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A DASHing 20th

Local bus service celebrates a milestone.

Twenty years ago the soaring 80s were in full swing. Technology stocks were heading for the stratosphere and the beltway had not yet turned into a parking lot.

There was also a pioneering transportation experiment being launched in Alexandria. Named DASH — Driving Alexandrians Safely Home — it was no bubble. It had staying power. The name was selected from a citywide contest of submissions.

Next week, DASH will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a series of events beginning on March 8, with DASH Appreciation Day. The theme, "Riding DASH Buses Helps the Alexandria Community," will be expressed by displays of Alexandria third grader artwork on DASH buses.

Riders will also benefit throughout the week by a rollback in bus fares to 50 cents, according to Sandy Modell, general manager, Alexandria Transit Company (ATC). "We are reaching out to the whole community during this anniversary," she said.

"Our growth reflects the growth of the entire area. We are constantly trying to meet the needs for increased public transportation. We are working closely with the city's Department of Transportation and Environmental Services to develop an overall comprehensive transportation plan," she said.

Known as Alexandria's "fledgling" bus system, Dash started with 17 buses in 1984. It carried less than one million passengers its first year of service.

Today, the system operates 50 buses and transports more than three million riders per year, according to Modell. "Over the past 20 years, DASH has become a vital and integral part of Alexandria's transportation network," she said. Service miles have more than doubled since 1984.

DASH's annual budget is now "a little under $7 million. The city pays 70 percent of the operating costs with the remaining 30 percent coming from users," said Modell.

"The commitment from the city has grown over the years. During the first 15 years of our existence it was pretty much a 50/50 situation between the city and riders. But in 1999, the city agreed to become part of the regional fare plan which makes model split much better for the riders," Modell said.

ONE OF THE TRANSIT service's big success stories is "DASH About." It presently serves about 5,000 riders on an average weekend, according to the latest statistics. "When you are looking at a small urban center, such as Alexandria, you have to concentrate on service," Modell said.

"It's been very successful and we want to keep it going and growing. There are 5,000 people now riding DASH About rather than attempting to drive into Old Town. People are using it the way we intended," Modell said.

"They get on and off to do some shopping or see some sites. It's been particularly helpful to shops in the middle part of King Street," she said.

DASH About's free service from King Street Metro Station to Market Square operates on weekends. From April to January it is operative Friday, Saturday and Sunday. January, February, and March there is no Friday service and it ceases operation earlier on Sunday.

In some ways, DASH is a victim of its own success. Current DASH bus facilities are at operating capacity. ATC is currently in the planning and design phase of a new and larger bus maintenance and operating facility. This will allow for further route expansions.

DASH was born during Mayor Charles Beatley's administration. He promoted and championed the creation of a local bus system to be responsive to the city's growing transportation needs, according to Modell.

IN 1983, City Council established the Alexandria Transit Company, a non-profit public service company. As the sole stockholder, Council elected a seven member board, which is responsible for management of the system.

"DASH has played a critical role in preserving the city's quality of life and keeping Alexandria moving," said Mayor William Euille. "We are a rapidly growing community. As growth continues, the need for high quality transit service will be essential to the city's overall transportation network.

"DASH provides a viable transportation alternative that reduces traffic congestion and helps keep the city a great place to live, work, and visit."

In the last year alone, ridership has increased 9.1 percent with more than 10,000 customers riding DASH every weekday.

To mark its anniversary week, a reception will be held in the Vola Lawson Lobby of City Hall on Tuesday, March 9, starting at 6 p.m. U.S. Representative James Moran (D-8), vice mayor at the time of DASH's inauguration, will serve as guest speaker, according to Modell. This will be followed by a special recognition proclamation from City Council in Council Chambers at approximately 7:30 p.m.

OTHER EVENTS throughout the week include:

*Wednesday, March 10, Special gifts for children and seniors. The younger set will receive a "Fun bus trip." For the 20th senior on the free DASH About bus there will be a gift certificate for any store in Landmark Mall.

*Thursday, March 11, ATC's general manager, supervisors, and staff will be DASHing About to meet and greet customers and hand out tokens of appreciation for use by riders. At the King Street Metro Station stop, between 7 and 9 a.m., there will be free mocha coffee drinks to start the day.

Throughout its 20th Anniversary year, DASH will offer special promotions and gifts for each month with a special name. They will be: April: Commuters Month; May: Tourism Month; June: Summer's Here Month; July: Celebrate Old Town Restaurants and stores Month; August: Take It Easy Month; September: Students Month; October: Alexandria Business and Employer Partnership Month; November: I Love DASH Month; December: Shoppers Month; January: Celebrating New Year Month; and February: Why Drive When You Can DASH Month.