Arlington, VA

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Back in January, I kicked off this series looking at the Pike Premium Transit Network.

This is the year that the Columbia Pike Streetcar was supposed to start running; since many folks claimed that a “Modern BRT” system could be implemented more quickly than a Streetcar, I’m examining how far we’ve come in that implementation compared to what was envisioned.

If you need a refresher, take a look back at Part 1. Here in Part 2, I’ll be looking at the key features related to improving travel time. Future installments will examine convenience, dependability and capacity features.

Fare Collection

One of the slowest and most frustrating parts of riding the bus is waiting in line to get on the bus while everyone pays their fare. Our BRT system is supposed to avoid this using “off-vehicle fare collection”, which moves that fare-payment activity to occur at the bus stop instead of on the bus. There are many ways to do this, the simplest of which is a “proof of payment” system where people pay at the bus stop, and are given a receipt. Fare enforcement officers ride the bus throughout the day and can ask to see a passenger’s receipt. If they don’t have one, they are ticketed for fare evasion.

Arlington appears to be working to make off-board fare collection happen on Columbia Pike, but has been stymied by a lack of progress at WMATA. With the majority of bus service on the Pike run by WMATA and with the importance to riders of a functioning regional fare system that allows a seamless transfer between providers, WMATA is at the center of any progress on off-board fare. Unfortunately, WMATA declared it’s “Next Generation Fare Pilot” a failure in 2016 and has made little progress in moving off the SmarTrip platform since.

Being saddled with 1990s-era fare technology make implementing off-board fare collection technically possible, but extremely challenging requiring numerous workarounds and potentially investing millions of dollars in fare infrastructure that could then become obsolete within a couple years when WMATA finally moves forward on a new regional fare system.

Arlington could try to go its own way on this, or potentially in partnership with other Northern Virginia jurisdictions in the same way that VRE has created its own mobile ticketing app. Unfortunately, without a link to SmarTrip, users wouldn’t get a transfer discount when connecting from a Columbia Pike bus to MetroRail.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the business community have been trying to push WMATA forward on this, with limited success so far — the Federal City Council did a feasibility study for off-board payment on Metrobus in Arlington & DC in 2017 and Arlington has been participating in quarterly meetings between regional partners who are planning off-board or multi-door fare collection systems.

Arlington has made little-to-no discernible progress on this front, but staff are clearly trying; we may need our political leaders to wade deeper into this issue. All Columbia Pike buses currently accept fares exclusively on the vehicle but Arlington is trying to move the ball forward.

Grade: B for effort, F for actual progress.

Boarding

Once you’ve got off-vehicle fare collection and don’t need everyone to make their payment in front of the driver, you can get a great speed-up by now using more than one door to get people onto the vehicle. The more doors, the faster you can board.  Currently about 25% of a Columbia Pike bus’ travel time is spent letting passengers on and off. If you can halve that, you’ve sped up the bus by more than 12% (about 3 minutes off a 30-minute trip).

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Morning Notes

Pentagon City Redevelopment on Pause — “Brookfield Properties has suspended plans to launch a major redevelopment of the Transportation Security Administration’s headquarters in Pentagon City once the federal agency moves to its new home in Springfield in mid- to late 2020… it’s a reflection of the new reality that Amazon’s HQ2 has created in the neighborhood.” [Washington Business Journal]

Vote on Add’l Speeding Fine This Weekend — “Currently, a ticket for going 10 mph over the speed limit in a residential zone is about $80. The additional fine would bring that ticket to $280. ‘People drive like maniacs around here. It’s about time they got some punishment,’ Arlington resident Jack Feegel said.” [NBC 4]

Arlington Resident Helps Return Lost Dog — “A lost dog was reunited with its owner thanks to a passing motorist, who noticed something unusual on their way to work, and a fellow driver farther along the road. Dashcam footage shows the unnamed motorist, from Arlington, Virginia, driving to their workplace in Silver Spring, Maryland, on January 13.” [Daily Mail]

ACFD Responds to Calls in Maryland — It’s rare for the Arlington County Fire Department to respond as mutual aid to an incident in Maryland, but it happened Wednesday morning, with several units dispatched to Prince George’s County. [Twitter, Twitter]

Arlington Tourism Tax May Be Made Permanent — “The Arlington County government looks ready to get a major present from the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly. The state Senate has passed and sent to the House of Delegates a measure that removes the sunset provision on Arlington’s authority to impose a 0.25-percent surcharge on hotel taxes to support tourism promotion.” [InsideNova]

Nearby: No Streetcar in Georgetown — “Plans to extend the DC Streetcar to Georgetown have been effectively scrapped. The District Department of Transportation is halting all work on the project ‘for the foreseeable future,’ according to documents submitted to the D.C. Council.” [WTOP]

Flickr pool photo by Rex Block

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Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Happy New Year, it’s 2020. This is the year the combined Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar system was scheduled to open.

Streetcar opponents like Libby Garvey and Peter Rousselot said a “Modern Bus Rapid Transit System” could be implemented much more quickly than a streetcar, so let’s check-in to see how things are progressing.

What was proposed?

When the Arlington Streetcar was initially looked at, the County had to do an Alternatives Analysis (AA) (actually, they did several AAs, but that’s a long story). In the final AA, they compared the Streetcar Alternative to a “No Build” alternative and two different bus alternatives.

The “No Build” alternative was basically to see what happens if we continue with the status quo and some improvements that were already in the Capital Improvement Plan. The first bus alternative, called “TSM-1” was an “enhanced bus” service that made some minor improvements but didn’t really have a big impact. The second bus alternative called “TSM-2” made a lot of improvements and, at least on paper, was projected to provide nearly the same benefits as the Streetcar alternative for a lot less money.

This TSM-2 alternative is what many streetcar opponents championed as a “Modern BRT” system and encouraged the County to implement in place of the Arlington Streetcar. The system I am going to outline below and set forth as my expectations is mostly defined by that TSM-2 alternative, but I will add in a few additional items related to Crystal City.

The planned Arlington Streetcar system was made up of two projects: the Columbia Pike Streetcar and the Crystal City Streetcar, which, at least early on were on two different schedules and were being funded separately but would have ultimately been an integrated system. The bus system that replaces it needs to meet some of those same needs.

Arlington is calling their bus plan the Columbia Pike Premium Transit Network (PTN), not BRT. Likely this is to avoid the whole controversy about whether TSM-2 qualifies as BRT or not. From here on out I will stick to Arlington’s nomenclature.

Why is the Pike Premium Transit Network Important?

Columbia Pike is the densest residential area of Arlington outside of the Metrorail corridors. The Columbia Pike Initiative worked to plan for a re-imagined Columbia Pike that would be a walkable Main Street area rather than the car-dominated commuter arterial with surface parking lots and drive-throughs. The Columbia Pike Form-based Code and Neighborhoods Plan were designed to guide that redevelopment, and improved transit on Columbia Pike is needed to ensure that at least some of the new neighbors who come to the Pike as part of that transformation can live car-free or car-light lives, since Columbia Pike isn’t getting any wider.

Key Features

So what does the Pike Premium Transit Network need to support that transformation? It needs to be fast, convenient, dependable and high capacity. TSM-2 had a number of features each of which played an important role in one or more of those areas and together they elevate it above the existing bus service.

Travel Time Features

  • Off-Vehicle Fare Collection
  • Multi-door Boarding
  • Stop Consolidation
  • Transit Signal Priority

Convenience & Dependability Features

  1. All-Day, Everyday Operation
  2. 2-3 minute peak frequency
  3. 4 minute off-peak frequency
  4. Enhanced Transit Stations

Capacity Features

  1. High-Capacity Vehicles

Additionally, I would add the following as necessary to truly replace the combined Columbia Pike / Crystal City system:

  • Dedicated Transit Lanes (in Crystal City)
  • A one-seat ride from Skyline to Crystal City

What’s to Come

In future columns, I will explain why each of these features is important to the Pike’s Premium Transit Network, look at how Arlington is doing at implementing each feature and ultimately give the County a grade on how close we have come to the originally-envisioned alternative. Stay tuned.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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Morning Notes

Crows Are Swarming Rosslyn at Dusk — “As the sun begins to sink below the horizon, ghostly caws and flapping wings echo through the air. Then, they come in droves. Hundreds, if not thousands, of huge, black birds darken the sky, swooping through buildings and swarming like giant gnats. This Hitchcockian scene is a typical Tuesday in North Rosslyn.” [Washingtonian]

New Candidate for School BoardCristina Diaz-Torres has announced that she is running for Arlington School Board to replace Tannia Talento, who is not seeking a second term. Diaz-Torres is planning a campaign launch event on Columbia Pike this Sunday. [Twitter, Facebook]

Arlington Residents Are Up at All Hours — “The massive Nov. 8 water-main break underneath Chain Bridge Road taught Arlington public-works officials a number of lessons. Among them: Some county residents are up and at ’em in the wee hours of the morning. The county government received its first call complaining of no water at 2:59 a.m., a mere three minutes after the rupture of the 36-inch, 75-year-old pipe.” [InsideNova]

More on GMU Arlington Campus Expansion — “As George Mason University leaders celebrate the 40th anniversary of the school’s Arlington campus, they promise that its Amazon-inspired expansion will be ‘unlike any building ever built’ by a state institution.” [Washington Business Journal]

Upgrades for 911 Call Center — “The County’s 9-1-1 call processing system was upgraded today! Our staff are thrilled to have made the switch to this top of the line system that will allow us to best collaborate with neighboring jurisdictions and serve the community.” [Twitter]

NORAD Exercises Planned Tonight — “Don’t be frightened if you see and hear military aircraft speeding overhead… The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is expected to conduct air exercises over the Washington area from Thursday night into early Friday morning. Flights are scheduled between midnight and 5:30 a.m.” [WTOP]

Five Year Anniversary of Streetcar Cancellation — “Five years ago this week – Nov. 18, 2014 – County Board Chairman Jay Fisette stood somewhat grimly in front of a microphone and TV cameras to announce that Arlington officials were abandoning plans for a streetcar system in the Columbia Pike corridor.” [InsideNova]

Nearby: Food Star to Open in Bailey’s Crossroads — “A Food Star grocery store is opening up in the former Toys R Us building at 5521 Leesburg Pike in Bailey’s Crossroads – possibly by the end of the year.” [Annandale Blog]

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If the Avengers were a local enterprise, Chris Slatt would be the Guardian of the Arlington Transportation Galaxy.

Slatt serves as the Chair of the Transportation Commission and has a steel trap memory for county transportation projects — and the politicking behind why some never happened.

He’s weighted in on toll enforcement, infrastructure planning, and he’s organized everything from a protest for bicycle safety on the Pike to the cutest free library in Penrose with tools to fix your bike.

For this episode of the 26 Square Miles podcast, we sat down with Slatt to talk about why the Columbia Pike-Crystal City streetcar never took off, what Amazon means for local public transportation, and what it would really take to build safe bike routes across the county.

Listen below or subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle PlayStitcher or TuneIn.

Photo via Jas Sanchez Photography

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It’s a question that some have been asking themselves as Arlington has advanced to be among the most likely destinations for Amazon’s second headquarters.

Would the proposed Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar system have helped Arlington’s chances had it been built?

The Arlington County Board voted to cancel the project in 2014 after rising cost estimates and questions about its advantages over buses led to widespread opposition and voter discontent.

Had it been built, the streetcar would have run from Crystal City — which is seen as a strong contender among D.C. area locales — to Columbia Pike and the Skyline area of Fairfax County.

ARLnow.com talked to several insiders to get their take on the hypothetical question.

Several we spoke to, who work in economic development and on transportation issues, said that the streetcar would have been an attractive amenity in the eyes of Amazon. It would have provided a vital, high-frequency link from offices in Crystal City to workforce housing along Columbia Pike, they said.

Also cited as evidence: Amazon’s own support of streetcar system in Seattle.

However, another insider, who works in the works in the commercial real estate industry, doubts that the streetcar would have made much of a difference.

For one, the would-be streetcar is being replaced with enhanced bus service on the Pike and along the Potomac Yard-Crystal City corridor. Also, Crystal City already has one of the highest scores for transportation accessibility among HQ2 contenders, thanks to the frequent bus service, Metro’s Yellow and Blue lines, VRE, commuter buses, the Mt. Vernon Trail and walkability to Reagan National Airport.

In other words, said the insider, the streetcar might have been icing on the cake, but it is unlikely to have moved the needle much on Amazon’s decision. Plus, it is possible that Arlington would have had to contend with some of the streetcar problems currently being experienced by D.C.

Amazon is expected to make its decision later this year. Arlington and Northern Virginia, one insider speculated, is likely to at least be among the top five contenders, and at least one betting market agrees, giving the region the highest odds among the company’s top 20.

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Morning Notes

I-66 HOT Lanes Open Dec. 4 — Beginning on Dec. 4, the new toll booths along I-66 will be switched on and solo drivers will be able to use I-66 during rush hour, for a price. Cars with two or more occupants will be able to continue using I-66 for free, as long as they have an E-ZPass Flex transponder. [WAMU]

Transportation Secretary Regrets Streetcar Cancellation — “As he prepares to wrap up a four-year tenure as Virginia’s secretary of transportation, Aubrey Layne said the cancellation of the Columbia Pike streetcar project ranks as one of the major disappointments of his tenure.” [InsideNova]

Investigation into ANC Cop Photo — “Officials at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall now say they are conducting an internal investigation after a photo surfaced depicting several officers who patrol Arlington National Cemetery smiling and laughing while pretending to beat a fellow co-worker. A source within the base police department shared the photos with FOX 5 and says the officers took the pictures on Thanksgiving Day while on duty at the cemetery.” [Fox 5 DC]

Roaches Run Now Sanctuary for DCA Drivers — The Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary was first established by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s. What was once intended as a tranquil place to watch waterfowl is currently mostly being used by drivers waiting to pick up passengers at Reagan National Airport. [Falls Church News-Press]

NBC Correspondent is Arlington Resident — NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander lives in Arlington with his wife, ABC 7’s Alison Starling, and their two daughters. He recently shared ten pieces of wisdom he’s learned over the years. [Northern Virginia Magazine]

Arlington Store Featured on VOA — Wild Birds Unlimited, the store for bird watching enthusiasts along Lee Highway, was featured in a recent Voice of America report about the “popular American hobby” of bird feeding, which “connects people to nature.” The store and owner Michael Zuiker also publish a biweekly column on ARLnow.com. [Voice of America]

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Almost three years to the day since the cancellation of the Columbia Pike streetcar project, the nonprofit behind revitalizing the Pike and its neighborhoods believes it is on the right path.

The Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization received extra funding in April when the Arlington County Board approved its FY 2018 budget, and CPRO president John Snyder said the money has already helped.

He said the extra funds are helping pay more CPRO staff as full-time employees rather than part-time, and has also provided an extra staff member in the county’s Solid Waste Bureau within the Department of Environmental Services to pick up litter, empty trash cans and keep the area tidy.

“It’s been a big boost, and I think we’re going to see some more visible changes as we’re able to really execute on some of the things that we’ve wanted to do for a while but haven’t had the resources to do,” Snyder said.

Being able to employ more full-time staff means CPRO can support more events, Snyder said, including the soon-to-relaunch Arlington Mill Farmers Market in addition to the market already at Pike Park. (CPRO also puts on the annual Columbia Pike Blues Festival.)

He also pointed to this summer’s outdoor movie screenings at the Arlington Mill Community Center and Penrose Square, which were about much more than watching movies.

“Last summer we had a big increase in our movie nights and really advertised them a lot,” Snyder said. “So we got pretty big crowds at both Arlington Mill and Penrose Square, and that’s not just about the movies. They’re all 1980s movies that probably everybody has already seen, but it’s about getting together as a neighborhood.”

And to encourage more businesses to move onto the Pike, Snyder said CPRO will partner with Arlington Economic Development on a market study of the potential customers who live near the Pike and demographics. That way, businesses would have more of an idea of their customer base before moving in.

“[If] some business is thinking, ‘Gee, would I like to relocate to the Pike?’ we can give them some concrete data that would tell them what the demographics are like, what the buying power is, to help them make those decisions,” Snyder said. “It will also perhaps help us guide policies so we know what are things that would help the businesses.”

With new projects coming online soon, like the “Columbia Pike Village Center” anchored by a Harris Teeter grocery store in place of Food Star, as well as a condo building next to S. Buchanan Street, Snyder said it will be imperative for the planned “Premium Transit Network” of buses to work as planned.

The network is slated to open in 2019 after delays, albeit not in dedicated lanes, and Snyder said if it can encourage more transit usage on the Pike, it could be a success.

“I think it can help, particularly if we make sure that we’re going at regular six-minute intervals all through the week,” he said. “One of the most consistent traffic days on the Pike is Saturday. If we make sure that we’ve got the transit coming by on a reliable six-minute interval so that people can really just walk to the stop, use it, walk back home, I think it’ll start getting a lot of that sort of business.”

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Morning Notes

Candidates Largely Favor Land Swap — During a debate, Democratic County Board candidates generally indicated they want the county to move forward with a land swap agreement with Virginia Hospital Center. VHC has offered the county various pieces of land in exchange for a 5-acre parcel of county-owned land on N. Edison Street, just north of the VHC property. [InsideNova]

Impact of Pike Streetcar Cancellation — There’s speculation that the county’s 2014 cancellation of the Columbia Pike streetcar plan may have contributed to stalling revitalization efforts in the Bailey’s Crossroads area of Fairfax County. [Washington Post]

New Assistant County Manager — Arlington County has named Samia Byrd as a new assistant county manager. Byrd has more than 20 years of planning experience and will serve as a senior adviser to County Manager Mark Schwartz. [Arlington County]

Historic District Proposal — Next month the County Board will consider a proposal to designate “The Hermitage,” a home at 4025 N. Randolph Street, as a local historic district. [InsideNova]

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It’s the end of the road for P. Brennan’s Irish Pub and Restaurant at 2910 Columbia Pike.

The cavernous local pub will shutter after closing on Friday. Owner Brian Dolphin, who also owned the ill-fated McGinty’s near Potomac Yard, says P. Brennan’s “did pretty well” by staying in business for seven years, but never made much money.

“It never kicked off to the extent we thought it would,” Dolphin told ARLnow.com Thursday morning. He said P. Brennan’s liquor license expires after March 31 and he chose not to renew it.

Also contributing to the bar’s demise: its large size — “too big,” Dolphin said, in retrospect — and the cancellation of the Columbia Pike streetcar, which seemed to deflate some of the excitement and prospects for change along the Pike.

“Things went south on us a bit and never picked up,” said Dolphin regarding the aftermath of the cancellation.

Nothing out of the ordinary is planned for P. Brennan’s last day tomorrow, but Dolphin said he expects that many long-time patrons will be there enjoying a pint or two.

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Morning Notes

Rosslyn tunnel (Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman)

Pike Booster ‘Disappointed’ By Transit Delay — Cecilia Cassidy, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, said the group is “very disappointed” by the latest delay in bringing enhanced transit service to the Pike. Cassidy said the cancellation of the streetcar cancelled much of the planned development along the Pike and that the delays in providing a viable transit alternative have put other development into a holding pattern. [WAMU]

More on DCA Plans — The airports authority has released more details about “Project Journey,” its $1 billion plan for upgrading Reagan National Airport. “Scheduled to mobilize in summer 2017, Project Journey includes construction of two new security checkpoints that fully connect the concourse level of Terminal B/C to airline gate areas, buildout of an enclosed commuter concourse to replace the 14 outdoor gates currently serviced by buses from gate 35X and future improvements to roadway and parking configurations.” [Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority]

Good News, Bad News About Tech in Arlington — Arlington has risen in the rankings of the best places in the U.S. for women in tech, from No. 34 to No. 22 this year. However, women in tech in Arlington still earn less than men, there are significantly more men than women employed in tech in Arlington and overall tech job growth in Arlington over the past four years is flat. D.C., meanwhile, ranked No. 1 on the list. [DCInno]

Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman

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