Arlington, VA

The Arlington County Board voted to fund several transportation projects this weekend that officials had used to woo Amazon during the tech giant’s search for its second headquarters.

On Saturday, County Board members approved using $33,850,000 in state funds on the projects. The vote comes after Board members and state legislators pledged millions in transportation upgrades near Amazon’s HQ2 site as long as the company meets certain job creation and space occupancy benchmarks.

Per a staff report to the Board, the projects include:

  • $18,850,000 to expand the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway to the Pentagon City, adding 1.1 miles of dedicated bus lanes. The state previously pledged $46.6 million for the project.
  • $10,000,000 for the Army-Navy Drive Complete Street project, which aims to redesign the roadway for easier bike and pedestrian access between the Pentagon, Pentagon City, and Crystal City.
  • $5,000,000 to help build an east entrance at Crystal City Metro station, a project the county has postponed before for lack of funds.

The Board’s vote authorizes the Department of Environmental Services to receive the $33,850,000 from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) and apply it to the county’s fund for transportation capital projects. The matter was passed as part of the Board’s consent agenda for the Saturday meeting.

Metro stations and transit featured prominently on the maps that developer JBG Smith used to pitch Arlington on building its headquarters in the area. Officials are hoping an eastern Metro entrance could also better connect passengers using the Crystal City VRE station, which itself is set for upgrades.

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Officials are hoping to find ways to close the only break in the 45-mile long Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board (TPB) approved $680,000 in assistance for 13 projects, including one to look into options to close a gap near the East Falls Church Metro station.

The W&OD Trail is a regional pedestrian and bicycle trail with 3,000 plus daily users. This trail is used for walking and bicycling to the East Falls Church Metrorail Station and for longer-distance bicycle commuting across the area. The only gap in the 45-mile long W&OD Trail is in East Falls Church. The trail gap creates conflicts involving trail users and motorized traffic. This project will use technical assistance to identify alternatives for constructing an off-street connection of the trail sections in the East Falls Church area.

Currently, the trail breaks at 19th Road N., just before the Metro station.

TPB received 25 applications for transportation project funding from regional governments before the April 2 deadline, according to a press release.

The applications were judged partially on how they reflected TPB’s long-range regional transportation plan “Visualize 2045” and its goals to move more people around the growing Greater Washington area without adding more cars.

Last summer, the Van Buren Bridge near East Falls Church Metro re-opened after the City of Falls Church repaired it with a $300,000 regional grant to help connect cyclists with the station and with the W&OD. VDOT, meanwhile, is currently working on a new pedestrian bridge over Lee Highway near the Metro station.

Images via Google Maps

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(Updated at 3:20 p.m.) A summer of headaches for Blue and Yellow line riders will kick off this weekend with changes along the Blue Line — and more Metro closures ahead.

Arlington Cemetery will close this Saturday and Sunday while crews install a grade crossing. Because of the construction, Blue Line trains will run as Yellow Line trains going to Greenbelt, and riders heading toward or returning from Largo Town Center will need to catch the Silver Line, Metro says.

Free shuttle buses running every 10-15 minutes will ferry passengers between the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery.

“To get to Rosslyn from the Pentagon (and stops south) customers should travel across the Yellow Line bridge and transfer at L’Enfant to an Orange or Silver Line train,” Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta told ARLnow.

Jannetta said the station’s shutdown will not affect the opening hours of Arlington Cemetery itself, and is for crews to build a way for rail inspection vehicles to access the tracks.

“This will be especially useful during the summer platform work, which will cut off hi-rail vehicle access to the system from the Alexandria rail yard,” he said.

The summer shutdown referred to will begin next Saturday, May 25, Metro will close the following six stations in Alexandria, below Reagan National Airport, until September 8 for planned reconstruction of the station’s crumbling platforms:

  • Eisenhower
  • Van Dorn Street
  • King Street-Old Town
  • Franconia-Springfield
  • Braddock Road
  • Huntington

The airport’s own Metrorail station will remain open during the “summer shutdown,” and passengers who can travel there by rail are encouraged to do so to curb the worsening traffic from ride-hailing cars and ongoing construction that’s expected to last until 2021.

“It’s very key to our success that folks continue using public transit — the normal train service going north and free shuttle buses going south for the summer to be successful,” a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority told WTOP yesterday (Thursday.)

Arlington Transportation Partners (ATP), a division of Arlington County Commuter Services (ACCS), is advising commuters to “add at least 30 minutes to their commute times during the shutdown” and consider alternative transportation options like biking or carpooling.

During rush hour, free shuttle buses will run every five minutes between the affected stations and direct shuttles will run to the Pentagon. The shuttles will run every 10 minutes during non-rush hours.

Metro will also be making parking free at Franconia-Springfield, Huntington, and Van Dorn stations during the shutdown.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is paying $3.6 million to beef up other transportation methods like additional bus service in Alexandria.

Arlington did not receive grant money, but has said ART may add bus service during the shutdown.

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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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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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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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A Ballston redevelopment project that’s been in the works for more than a decade now could soon face yet another delay, complicating Arlington’s push to build a second entrance for the neighborhood’s Metro station in the process.

Since 2005, a rotating cast of developers has sought to tear down the office building at 4420 Fairfax Drive and transform it into a mixed-use building instead. Current plans call for a new, 23-story structure to be built on the property, complete with 237 apartments and 9,200 square feet of retail space.

But the trio of companies backing the redevelopment effort — Washington Capitol Partners, Kettler Development and Bognet Construction — haven’t made much progress since buying the property for $21.8 million back in 2015. Like developer JBG Smith before them, they’ve been unable to so much as tear down the existing, five-story building on the site.

Accordingly, the developers are asking the county for a bit more time to complete the project, generally dubbed “the Spire at Fairmont.” The site plan governing the project is currently set to expire in July 2020 — they’re hoping the County Board will agree to push that deadline back to December 2022 instead.

But the companies are also envisioning a few other changes. Not only do they want to cut back on the number of parking spaces they’ll offer on the property — moving from 289 spaces down to 237 — but they’re asking for a change in their obligations regarding the planned western entrance for the Ballston Metro station.

When JBG first secured the Board’s sign-off on the project roughly 13 years ago, it agreed to partially design and build the new station entrance at the base of the new building. That was a crucial concession for county officials, who hope to ease Metro access for people living and working along N. Glebe Road.

Now, the project’s backers are asking the Board to let them hand over cash to fund the second entrance, instead of building it themselves. The developers are also proposing to let the county start work on the project, which will include the addition of two elevators to reach the underground station, right away by granting officials an easement to access the site. In exchange, they’re asking for an extension on some other zoning deadlines associated with the redevelopment.

The county seems inclined to accept the easement deal — staff are recommending that the Board agree to the arrangement at its meeting Saturday (Jan. 26). But officials seem a bit more uncertain about the proposal to accept cash for the station entrance, and the extension of the site plan deadline.

Some of that trepidation likely stems from the county’s history of challenges finding funding for the Ballston Metro project.

The county had hoped to win regional transportation funding for the new entrance, to the tune of about $72 million. But the complex structure of the deal hashed out by state lawmakers last year to provide dedicated funding for Metro meant that the very group set to send Arlington cash for the project — the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority — would lose tens of millions of dollars each year, diminishing the project’s chances to win the money any time soon.

Legislation proposed in this year’s General Assembly session could restore the group’s funding, but it’s far from a sure thing that it will pass. And the Board pushed back any plans to fund the new entrance for years in its latest update of the county’s 10-year construction spending blueprint, as officials grapple with some tough budget years.

Staff are suggesting that the Board defer any final decision on the matter until March, in order to allow negotiations to play out between the two sides.

Photos via Washington Capitol Partners

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A pair of major Crystal City transportation projects that were key parts of Arlington’s pitch to Amazon are now set to receive millions in state funds.

State transportation planners are recommending that officials send the county $52.9 million to help build a second entrance for the Crystal City Metro station, and another $6.6 million for an expansion of the Crystal City-Potomac Yard bus rapid transit system to Pentagon City.

The money is set to flow through Virginia’s “Smart Scale” program, a pot of money managed by Gov. Ralph Northam’s Commonwealth Transportation Board for big-ticket projects around the state. Each year, state planners recommend a series of improvements for funding by weighing various factors like how each one will reduce congestion or spur economic development efforts.

While the funding arrangement isn’t final just yet, the cash could help spur the construction of two of the five transportation improvements Northam’s negotiators promised to the tech giant in striking a deal to bring Amazon’s new headquarters to Crystal City and Pentagon City. A second, southwestern entrance to the proposed Potomac Yard Metro station, a new pedestrian bridge connecting Crystal City to Reagan National Airport and as-yet-undetermined improvements to Route 1 were also part of the incentive package.

However, the company didn’t put forward any cash on its own to afford the changes, leaving the county and the state to sort out the funding details. And the latest recommendations from state officials suggests that they’ll be drawing the bulk of the funding from “Smart Scale” cash, necessarily shrinking the size of the pot of transportation dollars available for the rest of the state.

Notably, the nearly $53 million set aside for the second Metro entrance is substantially less than the $78 million in “Smart Scale” money county officials requested for the project this past summer, back when it was still no sure bet that Amazon would pick Arlington. The project’s total price tag is estimated at $90.7 million.

County leaders have hoped for years now to build an eastern entrance to the station, to be located at the northwest corner of the intersection of Crystal Drive and 18th Street S., in order to make it more accessible to commuters and improve connectivity with the nearby Virginia Railway Express station.

Yet Arlington had trouble winning regional transportation funding for the project, in part due to some of the vagaries of the deal struck by state lawmakers to provide dedicated annual funding for the Metro system, but Amazon’s impending arrival seems to have bumped the effort to the front of the line. The project didn’t score especially well on the “Smart Scale” metrics designed to evaluate projects for funding, placing 83rd out of the 433 projects submitted for consideration this year, but it was still included among the 11 projects in the Northern Virginia area set to see more cash this year.

Documents prepared for the CTB don’t lay out where the county will find the remaining $37 million or so for the project. The regional Northern Virginia Transportation Authority previously sent $5 million to account for engineering and design costs, but Arlington officials declined to allocate much cash for the project in an update to its 10-year construction spending plan passed last year. Northam could opt to include more funding for the project in his state budget this year; the county’s proposed deal with Amazon also mentions that officials plan to draw up to $28 million over a 10-year period from tax revenues generated by the new headquarters to afford improvements in the area.

By contrast, the expansion of the dedicated bus lane system, commonly known as the “Transitway,” was already in the works when the Amazon deal came into focus. The “Smart Scale” cash will fund all but about $1.8 million of the project’s estimated cost.

The Transitway currently operates between the Crystal City Metro station and the Braddock Road station in Alexandria, with dedicated bus lanes and stations covering about 4.5 miles in all. The expansion would add another .75 miles to the route, linking the Pentagon City Metro to the Crystal City stop.

With Virginia Tech planning a new campus in Potomac Yard to coincide with Amazon’s arrival, and development in the neighborhood ramping up, the bus service would provide a link between all three areas before a new Metro station opens in the Alexandria neighborhood. The project ranked 10th overall on the “Smart Scale” metrics.

The CTB will spend the next few months finalizing these funding plans, and is set to approve them formally in June.

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Metro is shutting down three Arlington stations on the Blue and Yellow lines this weekend, in order to allow for some major lighting improvements set to make each station substantially brighter.

The Pentagon, Pentagon City and Crystal City stops will all be closed both Saturday and Sunday (Jan. 12-13), WMATA announced last week, work that is sure to create substantial disruptions on both lines.

Metro plans to run Blue Line trains on its regular weekend schedule between the Franconia-Springfield and Reagan National Airport stations and between Arlington Cemetery and Largo Town Center each day, with free shuttle buses providing a bridge between the closed stations. After the cemetery closes at 7 p.m. each day, Blue Line service will end at the Rosslyn station.

As for the Yellow Line, Metro expects it will only run trains between the Huntington and National Airport stations, with free shuttle buses on that line too.

The exact details for the shuttle buses are as follows, per a WMATA press release:

  • Blue Line Shuttle (No stop at National Airport) – every 5-10 minutes between Braddock Rd, Crystal City, Pentagon City, Pentagon, Rosslyn
  • DC-Airport Express Shuttle – every 5-10 minutes between Reagan National Airport and L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Downtown DC
  • Pentagon-Airport Shuttle – every 15 minutes between Reagan National Airport, Crystal City, Pentagon City, Pentagon only

Metro is warning anyone hoping to use the rail service and shuttle buses to allow an extra 30 minutes of travel time to reach their destinations this weekend.

Officials chose to kick off work this weekend because they’re counting on “lighter post-holiday travel” patterns, easing demand for service reaching DCA. Metro made a similar assumption back on Veteran’s Day in closing the National Airport station, only to see huge traffic snarls as frustrated commuters turned to the roads instead.

This latest construction project is aimed at installing new LED lights in all three stations, part of a $50 million project that involves lighting upgrades at all of Metro’s 48 underground stations. WMATA says that stations generally become about six times brighter after the new lights are installed.

The station closures will also let Metro “perform additional track work, including concrete grout pad replacement, installation of radio communication cables and tunnel leak mitigation” at all three locations.

The troubled transit system remains beset by questions of how to best complete needed track work while improving service and luring riders back to its trains. Metro leaders are proposing some key rush hour service increases in WMATA’s new budget, but it remains an open question whether Arlington and other Virginia localities will be able to help pay for those changes.

Photo via WMATA

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Morning Notes

Snow Coming This Weekend — Gas up the snowblowers: accumulating snow is likely this weekend. By county ordinance, all snowfall under 6 inches must be removed from sidewalks within 24 hours of the last flakes. That gets bumped up to 36 hours for 6 or more inches of snow. [Capital Weather Gang]

New ‘Best of Arlington’ List — The 2019 “Best of Arlington” list is in. Among food-related winners, Ambar was named Best Restaurant, Barley Mac was named Best for Date Night and Matt Hill of Liberty Tavern Group and Hungry was named Best Chef. [Arlington Magazine]

AWLA Dog Featured in People Magazine — “One of our AWLA alums, Lucy, is featured in People Magazine this week! Here’s the online article about her weight loss journey after being adopted — her owner helped her go from 26 lbs to 14 lbs.” [Twitter, People]

Case of the Disintegrating Coffee Cups — On four separate occasions, a Washington Business Journal reporter had a coffee cup from Compass Coffee in Rosslyn start to disintegrate and leak in her hand. The company says they were sent a bad batch of paper cups and are working to remove all of the faulty cups from their cafes. [Washington Business Journal]

Va. Legislature to Consider Housing Bills — “A new surge in development in parts of Northern Virginia could come next year under a proposal to overhaul 2016 proffer legislation in this year’s General Assembly… Another proposal would ban discrimination by local governments through land use decisions against low-income or other specific types of development.” [WTOP]

Power Issue at Ballston Metro Station — There are reports that power was out at the Ballston Metro station this morning, meaning no working elevators, escalators or fare kiosks, and only minimal lighting. [Twitter, Twitter]

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Metro will now start allowing riders to bring bicycles on trains all day long, ending the rail service’s long-standing prohibition on bikes during rush hour.

WMATA announced today (Wednesday) that it will no longer prohibit cyclists from using its trains from 7-10 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. each weekday. The change will officially go into effect on Monday (Jan. 7).

Metro said in a news release that it was making the change in a bid to boost ridership, an increasingly challenging feat for the transit service these days, particularly for people hoping to commute via a combination of Metro and local bike trails.

“We believe this change supports ridership growth by Metro a commuting option for those who want to have a bike with them,” Metro Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader wrote in a statement.

Officials added that they expect they’ll be able to make the change “without significant negative effects” on conditions for rush-hour riders. That’s because many trains at rush hour are eight cars long, the longest offering in the Metro fleet, and because the “new 7000-series trains provide more open space.”

Local cycling advocates have long sought such a change, dating back to when Metro first instituted the current rush-hour bike ban in 2001. WMATA initially banned all bikes on its trains, before instituting a permit system in 1982. Those were eliminated in 1998.

“Bicycling extends the reach of Metrorail for customers at the beginning and end of their trip. Members of the community have long wanted the option to bring a bicycle along with them on their rush hour trips, especially reverse commuters,” Greg Billing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, wrote in a statement. “I have to say that we’re pleasantly surprised with how flexible and accommodating Metro has been in responding quickly to this request.”

Of course, early reaction to the policy change has been anything but unanimously positive, over fears that the move will exacerbate crowded conditions on trains for commuters.

Metro added in the release that officials plan to “monitor implementation of the new policy to determine whether any modifications are necessary,” and it could still ban bikes during “major events drawing high ridership” like Independence Day or Inauguration Day.

WMATA estimates that just .8 percent of its customers arrived at stations by bike as of 2016, and its governing Board of Directors is aiming to increase that figure to 2.1 percent by 2020.

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