A Swing and a Miss in Alexandria

A Swing and a Miss in Alexandria

NVTA cuts West End Transitway funding request.

“The West End Transitway project is an excellent project, just not ready yet for full funding.” — Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, NVTA board member

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) adopted its $1.29 billion FY 2018-2023 Six Year Program (SYP) on Thursday, June 14. NVTA provided regional funding for several of Alexandria’s transportation infrastructure projects, but axed the city’s flagship request for the planned West End Transitway, citing lack of project readiness.

Alexandria put forward six requests to NVTA totaling $88.2 million, the lion’s share — $60.8 million — for the West End Transitway. These requests competed with 54 other requests from jurisdictions around the metropolitan region. All the regional requests together totaled $2.47 billion, which NVTA had to whittle down to the $1.29 billion actually available.

Of Alexandria’s requests, four received full funding: Duke Street Transitway ($12 million); DASH Transit Service Enhancements and Expansion ($11.9 million); bus network information technology systems projects ($150,000); and other information technology systems projects ($1.2 million). The NVTA board cut a fifth project, bike and pedestrian trails and reconstruction ($2.2 million), entirely. They cut the West End Transitway request by 96 percent to $2.2 million.

The planned transitway comprises an important component of the city’s economic development plans for the West End, City Manager Mark Jinks has said. It would consist of dedicated bus lanes, ultimately connecting the Van Dorn Metro station with the Pentagon. The city hoped to undertake the northern phase, starting at Landmark Mall, beginning in earnest in FY2021.

NVTA’s decision about the transitway isn’t once for all, says Mayor Allison Silberberg, Alexandria’s representative on NVTA. The city can re-apply to NVTA in a later round of funding, stretch the project over more phases, and/or seek state or other alternative funding.

“I certainly made a good pitch for our projects,” said Silberberg. “Budgets are super tight in general, but especially now,” since some NVTA regional funds are being diverted for dedicated funding for WMATA. “NVTA lost about $75 million a year, and I just hope that we can revisit that in the future.” Under such pressures, NVTA staff “focused on projects that were more shovel-ready.”

“The West End Transitway project is an excellent project, just not ready yet for full funding. There will be more opportunities for funding to be made available as planning for the project continues,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, who also sits on the NVTA board.

In its recommendations issued in May, NVTA staff recommended cutting funding because they didn’t think the project was far enough along in planning to warrant the full ask. They based their recommendation on a project status update reported by the city, saying, “[Alexandria is] in the process of resuming the design portion,” according to a May 4 NVTA report — “resuming” implying that planning had stalled.

At the time, Yon Lambert, the city’s transportation and environmental services director, characterized NVTA’s perception of the project’s lack of readiness as resulting from some degree of miscommunication. He says the city thought it spent sufficient planning funds, including about $1 million for surveys, to show adequate process. Before the NVTA staff recommendations, the city was generally optimistic about the project’s chances.

Asked this week whether NVTA subsequently reevaluated the project, Backmon said the city’s self-reported project status hadn’t changed since May.

Asked what action, if any, the city attempted in order to correct the record about the project’s readiness, Lambert said city staff and officials participated in the NVTA committee process leading up to the the board’s final decision. Whereas the NVTA staff doesn’t change recommendations after the fact, city representatives let the committees know that the city is moving forward on the project “with all deliberate speed.”