Arlington, VA

(Updated on 05/17/19) A new bus will arrive tomorrow in Ballston, but the only place it’s going is to the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC).

Arlington Transit (ART) is organizing a “food drive” for AFAC by building a 10’x10′ bus sculpture from canned food to celebrate the transit agency’s 20th anniversary, per a press release. ART will then donate the food to AFAC after disassembling the sculpture.

ART staff and volunteers will start building tomorrow at 1 p.m. inside Ballston Quarter mall, nearly the newly-opened, health food-focused True Food Kitchen.

The construction is part of AFAC’s annual slew of “Canstruction” food drives. In the past, architecture groups have built elaborate sculptures from thousands of dollars worth of canned goods at the Dulles and Reagan National airports as part of a national movement of donation-by-can-sculpture.

In 2016, the American Institute of Architects Northern Virginia Chapter built a lighthouse out of soup and bean cans in the Ballston mall for one of the building competitions.

Image via Twitter

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A recently-released report recommends that Arlington County improve its delivery of real-time transit information.

The Department of Environmental Services’ Mobility Lab released a 245-page report calling for changes to the way the county shares real-time arrival information. Respondents to a survey said the information was valuable, but they wanted additional updates and more data.

“People are overwhelmingly turning to personal technology as a source of real-time information,” the report notes. “Google Maps, WMATA Trip Planner, and Twitter were all mentioned in the focus groups as useful websites.”

Researchers first convened 14 focus groups of up to 12 participants each to design the survey last July. Afterward, the survey was published online and 346 responses were collected between September and October.

A Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation grant funded the work.

The survey and the focus groups indicate that people in Arlington use information about the “cost, time, and convenience” of trips to choose which mode of travel to take.

Eighty-one percent of the people who responded to the survey said it was important that information be available in “real-time.” Seventy-three percent said having real-time information helped them “relax” when using public transportation.

Mobility Lab suggested several improvements to the county’s real-time systems based on the feedback, which Research Manager Dr. Lama Bou Mjahed summarized in a blog post:

  • Re-evaluate transit phone systems — go straight to the information avoiding lengthy automated messages
  • Implement highly customizable or on-demand text message updates avoiding texting “spam”
  • Modernize BusFinder — add features and information like routes and schedules
  • Continue providing real-time transit information through the county’s website and LED displays
  • Diversify the locations of dynamic message boards.

Currently, the county utilizes several real-time transit information systems: online and phone-based bus and rail predictions; the BusFinder at ART bus stops; and LED signs or LCD monitors at bus stops and rail stations.

But the Mobility Lab noted that, “there is limited research into how users perceive these technologies, how well it meets their needs, and how it affects their transit use.”

For example, a majority of survey respondents said that the phone system was “valuable,” but many said the service was “a hassle” and was used as “a last resort.”

Nine out of 10 respondents said the green “Bus Finder” boxes at bus stops were a good service, but some reported they were confusing to use or didn’t work.

“A recurring theme for all technologies stationed at the physical stop or station is that this information is provided too late in the travel process,” the study said. “By the time a rider has access to that information, they’ve already committed to taking that mode of transportation, and are essentially ‘stuck.'”

Users also reported some transit apps were confusing and offered too many options.

“The key takeaway was that respondents do not want yet another app on their phone that only provides a piece of the puzzle,” the Mobility Lab wrote. “Instead, they would like one single or centralized app that works to combine all available information in one place.”

Image via Mobility Lab

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(Updated 10:05 a.m.) Arlington will soon release the results of a study on whether Uber and Lyft should replace some bus routes in certain areas of the county.

At the end of May officials are expected to conclude its “Parameters Study for Zone-Based Demand-Responsive (Flex) Transit Service,” per a county spokesman. The study will help officials weigh whether ride-hailing companies can replace some bus service in areas experiencing low bus ridership.

Ride-hailing services could connect riders heading to and from those areas with the nearest Metro station.

Taxi companies and paratransit providers are also being floated as possible service providers, county transportation spokesman Eric Balliet told ARLnow yesterday (Tuesday).

“We’re in the research phase right now, so no decisions have been made about [the] number of providers or where vehicles would pick up passengers,” Balliet said. “These would be looked at if we decide to move forward with this service concept.”

The areas being considered for this are identified in the county’s Transit Development Plan, which was approved in 2016:

  • The Douglas Park, Nauck, and Arlington Village neighborhoods which the plan aims to connect to transit along Columbia Pike.
  • The Rock Spring, Williamsburg Middle School, and Dominion Hills areas, which currently see only 10 passengers per hour on the ART 53 route. Those neighborhoods would be connected to the East Falls Church Metro station.
  • The Chain Bridge Forest, Rivercrest, Bellevue Forest, Gulf Branch, and Stafford-Albermarle-Glebe neighborhoods, which also only see 10 passengers per hour on the ART 53 route. Those neighborhoods would be connected to the Ballston Metro station.

“Each trip must either originate or end at that chosen destination,” the plan says. “This service will use smaller vehicles that may not be operated by or under the banner of ART and could include a separate fare system. Rides would be grouped and provided on a demand responsive basis.”

“In Arlington County there are several low-density neighborhoods which are served by low-frequency, low-ridership, costly-to-operate bus routes,” a 2018 description of the study says. “In these areas, it may be easier and cheaper to provide on-demand private-vehicle service for people needing to get to Arlington’s business and shopping districts than continuing to provide bus service.”

The county “sees this project as a potential model for other places which are facing similar issues with their bus systems,” said the study’s description.

County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a 2016 statement that the county’s “goal is to review a possible way to encourage transit ridership, increase efficiency and reduce costs,” and added that the county “must overcome many challenges and answer many questions before we could consider implementing this proposal.”

Montgomery County, Maryland is planning to test a similar transit program this summer where residents can request a shuttle pick-up using the Via app, WTOP reported.

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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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Arlington officials could soon be headed to court to claw back $200,000 the county handed over as part of a since-canceled agreement to buy a two-acre property in Fairfax County.

The County Board agreed back in 2016 to buy several parcels of land along the 6700 block of Electronic Drive in Springfield, with plans to use the property as space for a new maintenance facility for its Arlington Transit buses.

But the Board decided to back away from the $4.65-million land deal late last year, after discovering that the county would have enough space for bus maintenance at another property officials bought in Nauck last summer. Not only did the Board hope to avoid operating a facility outside Arlington, but members expected the move would save the county as much as $10.5 million initially and roughly $900,000 in maintenance costs each year.

Yet the process could come with its own expenses. The Board voted unanimously last week to authorize county attorneys to pursue legal action against the property’s owner, Shirley Investors, LLC, to recover a $200,000 deposit the county sent to the company before the sale was finalized.

Deputy county attorney MinhChau Corr told ARLnow that she couldn’t discuss the details of the case, but that action by the Board does not mean a lawsuit pitting the county against the property owner is a certainty. But Corr did say it’s a sign that negotiations have become acrimonious enough that the county could pursue such a step in the near future.

“There’s some level of conflict that we anticipate could go to litigation,” Corr said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re 100 percent committed. The two sides could work something out before next month’s Board meeting, this just avoids us having to wait until then to ask for permission to file something.”

County court records don’t show any case involving Shirley Investors and the county as currently pending. Neither of the two men listed as contacts for Shirley Investors in the county’s preliminary sale agreement responded to requests for comment on the matter.

It’s unclear what sort of legal argument the county might mount to recover the deposit.

The terms of the land deal say that the county would’ve been eligible to win back its $200,000 if it called off the sale within 90 days of signing the agreement with Shirley Investors — that deadline is long past, however, as the agreement was signed on Dec. 7, 2016.

Furthermore, the agreement describes that deposit as “the sole and exclusive remedy available to the seller” if the deal fell through.

Photo via Google Maps

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As Arlington’s bus service grapples with a shortage of drivers, the company responsible for doing the hiring says it’s bumping up starting salaries to lure more applicants.

Arlington Transit told riders last week that a lack of bus drivers has been a prime factor in a series of service delays over the last few months, putting most of the blame on the National Express Transit Corporation, the company that employs the drivers.

The bus service lamented that it’s “lost a number of bus operators to other companies in the region, and the resulting operator shortages are contributing to many missed ART trips each day.” With a tight labor market, it’s a problem that many bus services around the country have been experiencing recently, analysts say.

But National Express is taking new steps to remedy the problem, according to company spokesman Ed Flavin. He told ARLnow that the contractor recently “implemented a considerable increase to our starting wage in cooperation with our local labor union,” which went into effect on Jan. 1, in order to reverse this trend.

“We also provide sign-on bonuses, as well as other employee incentives to help improve recruitment and retention,” Flavin wrote in an email. “Our efforts have provided promising results, with a [recent] increase in qualified applicants.”

Flavin did not answer follow-up questions about the size of the salary bump, or what sort of resulting increase in hiring the company has seen.

However, online job advertisements show that National Express is currently offering $20 per hour for new bus drivers, so long as they have at least one year of “commercial driver” experience. By contrast, the contractor working with the neighboring Fairfax Connector service is currently offering anywhere from $17 to $19 per hour for entry-level drivers.

“We recognize the importance of providing safe, reliable public transit for the ART community and we will continue to work hard to improve the reliability of ART service,” Flaven said. “Our number one priority will always be the safety of our customers.”

In the meantime, ART has still recorded some serious service issues. The “ART Alert” Twitter account, which announces all bus delays and cancellations, shows that the service has experienced 47 missed trips or other delays since Monday alone, though some of those problems are attributable to Tuesday’s snow and mechanical issues.

The bus service has indeed struggled with maintenance issues in recent months as well, in addition to problems with its real-time tracking service and phone service for disabled and elderly riders.

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Arlington’s bus service says a shortage of drivers and persistent maintenance problems are to blame for its struggles in providing consistent service these last few months.

Arlington Transit issued a statement to riders this past Friday (Jan. 18), explaining that some problems with the service’s contractor have caused a variety of “missed trips” recently.

The contractor in question, the U.K.-based National Express Transit Corporation, provides both bus drivers and maintenance services to run the county’s local and commuter buses. ART said in its blog post that National Express has recently “lost a number of bus operators to other companies in the region, and the resulting operator shortages are contributing to many missed ART trips each day.”

To make matters worse, ART says the company is also continuing to “deal with maintenance issues with our aging bus fleet, which is causing a number of buses to be out of service daily.”

ART last experienced similar problems this past June, when it commenced an expedited round of safety inspections. At the time, county officials also chalked up many of the problems to the age of its buses, though it was able to bring on 13 new buses this summer.

“The county continues to work with our contractor to improve service and ensure each ART route is operating with the number of buses needed each day,” ART officials wrote. “We apologize for these issues and will continue to do all things possible to hold our contractor accountable for providing reliable ART bus service.”

A spokeswoman for National Express did not immediately respond to a request for comment on these issues. ART has contracted with the company dating back to at least 2012, when National Express acquired a contract to provide ART service as part of the acquisition of the county’s old contractor.

The “ART Alert” Twitter account, which announces all bus delays and cancellations, reveals that bus service has indeed been inconsistent recently. The bus service reported 55 missed trips, mechanical issues or other delays over the course of the last week alone, according to the account, with routes running all across the county affected.

When it comes to the contractor’s problems retaining bus drivers, at least, it seems the company is hardly unique. Karen Finucan Clarkson, a spokeswoman for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, noticed the post from ART and pointed out that many other bus agencies are dealing with similar “bus driver shortages.”

“It is a statewide, regional and national issue, especially with unemployment so low,” Clarkson told ARLnow.

These service disruptions are simply the latest woes for ART, following a tough few months. Technical problems have also plagued its real-time bus tracking service in recent weeks, while its phone system to connect disabled and elderly riders to bus service crashed briefly this summer.

Photo via Facebook

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Arlington Transit’s real-time bus tracking service has been plagued by more technical difficulties this week, and county officials say they’re still unsure when they’ll find a permanent fix.

ART notified riders Wednesday morning (Jan. 16) that it was experiencing “intermittent problems” with the service, which is designed to let riders know how long they need to wait for another bus to arrive.

The county’s bus service sent out a similar advisory on Jan. 7, and on two different occasions in October as well. Last April, the bus service even saw several days-long outages of the system.

County transportation spokesman Eric Balliet told ARLnow that Arlington’s Transit Bureau is currently in contact with the vendor who manages the software, California-based Connexionz. Balliet said the company is currently investigating the “GPS communication system,” which it believes to be the source of the problems, but there’s no end in sight at the moment.

“Our Transit Bureau is pressing the vendor to come up with a permanent solution to the problem, but we don’t have a timeline on when the issue will be resolved,” Balliet wrote in an email.

As of Friday afternoon, however, ART’s real-time arrivals web page was generally working as intended.

ART has also dealt with some problems with its phone system to connect disabled and elderly riders to bus service this past summer, not to mention a host of bus maintenance woes necessitating some service disruptions.

File photo

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Morning Notes

Christmas Travel Crunch Starts Today — “A record number of people are expected to travel this Christmas season, spurred on by economic comfort and relatively modest gas prices… This year INRIX, a traffic data firm, has forecast the very worst time for drivers to set out on the highways, and for the Washington region, that’s five days before Christmas, on Dec. 20, between 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m.” [Washington Post]

County Manager Pans ART Service — “‘The ART bus performance, recently, stinks,’ Mark Schwartz said during a meeting with Arlington County Civic Federation delegates… In the second quarter of 2018, on-time performance dropped to 83 percent from 92 percent a year before, according to data provided to the county government’s Transit Advisory Committee. Ridership in that quarter was down 14 percent from a year before.” [InsideNova]

Free ART Rides Today and Tomorrow — “Free ART rides on Thurs. December 20 & Fri. December 21. Everyone rides for free! Happy holidays and thank you for riding ART!” [Twitter]

Small Fire in Under-Construction Home — “ACFD is on the scene of a small trash fire at an under-construction home near Discovery Elementary and Williamsburg Middle School.” [Twitter]

Ballston Company Announces New Funding — “Acendre, a leader in secure, cloud-based talent management software for regulated industry verticals, today announced a majority growth investment from Strattam Capital. The investment will enable Acendre to accelerate its growth and more quickly advance its innovative, easy-to-use Software as a Service (SaaS) talent management platform, which helps organizations solve some of today’s most challenging hiring problems.” [Acendre]

Amazon Joins Arlington Chamber — “Amazon.com Inc. has agreed to join the Greater Washington Hispanic and Arlington chambers of commerce and could join more in the region in 2019… The e-commerce giant formally joined the 760-member Arlington chamber on Dec. 3. and subsequently sent a senior public policy official to its annual meeting on Dec. 7, said Kate Bates, chamber president.” [Washington Business Journal]

Nearby: Georgetown Wawa Opening Today — “What an exciting couple of days this week will bring, for fans of hoagies and tacos and caffeine and alcohol-infused frozen Pepsi products. Wawa announced Monday it will open its second D.C. location Thursday, in Georgetown at 1222 Wisconsin Ave. NW. As usual, the event will feature free coffee and a sampling of Wawa fare, in addition to a ‘Georgetown-inspired beverage.'” [WTOP]

Nearby: D.C. Population Breaks 700K — “Today, the U.S. Census Bureau released new official population numbers that put the District’s population at 702,455 as of July 1, 2018. The District’s population has risen every year since 2006 and has soared by more than 100,000 people since the 2010 Census.” [PoPville]

Flickr pool photo by Maryland Nomadic

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Morning Notes

More Details on WeWork in Rosslyn — “WeWork has made it official: The coworking space provider is expanding, in a big way, into Rosslyn. Its newest location, expected to open in the second quarter of 2019, will include more than 1,400 desks across four floors of JBG Smith Properties’ CEB Tower, 1201 Wilson Blvd.” [Washington Business Journal]

Wreaths Laid Despite Rain — “Despite the rain, tens of thousands of volunteers came out on Saturday to lay wreaths on the graves at Arlington National Cemetery… President Trump made an appearance, speaking to soldiers while at the cemetery.” [WJLA, Fox News]

Explainer: State Roads in Arlington — “Though it’s not obvious, the roads you use every day are owned by an overlapping patchwork of governments, regulatory bodies, and private interests. This isn’t a story of tyrannical state governments imposing their will upon localities, but of intergovernmental coordination that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.” [Greater Greater Washington]

New ART Route Starts Today — “ART 72 connects North Arlington to Ballston and Shirlington. The new route, along with Metrobus 22A/C, brings more frequent weekday service between Ballston and Shirlington. Service operates every 20 minutes during rush hours and every 30 minutes the rest of the day.” [Arlington Transit]

Flickr pool photo by Tom Mockler

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Arlington officials are calling off plans to buy a two-acre site in Fairfax County for a new bus maintenance facility, a move they expect will save the county millions over the years.

The County Board voted unanimously Friday (Dec. 7) to cancel its contract to spend $4.65 million on a site along the 6700 block of Electronic Drive in Springfield, originally designated as the future home of a “heavy maintenance facility” for Arlington Transit buses.

The county agreed to the land deal in December 2016, over concerns that it wouldn’t have enough space to store and maintain its growing fleet of ART buses. ART currently leases a storage yard in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County for the purpose, but the county managed to open a new maintenance facility in Crystal City last year and buy another property in Nauck for more space this summer.

County board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow that the latter purchase is what convinced the Board to abandon its Springfield plans.

Initially, the county planned to use that property, located on the 2600 block of Shirlington Road, as both bus storage and the home of a new ART “operations center.” But Cristol says that, once county engineers got the chance to examine the site more closely, they felt the property would have enough room to accommodate the maintenance functions planned for the Springfield site as well.

“Locating our maintenance operations outside the county was always among the best of no good options as we looked for more space for our buses,” Cristol said. “But once we discovered that the Shirlington Road site was large enough for maintenance as well, colocating things just made so much more sense.”

In all, Cristol expects cancelling the Springfield contract will save the county $10.5 million right off the bat, counting the purchase price and site preparation costs. She also estimates that the change will do away with another $900,000 in annual upkeep costs for the new property, which certainly qualifies as “good news” during the county’s current budget crunch.

County officials had eyed the Shirlington Road site for years before finally buying it for $23.9 million in July. ART once leased a section of the site for bus storage, but made the move to buy the entire property once it earned some state grants and other regional transportation money to defray the cost.

ART already beefed up its fleet of buses with some new purchases this summer, and plans to keep adding vehicles to meet a projected increase in ridership over the next decade or so.

Photo via Google Maps

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