Arlington, VA

One sunny weekday afternoon last week, as the temperature clocked in at a perfect 72 degrees, there were just four bikes parked at Metro’s new $2 million bike parking facility in East Falls Church.

The scene contrasts with how cycling advocates remember the station pre-pandemic, when dozens of bicycles were parked out front on any given day.

“East Falls Church has been one of the most heavily used stations for cyclists in the past,” said David Cranor, who writes for the cycling blog TheWashCycle.

The 92-spot facility made its debut last August — in the middle of the pandemic — when the East Falls Church station reopened. Set to open in 2015, the structure was delivered five years late and $1.1 million over budget, costing the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority about $21,000 per spot to build.

The delay and budget overruns prompted an investigation that found miscommunication and a lack of oversight, among other problems, plagued the project.

Eight months after the opening and six months after WMATA’s Office of the Inspector General released its report, the East Falls Church Metro Station has yet to enjoy its pre-COVID-19 popularity among cyclists. Still, bicycling advocates maintain that facilities like this one are needed, as bike theft is a common problem. They predict longtime commuters and a new batch of cycling enthusiasts will one day fill the spots.

“I’m not surprised there were few bikes parked when you visited,” said Bruce Wright, the president of Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling. “Much of the use of bike parking is by commuters, and almost no one is commuting. We’ll have to wait until after people return to work before getting an idea of how heavily the bike facility will be used.”

Based on how packed the station was with bicycles before the pandemic, Wright added, “I assume it will be very popular.”

As vaccination rates rise and restrictions lift in the D.C. area, more people appear willing to ride the Metro. According to WMATA’s COVID-19 data, this month’s ridership is up an average of nearly 240% over this time last year, when stay-at-home orders were still fresh. Still, Metro reports that overall, ridership remains down around 85% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

And it’s not just bike parking that is down. Vehicle parking at Metro lots in February was down 94% compared to 2020, just before the pandemic.

One way WMATA can measure cyclists’ interest in parking is through registration numbers. Metro requires users to register for the Bike & Ride facilities, which are accessed with a SmarTrip card. To date, more than 1,200 SmarTrip users have registered to use the Bike & Rides, which are also located at the College Park and Vienna Metro stations, said WMATA spokesman Ian Jannetta.

“Users don’t register to use a specific facility so I don’t have station-specific numbers, but I would expect the number to be relatively low since the two new facilities opened during this period of extremely low ridership,” he said. “We encourage anyone who wants to make biking part of their commute to utilize these secure facilities as the region continues its recovery and more people travel.”

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President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan has added a glimmer of hope to those who would like to see an expanded Metrorail system.

The initial planning for the system in the 1960s envisioned a line down the Columbia Pike, ultimately terminating in Annandale, but the proposed line was nixed in order to save on costs. A physical remnant of the planning is a pair of stub tunnels near the Pentagon Metro station, built to accommodate a potential future Columbia Pike expansion.

Decades later, in 2019, Metro published the results of a study that suggested a number of ways to expand the capacity of the Metrorail network, including a second Rosslyn Metro station and tunnel, and a Silver Line expansion down the Pike and up Route 7.

Proposed new Silver Line Connection through Columbia Pike (via 2019 Metro study)

The possibility was especially enticing considering the disappointment of transit advocates following the 2014 cancellation of the planned Columbia Pike streetcar line.

While Metro faces plenty of maintenance, service, budget and ridership challenges — the latter three exacerbated by the pandemic — that hasn’t stopped some from dreaming of a world in which more local residents are within easy walking distance of a light rail commute.

Among those discussing such a possibility, given the massive infrastructure spending that would result should Biden’s plan pass, are some of Arlington’s state lawmakers.

Even should the stars align and federal funding become available, digging up Columbia Pike and building a new Metrorail tunnel and stations would be fantastically expensive and would likely require a decade or more of planning and construction.

The new connectivity would also result in new development, sharply higher property prices, and other big changes, which could be viewed in a positive or a negative light, depending on your perspective.

What do you think about the idea of a Metro line on Columbia Pike?

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Morning Notes

Grants for National Landing Restaurants — “The National Landing Business Improvement District and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington have a new round of grant aid for restaurants and small businesses… Grant applications will be accepted online until March 28. They will be reviewed on a first-come, first-served basis, and will amount to at least $1,000 for each approved business.” [WTOP]

New Clarendon Salon Opening Next Week — The new Smitten on Washington salon is set to open on Tuesday, March 23, at 3000 Washington Blvd in Clarendon. The salon replaces Hendricks Gentlemen’s Barbershop, a men’s venture from the Smitten owners that closed in December after four years in business. [Facebook]

Silver Line Ext. Not Opening Until 2022 — “Metro officials say that the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport will open for use in early 2022, most likely in February. ‘What we’re looking at is early 2022, first quarter in calendar 2022, as the likely start of operations,’ Laura Mason, Metro’s executive vice president for capital delivery, said at a board meeting Thursday.” [DCist]

Local Leaders Want Metro Changes — “Representing the cities and counties that fund Metro in Virginia, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission outlined its priorities for Metro’s proposed FY 2022 budget… While the Commission recognizes the major funding relief made possible by the American Rescue Plan Act, the Commission presses Metro to: Maintain a dependable and sufficient level of rail and bus service throughout FY 2022, Open Silver Line Phase 2 as soon as possible, Rebuild ridership, [and] Minimize shifting operating expenses to the capital program.” [Press Release]

Single-Family Homes Are Red Hot — “Typically, markets tend to favor sellers when the supply of homes drops below six months. For much of the last decade, the local supply has hovered at around two months, but has been trending ever lower in recent years. For single-family homes, the D.C. region’s supply dropped to a mere 0.6 months in February, according to the data, and those homes are selling within seven days on the open market.” [Washington Business Journal]

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Morning Notes

Two Library Branches Are Back Open — “County officials on March 9 reopened the Shirlington and Westover branch libraries, albeit with curtailed hours and limiting the public to no more than 15 minutes inside at any one time. Where the reopening plan goes from here is anyone’s guess. ‘All other branches remain closed at this time, and a reopening date for the remaining branches has not yet been determined,’ library officials said.” [Sun Gazette]

Arlington Vultures Make National News — “When [Harvard University] closed because of Covid-19 in midsemester last spring, I relocated to my wife’s home in Arlington, Va… What I had not anticipated was that shortly after my arrival, my wife and I would be joined by a pair of black vultures, who thought the attic of her garage would be the ideal place to raise a family. And that’s just what they’ve done.” [Wall Street Journal]

Public Meeting on HQ2 Phase 2 Planned — “Arlington County is looking for public input on the next phase of new construction for Amazon’s second headquarters — including plans for a futuristic, spiral-shaped building called ‘The Helix.’ A virtual ‘Community Kick-off Meeting’ is now planned for March 25 at 6:30 p.m. It will be the start of a lengthy public review process that will take several months to complete.” [WJLA]

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Reopens — “Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) will reopen the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier plaza to the visiting public [on] March 9, 2021. ANC is taking this action as part of a gradual reopening under improved COVID-19 conditions. Reopening the Tomb plaza to the public, while continuing to maintain current health protection conditions, is an important element of the yearlong centennial commemoration for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which culminates on Veterans Day 2021.” [Arlington National Cemetery]

Residents Hold Nightly Pandemic Happy Hour — “They’re bundled up and socially distanced in front of a roaring fire, with drinks in hand. In this Arlington neighborhood, residents have met for a happy hour called Six Feet at 6:30 every night for nearly a year. ‘It’s been my therapy,’ Mary Stump said.” [NBC 4]

Big Metro Cuts Averted By Stimulus Bill — “Metro expects to avert service cuts and layoffs that had been proposed in its FY22 budget thanks to new federal relief approved by Congress today. ‘Congress has once again stepped up to address the needs of Metro and the regional transit systems that will be critical to our region’s economic recovery,’ said Metro Board of Directors Chair Paul C. Smedberg. ‘While it will take more time to work out all the details, including Metro’s exact share of this funding, the $1.4 billion provided by the American Recovery Plan for our region’s transit agencies will allow us to avert the painful service reductions and layoffs that were on the table.'” [WMATA]

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(Update 4:25 p.m.) Metro is fast-tracking repairs on the Yellow Line bridge and tunnels.

The transit agency is preparing for a major capital project to rehab the 3,000-foot-long Yellow Line bridge that crosses over the Potomac River, connecting D.C. to Arlington.

Upgrades will also be made to the fire suppression system on the bridge which is, as the release notes, “beyond its useful life.” Additionally, the steel-lined tunnels connecting the Pentagon Metro station to the bridge and the bridge to L’Enfant Plaza station will be repaired.

Both the bridge and tunnels date to Metro’s original construction more than 40 years ago.

“Metro is investing in an aggressive capital campaign to rehabilitate and repair elevated structures, and the Yellow Line Bridge is the top structural priority providing the region with a vital transportation link across the Potomac,” Metro’s Executive Vice President of Capital Program Delivery Laura K. Mason writes in the press release. “Advancing this project quickly is good for our customers, and will allow Metro to utilize this process on future projects to more quickly address critical safety needs of other elevated structures.”

In order to get this done quicker, Metro is hiring a Construction Manager at Risk (CMAR) to coordinate the design process, pricing, and construction concurrently, allowing the project to move quicker.

Proposals are due April 7. The bulk of the work will take place in 2022.

A Metro spokesperson tells ARLnow that without a CMAR, the project would have taken a year longer and been completed in December 2023. Construction is schedule to be wrapped up by the end of 2022, Metro confirms.

The project is part of Metro’s 10-year, $15 billion Capital Improvement Program. A Metro spokesperson was unable to provide the exact cost for this particular project.

Word of the upcoming project comes in the midst of a budget battle that could result in the closing of 22 stations come January 2022, including four stations in Arlington.

The bridge was first constructed in the 1970s. It’s supported by box-girder spans and piers which are showing excessive wear and corrosion. As for the tunnels, decades of water leakage and underground moisture have eroded the steel-lined tunnels.

Maintenance and leak mitigation is ongoing, but “long-term repairs are necessary now to avoid structural failure in the future,” reads the release.

The state of the Yellow Line Bridge and the tunnels has been a continued source of concern in recent years.

Speed restrictions were put in place several summers ago due to track conditions. The tunnels started leaking in 2017, forcing single-tracking. In 2018, the entire Yellow Line was shut down for several weeks for needed renovation work on the bridge.

And, in 2015, the Yellow Line tunnel between the bridge and L’Enfant Plaza station was the site of a deadly smoke incident that left one woman dead and dozens of commuters hospitalized.

Photo via Flickr/John Sonderman

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Metro is asking the public to weigh in on possible options for drastic service cuts, including potentially closing several Arlington stations in January 2022.

On Wednesday Metro announced that the public comment period for its 2022 fiscal year budget had officially opened.

With it, they are asking riders to fill out a survey about what options they’d be willing to deal with beginning on Jan. 1, 2022 if more federal money is not received.

The options on the survey include closing Metrorail every day at 9 p.m, trains arriving only every 30 mins at most stations, and shuttering up to 22 stations that have low ridership or are near others.

That list includes four stations in Arlington: Clarendon, Virginia Square, Arlington Cemetery, and East Falls Church.

Screenshot of the Metro survey, asking about potential service cuts in 2022 (Photo via Screenshot/Metro press release)

These were the same stations that were closed earlier in the pandemic due to lower ridership and construction.

The survey also asks about prefered options for cutting Metrobus service, including a number of lines that run through Arlington and Northern Virginia.

Proposals include consolidating the bus system into 50 lines that serve only the highest ridership routes as well as limiting overall service to about half of pre-pandemic levels.

Metro is asking riders to fill out the survey by Tuesday, March 16 at 5 p.m.

The potential cuts come as Metro continues to say they are facing a significant budget shortfall if no additional federal money is received — a shortfall caused in large part by decreased ridership during  the pandemic.

The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority says ridership has decreased by 90% overall on Metro.

Back in December, Metro was promised more than $600 million in the latest coronavirus relief package. That funding, notes Metro, has helped to avoid layoffs, provide essential service, and prepare for riders returning.

But even with that funding and other austerity measures, “there is not enough money to fill the entire budget gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2021,” Metro’s press release says.

There’s a decent chance, however, that this public survey will become moot.

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan has $20 billion earmarked for public transit agencies. At this time, however, it remains unclear how much would go to Metro if the plan does pass in Congress.

Still, county leaders say the potential cuts are concerning.

“Arlington agrees with Metro that federal funding is essential to ensuring that the sort of drastic cuts that could profoundly impact Metro in Arlington will not have to be made,” writes Arlington Board Chair Matt de Ferranti in a statement to ARLnow. “Our Senators and Representatives fully support Metro funding in the federal legislation currently under consideration on Capitol Hill. We are grateful for their critical leadership and are staying in close contact to ensure this critical federal support for our community gets enacted and appropriated. “

In recent weeks, though, service changes have already come to Metro based on the revised 2021 budget approved in November.

Starting last week, trains started coming every 12 mins on the Orange, Blue, Silver, and Yellow lines. However, Metrobus will start expanding service beginning on March 14. Buses are being added on 125 lines and weekend service is being expanded.

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The Pentagon City Metro station is getting a second elevator.

On Saturday, the Arlington County Board voted to award a contract to W. M. Schlosser Company for the construction of a second station elevator on the west side of S. Hayes Street, near the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City mall.

Designs for the elevator were first approved early last year and the contract for managing the construction was approved this past summer.

The second elevator will eliminate the need for pedestrians to cross six lanes of traffic on S. Hayes Street, two parking lanes, and a bike lane to reach the one elevator currently in operation on the other side of S. Hayes Street, near the Pentagon Centre shopping center.

“For those with mobility issues, this is a big step forward so that we can serve everyone well,” said County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti at the meeting.

Construction is expected to start in the spring and be completed within a year, by spring 2022.

The Maryland-based W. M. Schlosser Company previously was awarded the contract to rehabilitate Arlington House in 2018 and completed streetscape projects for the county in Crystal City and Potomac Yard.

The total cost of the elevator contract is about $6.5 million, which actually exceeded the initial estimate by about double. Changing market conditions and the risks involved with such a complex project are “likely reasons” for the higher costs, according to Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services spokesperson Eric Balliet.

Funding for the project is a combination of federal ($2.4 million), state ($2.1 million), and local funds ($2 million).

The Pentagon City Metro station has one of the highest riderships in Northern Virginia, according to the staff report. The station averaged about 12,500 entering riders in 2019, though that number has been cut by more than two thirds in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The elevator will add to the two escalators that already lead to the station at street level on the west site of S. Hayes Street.

“Providing entry to the station from the west side of South Hayes Street improves ADA access as well as access for passengers with strollers and luggage,” reads the report.

Additionally, it will provide redundancy if — or when — one of the elevators goes out of service for any reason.

The County approved this item as part of its consent agenda, meaning it was non-controversial and was acted upon by a single vote. The County Board also approved, as part of the consent agenda, an increase in the contract for the eventual inspection of the elevator’s construction.

The Pentagon City Metro is also getting four new escalators as part of a $179-million, seven-year system-wide project to replace and install new heavy-duty escalators. That project will begin in May.

Photo courtesy of Arlington County

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Seven Arlington Metro stations will be getting new escalators.

This is part of a $179-million, seven-year project that begins in May to replace old escalators and install 130 new heavy-duty ones at 32 stations across the Metro system.

In total, 36 escalators across seven Arlington stations will be replaced.

They are:

  • Rosslyn (8 escalators)
  • Ballston (6 escalators)
  • National Airport (4 escalators)
  • Pentagon (5 escalators)
  • Pentagon City (4 escalators)
  • Crystal City (6 escalators)
  • Virginia Square (3 escalators)

The new escalators will have up-to-date safety features and LED lighting. The contract for the project was awarded to the Finnish engineering company KONE.

The escalators set to be replaced include four in Rosslyn that date back to 1977 and rise nearly ten stories. At 207 feet high, they are among the world’s longest, continuous escalators.

“Replacing these escalators that average 38-years old, will ensure we maintain reliability for our customers today and into the future,” Metro General Manager/CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld said in the press release.

To install the new escalators, KONE will have to demolish the existing escalators and remove them piece by piece.

No more than 18 escalators will be out of service at any given time, the transportation agency promises.

For the last decade, Metro has made it a priority to fix, rehabilitate, and replace frequently breaking escalators. By the time this project is completed, Metro will have replaced or rehabilitated 84% of its escalators since 2011.

However, Metro has not set forth a timeline beyond the work beginning in May.

The full press release from Metro is below.

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Morning Notes

Arts Group Pushing for New Venue — “As part of its recently adopted strategic plan, [Embracing Arlington Arts] plans to use the coming three years to build community support for a performing-arts venue that would include a black-box theater and ancillary classroom and office space. Efforts would also be made to identify a site and start raising funds.” [InsideNova]

APS Changing Student Camera Policy — “In response to challenges teachers are experiencing engaging students with cameras off, we have adapted our policy regarding the use of cameras during instruction time, based on input we have received from teachers, staff, parents, the Distance Learning Task Force, and advisory committee members. We are asking teachers to encourage students to turn on their cameras during synchronous instruction and while directly engaging with peers and staff.” [Arlington Public Schools]

Spotlight on Arlington Man’s Heroism — “A must read about Arlington’s Paris Davis, the former publisher of VA’s Metro Herald. His heroism in 1965, while commanding a Special Forces team in Vietnam, seems worthy of the Medal of Honor. But those who served with him say the Pentagon kept losing the paperwork.” [New York Times, Twitter]

Local Nonprofit’s Work Highlighted — “Mohammad Ahmed, 30, gave up working as an Uber driver in March for fear of infecting his wife, 3-year-old son and two elderly parents who live with him. When he couldn’t pay the rent or electric bill for their two-bedroom apartment in Arlington, a local charity funded mainly by taxpayer dollars stepped in.” [Washington Post]

Metro Reducing Rail Service — “Metro this week began reducing Metrorail service during peak commuting hours because of low usage while saying it will boost Metrobus service as new commuting trends emerge during the coronavirus pandemic. The transit agency referred to the changes as a way to ‘normalize’ rail service.” [Washington Post]

Local Economy Expected to Grow — “Greater Washington’s economy will rebound in 2021 as Covid-19 vaccinations become more common and the weather warms up, according to a new regional economic forecast released Friday. That means 3.5% growth in the gross regional product in 2021, a sharp rebound from the 2.9% drop in 2020. But the region will only see a full recovery in 2022, with 4.1% projected growth in the local economy.” [Washington Business Journal]

Many Office Workers Will Stay Remote — “Working in D.C. will continue to look different for the greater part of this year due to the coronavirus, a new study shows. Employers expect less than a third of their employees to physically be in the office in the first quarter of this year, but by the fall, they expect 75% of their staff to be back, according to a study.” [NBC 4, Washingtonian]

Flickr pool photo by GM and MB

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Morning Notes

Planning Process for Pentagon City Underway — “Amazon.com Inc.’s vision for Pentagon City is decidedly futuristic, anchored by a helix-shaped building that looks straight out of a sci-fi novel. Arlington County’s existing plans that guide the neighborhood’s growth, meanwhile, date back to the days of disco… The open question is how much more development the tech giant will inspire.” [Washington Business Journal]

SUV Overturns on GW Parkway — From WTOP yesterday morning: “NB George Washington Pkwy before the Key Bridge, crash involves one on its side with the left lane only squeezing by.” [Twitter]

GMU to Partner with Local American Legion Post — “Realizing a need existed to help veterans and their families in similar situations, leaders at the law school established the Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic (M-VETS) in 2004…. A new partnership with American Legion Post 139, which will be standing up a new building in Arlington, will allow the clinic to further increase its impact.” [George Mason University]

New Apartment Building Opening — “AHC Inc., a leading developer of affordable housing in the Washington-Baltimore metro region, is pleased to introduce a new apartment community in Arlington, VA, called The Apex. Featuring a total of 256 apartments, the $100 million development has started to welcome its first residents and is currently accepting applications.” [Press Release]

Arlington Housing Remains Pricey — “The city of Falls Church in Virginia remains the most expensive housing market, by official jurisdiction, with a median price of $820,000 last month. But among larger jurisdictions, Virginia’s Arlington County remains the most expensive, at $600,000 last month.” [WTOP]

Instant-Runoff Voting Challenges — “Technical, legal and financial complexities likely will mean any start to ‘instant-runoff’ County Board voting in Arlington will be pushed back to 2022 at the soonest. ‘It’s not practical for this year. The earliest this could possibly be used is next year,’ said Arlington Electoral Board secretary Scott McGeary, summing things up during a Feb. 6 Electoral Board meeting.” [InsideNova]

Reminder: Blue Line Work Starts Tomorrow — “Metro’s entire Blue Line is being shut down for more than three months starting Saturday… platform reconstruction work [is] being performed at the Arlington Cemetery station.” [ARLnow]

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Metro’s entire Blue Line is being shut down for more than three months starting Saturday.

The closing of the Blue Line, which runs through parts of Arlington, is due to platform reconstruction work being performed at the Arlington Cemetery station. Additionally, work is being done at the Addison Road station in Maryland. The project was announced last year.

Both the station and the Blue Line are planning to reopen on May 23.

A shuttle bus will run between the Rosslyn, Arlington Cemetery, and Pentagon stations during the project. The shuttles will run every 12 minutes Monday through Friday and every 15 minutes on the weekends. They will not stop at Arlington Cemetery after 7 p.m.

The construction work is part of a massive effort to reconstruct, modernize, and update station platforms throughout the system.

The work being done at the Arlington Cemetery station will include adding slip-resistant tiles, brighter LED canopy lighting, and lighted handrails on stairs. There will also be new platform shelters equipped with charging ports, improved platform speakers and PA system, better information screens, and renovated bathrooms.

This is the same type of work that closed down parts of the Orange Line and the entire Silver Line over the summer.

Normally, this type of work and necessary shutdown happens during the summer time when Metro ridership is historically lower. But with ridership down as much as 90% due to the pandemic, the Blue Line shut down is being initiated earlier in the year.

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