Arlington, VA

Within the next decade, a new transit group wants to make the bus the go-to transit option in the D.C. area

Earlier this year, the Washington Area Bus Transformation Project — which is backed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — released a draft strategic plan with a variety of short and long-term goals and strategies for improving the D.C. region’s bus network.

“The national capital region is adding 40,000-60,000 jobs and households each year,” the group said in its strategic plan. “But its transportation system is struggling to keep pace, leading to some of the longest commutes and worst traffic congestion in the nation.”

Potential ways to improve D.C. area buses and thus help alleviate traffic issues were broken into six categories, ranging in complexity and potential cost.

  • Ease of use: make simpler, consistent maps, naming conventions, and pricing. Another recommendation would be free transfers between Metrorail service and local bus lines.
  • Prioritizing buses on roads: potentially with bus-only lanes and traffic signal priority, though regional coordination will be needed.
  • Frequent, reliable, convenient service: overhaul existing routes to create a more efficient system and provide flexible, on-demand transit services for areas not well served by conventional buses.
  • Balance regional and local bus systems: develop a 10-year plan to allocate services between bus systems and applicable routes. The plan also includes a recommendation to “revise the cost local jurisdictions pay WMATA for local service to better match the actual cost to provide service.”
  • Streamline back-office functions: most of the recommendations in this category are behind-the-scenes improvements, like consolidating support functions and developing regional standards for bus data collection and analysis.
  • Centralizing regional bus networks: form a regional coalition of jurisdictional representatives with authority to implement strategy recommendations.

The bus system has a long way to go if it wants to turn its image around. Since 2012, bus ridership has fallen 13 percent across the region. The project will also require cooperation from the region’s nine bus service providers.

Much of the project also depends on local jurisdictions to implement strategies like restricting parking to facilitate better bus transit. This is why representatives from Arlington Transit and several Arlington County departments are in the group’s technical team and strategy advisory panel.

Meanwhile, most of the technical team and all of the leadership team are WMATA employees.

So far there are no cost estimates for the plan’s recommendations. Allison Davis, a member of the project team, said the price tag will come later in the process.

The project started in September. The group is currently in the middle of a public outreach campaign to sell the public on the idea and gather feedback. At an open house yesterday at George Mason University’s Arlington campus, the room was covered with boards for collecting thoughts on the project and the direction it should take. A survey is also available online.

The plan goes to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and the WMATA board this summer for review, with a roadmap planned for development in the fall.

“We’re trying to look at this from a customer perspective,” Davis said. “This [plan] is a tool we have to make better [transit] choices.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nearly a year after Metro’s “SafeTrack” maintenance blitz wrapped up, Arlingtonians still haven’t returned to the transit system, new data show.

An ARLnow analysis of figures compiled by WMATA and released to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission shows that ridership at Arlington’s 11 Metro stations fell by about 4.1 percent in the first three months of 2018 when compared to the same time frame last year.

Back in early 2017, WMATA was right in the midst of SafeTrack, with large sections of Metro lines closed temporarily and substantial headways for passengers, even at rush hour. But the ridership numbers suggest that any Arlington riders dissuaded from hopping on Metro during the heavy maintenance work have yet to embrace the rail service once more.

ARLnow’s analysis also shows Metro ridership in the county has dropped by about 13.4 percent compared to the same time frame in 2016, before SafeTrack work began.

Metro officials and county leaders say they’re not overly disturbed by these numbers, noting that WMATA ridership as a whole only fell by 1 percent when comparing the first three months of this year to 2017. Yet they also acknowledge that other transportation options are steadily luring riders away from Metro, and that these declining ridership numbers may be a symptom of problems in the county beyond WMATA’s woes.

“This really indicates how our transportation network is being disrupted in ways not just associated with Metro,” said Christian Dorsey, the vice chair of the Arlington County Board and a member of the Metro Board of Directors, while adding that “we’re not going to overreact to the numbers we see in one quarter.”

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly wrote in an email that ridership in Arlington generally “reflects the ridership trends systemwide.” She says Metro has broadly found that “peak periods are performing less poorly, however off-peak (especially evening) ridership is down much more steeply,” after SafeTrack.

WMATA leaders “are confident that by providing safe, reliable service, Metro can win back riders who may have changed their travel patterns during SafeTrack,” Ly added. Yet she did acknowledge that a handful of different factors have prompted large ridership drops at several Arlington stations this year.

Metro observed one of the largest declines in riders at the Ballston station in the first three months of the year, with a more than 8 percent decline from the same period last year. Ballston also recorded a nearly 20 percent drop in ridership from 2016 to 2018, the largest of any Arlington station over the same time period.

Ly believes that’s largely due to ridership dropping on weekends, “when service is truncated from Wiehle-Reston East to Ballston for track work,” a frequent occurrence for Silver Line riders.

Along the Blue Line, however, there could be more systemic problems.

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Real-time arrival information for ART buses is suffering another outage today (April 5).

The outage comes less than a day after the service was restored from a separate, five-day outage.

Eric Balliet, an Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services spokesman, said that today’s outage was due to “intermittent connectivity issues.” He added that there is not an estimated restoration time at the moment.

An ART service alert was issued at around 1 p.m. today regarding the outage, though commuters were tweeting about the outage as early as 10:37 a.m. this morning.

The repeat outage comes the same day that commuters faced a major WMATA service disruption between the East Falls Church and Clarendon Metro stations. WMATA supplements the ART’s bus service, but is separately operated.

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Safety improvements on three Custis Trail intersections have begun.

The project will reconfigure bike lanes at N. Quinn and N. Scott streets, as well as widen the Custis Trail. Other safety improvements include curb extensions, ADA-compliant curb ramps, trail separation from Lee Highway, and crosswalks with higher visibility.

Construction has temporarily closed a lane of Lee Highway. Jersey barriers have been erected to form a bike detour along the right-hand, westbound lane of Lee Highway between N. Scott Street and N. Oak Street.

At least one Arlington bicyclist took to social media to cheer on the bicycling infrastructure, saying the jersey barriers were “better than 99 percent of bike facilities in the U.S.”

In addition to the Lee Highway lane closure, the north legs of the intersection at both N. Scott Street and N. Oak Street will be restricted to one lane. Northbound traffic will be permitted only at the N. Scott Street intersection, while southbound traffic will be permitted only at N. Oak Street intersection, according to the county.

Detour signs will be present to guide drivers out of the North Highlands neighborhood.

The bus stop for the ART 55 and WMATA 3Y buses will be relocated from the construction zone to the west side of the N. Scott Street and Lee Highway intersection. Part of the construction includes plans for an improved bus stop with a bench.

Project funding comes from a Federal Highway Administration bicycle and pedestrian safety program grant.

Work hours are scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Monday through Thursday, and between  9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays. The project web page notes that construction is anticipated to wrap up at all three points in May.

The Custis Trail project is being done in concert with the N. Lynn Street esplanade project, for which the Arlington County approved additional funding this week.

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(Updated at 2:05 p.m.) Arlington County’s plan for a Columbia Pike corridor “premium bus service network” will start this summer, with more frequent, condensed bus service, improved bus transit stations, and off-vehicle fare collection points in the works.

A Columbia Pike service evaluation briefing from WMATA to the Arlington County Transit Advisory Committee on January 16 laid out the major bus service plan: streamlining eleven 16-line routes down to six main routes, with further streamlining implemented in multiple phases.

Current Columbia Pike corridor service routes include the 16A, B, E, J, and P daily lines and the 16 G, H, and K lines, which run from Columbia Heights West through Pentagon City daily. There are also three peak period bus lines: the 16L, which runs from Annandale, Va., to the Pentagon via Skyline City; the 16X, from Columbia Pike to Washington’s Federal Triangle; and the 16Y, from Columbia Pike to Washington’s Farragut Square.

The first phase of the premium bus service network would eliminate the 16E and J lines, while maintaining daily service for the 16A, G, H, and X. Peak period service will continue along the 16L and Y. The 16X’s extension into Federal Triangle would be maintained only during peak periods.

Phase two would maintain the initial phase’s route streamlining, while adding a transfer-free, bus-to-bus Crystal City connection. The evaluation notes the possibility for weekend service for the 26A bus line, which runs from Annandale to East Falls Church, but that component of the plan is still under consideration.

Further route streamlining would occur under phase three, which would maintain the daily 16A and X routes, as well as the peak period 16L and Y routes, but would strike out the 16G and H lines. A new line — a 16M line to run from Crystal City to Skyline City — would be added. Arlington Transit (ART) routes 41 and 45 would continue serving the Arlington Mill and Columbia Pike corridor after the 16G and H merge, according to Lynn Rivers, the Arlington transit bureau chief and the project’s manager.

Phase three opens up the possibility of an extension of the 16X and Y bus routes service hours, but it’s currently marked as a future consideration. The county is also reviewing transit signal prioritization as a bus rapid transit solution to give buses a head start at traffic lights, allowing for decreased public transit times. Rivers told ARLnow.com that this initiative “can be achieved with minimal impacts to vehicular travel.”

Updated bus transit stations are also in the works, with “near-level boarding” and real-time bus tracking and system information. Passengers would be able to pay for their bus fare prior to entering the bus.

Photos via Arlington County

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Morning Notes

Rosslyn Vying for Amazon HQ2 — Rosslyn is being pitched as a possible destination for Amazon’s second headquarters, alongside Crystal City and other Northern Virginia locales. Rosslyn’s main downside is a lack of space for Amazon’s growth ambitions, but the neighborhood does have a sizable office development pipeline, close proximity to Georgetown and D.C., monumental views and numerous transit options. [Washington Business Journal]

Metro Approves Service Guarantee — “Metro’s Board of Directors today approved the Rush Hour Promise program, a first-of-its-kind service guarantee for Metro customers. Beginning with tomorrow morning’s rush hour commute, on Friday, January 26, if a Metrorail or Metrobus customer using a registered SmarTrip card is delayed by 15 minutes or more, Metro will credit the customer’s SmarTrip card for future travel.” [WMATA]

Fire in Cherrydale — Arlington County firefighters extinguished a chimney fire in the Cherrydale neighborhood last night. The fire did not spread and no one was hurt. [Twitter]

Nominations for Park Volunteer Award — Nominations are being accepted through Friday, Feb. 2 for Arlington’s Bill Thomas Outstanding Park Service Award. The award “was established to pay tribute to lifelong parks volunteer Bill Thomas and to honor and encourage those residents who also demonstrate a passionate dedication and support for [Arlington parks] programs, natural resources and public open spaces.” [Arlington County]

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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Morning Notes

Arlington Chamber Seeking State Help — Possibly in response to the push for housing conservation districts, “the Arlington Chamber of Commerce is asking the General Assembly to ‘serve as a backstop and a safeguard’ against overreach by localities on planning and zoning matters.” [InsideNova]

Reminder: SmarTrip Change Next Week — As of Monday, Metro riders will no longer be able to run a negative balance on their SmarTrip cards. [WMATA]

‘Meet the Chair’ Scheduled — Arlington residents will be able to meet newly-minted Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol on the evening of Jan. 18, when the Leadership Center for Excellence holds its annual Meet the Chair event. [Leadership Center for Excellence]

SoberRide New Year’s Record — A record 1,225 people used the free safe ride service SoberRide on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Thanks to its new partnership with Lyft, SoberRide’s organizer says it “has removed well more than two times as many would-be drunk drivers from Greater Washington’s roadways as compared with the previous year.” [PDF]

District Taco Continues to Expand — Five Guys may be given a run for its money as the most successful Arlington-born restaurant chain. District Taco is now opening a location in the Center City section of Philadelphia. [Eater]

Snow Shovel Contest Winner — “This is Susan. She won our snow shovel, writing that her favorite phase of snow treatment/removal is Phase 1. Brine makes her giddy. Susan’s old shovel is from Nebraska and cracking. Way to go, Susan.” [Twitter]

Photo courtesy @BoccatoGelatos

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Morning Notes

Texas Jack's BBQ in Lyon Park (Flickr pool photo by Alan Kotok)

Arlington Population Continues to Rise — The latest Census Bureau estimate of Arlington’s population is 230,050, a 0.9 percent rise over the previous year. [InsideNova]

LaHood to Review WMATA — Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been tapped by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to conduct an independent review of Metro’s “operating, governance, and financial conditions.” The review will “develop recommendations for potential WMATA reforms, including mitigating growth in annual operating costs and sustainable funding.” [Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Washington Post]

Private Investigators Set Up Shop in Arlington — A group of private investigators is trying to solve the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich last July. The group, which does not have the support of Rich’s family, is working out of a “war room” in Arlington as it tries to piece together clues about the fatal shooting in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood. [DCist, WJLA]

County Board Hears Complaint About Poo — A resident’s complaint at a County Board meeting, about a homeless man “appropriating” a bus stop in Rosslyn, led to the following sentence in the Sun Gazette: “County-government spokesman Mary Curtius said it was ‘exceedingly rare’ to find human waste at bus stops.” [InsideNova]

Schaeffer’s Favorite Arlington Things — Eric Schaeffer, co-founder and artistic director of Shirlington’s Signature Theatre, recently shared some of his favorite local spots. Among them: French store Le Marche and Irish pub Samuel Beckett’s, both in Shirlington, along with Pupatella pizzeria in Bluemont and P.F. Chang’s in Ballston. [Northern Virginia Magazine]

Flickr pool photo by Alan Kotok

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Morning Notes

Christmas tree sale at the Catholic church on 23rd Street S. in Aurora Highlands

Clarendon Ballroom Battles Alt-Right Blitz — After beating up on Arlington’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation earlier this month, the alt-right faction seeking to hold inauguration rallies and parties in Arlington has focused its attention on the Clarendon Ballroom. The Ballroom, one alt-right leader alleges, turned away their planned “DeploraBall” due to political pressure. The Ballroom, however, says the organizers never actually signed a contract. Since then, the Ballroom has been receiving “hundreds of slanderous, dangerous, vulgar and threatening posts and tweets,” along with threatening phone calls. [NBC Washington, Washington Post]

Library Director’s Christmas Playlist — Arlington Public Library Director Diane Kresh has released her annual “mix tape of seasonal favorites” on the library blog. This year’s list is a Spotify playlist that starts with Diana Krall’s rendition of “Let It Snow” and concludes, on a unique-to-2016 note, with “World Spins Madly On” by The Weepies. [Arlington Public Library]

Six Fired by Metro in EFC Derailment — Following an investigation, Metro has fired six track inspectors and supervisors and demoted several others in the wake of July’s East Falls Church train derailment. Additional firings are in the works. [WJLA]

Arlington Community Foundation Grants — The Arlington Community Foundation has approved grants to 26 local nonprofits and school, totally nearly $100,000. [Patch]

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