found declines in ridership on those routes too. For instance,  ART started running buses on its 55 route once every 12 minutes during rush hour starting in June 2017, yet ridership fell by 7 percent when comparing February 2018 to February 2017.

Similarly, 2A Metrobuses now run every 10 minutes instead of every 15 during periods of peak ridership — and the route saw a 10 percent drop in riders, the report found.

However, the NVTC noted that bus ridership “declines persist before and after the I-66 tolling,” not only in Arlington in recent years, but also across the region and even the country.

They’re also hopeful that commuters are still taking time to adjust to the beefed up transit options, and are merely taking time to adjust their schedules accordingly.

“The public transportation service capacity added in FY2017 through the I-66 Commuter Choice program has met with stable demand,” staff wrote. “A ramp-up in demand is expected in the coming years.”

File photo. Charts via NVTC.

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Arlington’s Metrobus Service Set for Route Changes Starting Next Month

Metrobus 5A to Dulles from Rosslyn

Metro is making some changes to a handful of its bus routes around Arlington, in a bid to make service more efficient and save a bit of money.

WMATA’s Board of Directors approved a series of changes to Metrobus routes across the region on Thursday (June 14), including adjustments along six routes in the county. All of the alterations will take effect on July 1, and they mark the latest in a slew of recent changes to Metrobus service in Arlington.

The biggest change will be the elimination of the 22B route, which currently runs from the Ballston Metro station to a stop at the intersection of S. Four Mile Run Drive and Columbia Pike in Barcroft.

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly notes that “alternate service is available on routes 22A and 22C,” and that buses once running the 22B route will be used to provide more service between Pentagon City and Shirlington. Eric Balliet, a spokesman for the county’s Department of Environmental Services, added that the “majority of the 22B is redundant with the 22A and C” and suggested that the change will complement the county’s planned expansion of dedicated-lane Transitway service in Pentagon City.

“The public reaction was neutral, and the change nets $108,000 per year in savings,” Balliet told ARLnow via email.

Another significant change approved by the WMATA board is the truncation of the 10E route, which currently runs from the Rosslyn Metro station to Hunting Point in Alexandria. Now, the route will end at the Pentagon instead of continuing on to Rosslyn.

Balliet said county transit officials have planned on making the change since July 2016, noting it’s redundant with Metro’s Blue Line and some Arlington Transit routes. In all, he expects the change will save about $232,000 each year.

Other changes include increasing the time between buses on routes 7A and 7F between the Pentagon and Shirlington, and a series of changes along Columbia Pike to account for bus service improvements designed to take the place of the abandoned streetcar project. In all, Metrobus will tweak the schedule of buses on routes 16A, 16B, 16C, 16E, 16G, 16H, 16J, 16K, 16P and 16X.

Finally, Metro will rearrange the schedules of routes 4A and 4B between Pershing Drive and Arlington Boulevard, eliminating 4A buses in the middle of the day in favor running 4B buses more frequently.

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