"Even if you are not riding the bus — if you are a pedestrian, if you are a driver — this is going to benefit you," said Mayor Justin Wilson, a longtime supporter of the transitway. "We can get people through the corridor more quickly. We can create opportunities for folks to not have to rely on a vehicle, either as someone who is cutting through the city or as someone who lives here and is trying to get around the city."
Options on the table for members of the City Council include center-running dedicated lanes and curb-running dedicated lanes, a choice that has roiled critics who are hoping to ditch the proposal and keep six lanes of traffic for single-occupancy vehicles. Last week, the Duke Street In Motion Advisory Group recommended center running lanes, a recommendation that also has the approval of the Transportation Commission. Critics worry that removing traffic lanes for single-occupancy vehicles will create more congestion.
"It's obvious congestion is an afterthought to all of this," said Seminary Hill vice president Frank Putzu during a recent Agenda Alexandria discussion of the transitway. "This is about getting a dedicated bus lane. Period. End of story."
BUS-RAPID TRANSIT is an idea that's been around for more than 50 years, and Alexandria was home to the region's first dedicated bus lanes along Route 1 now known as the "National Landing - Potomac Yard Metroway." Since that time, Richmond has launched a BRT system along Broad Street known as the "Pulse," which has been so successful that city leaders there are considering adding an extension westward as well as a separate north-south line. In addition to that, planning is underway to connect Mark Center to Tysons Corner with a BRT system known as "Envision Route 7." Plus another BRT is planned along Richmond Highway in Fairfax County known as "The One."
"Bus riders around the region tend to be those in our community who have the lowest income and are least likely to be able to afford a car," said John Hillegass, director of regional mobility and infrastructure at the Greater Washington Partnership. "So I think it's really important to create reliable options for the people who work at our hospitals and our grocery stores."
Planning for a transitway on Duke Street started back in 2008, when the City Council adopted a Transportation Master Plan that identified Duke Street as one of three high capacity corridors in Alexandria. That was followed by a feasibility study in 2012, followed by a $12 million grant from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to help plan the transitway. In 2020, city leaders hit the jackpot with a $75 million grant from NVTA — a chunk of change from regional gasoline sales that will pay for the vast majority of the project. Last year, the city created an advisory group to help council members understand the options they'll be voting on later this month.
"The long-term plan for the corridor should include center running bus lanes for the entirety of Duke Street with separate spaces for pedestrians and cyclists," members of the advisory group concluded in their report to City Council last week. "This long-term plan would be partially dependent on redevelopment and available funding and should be assessed further during the Duke Street Small Area Plan process."
LINGERING OVER the discussion of the Duke Street transitway is a sense of distrust and skepticism among some people about bike lanes on Seminary Road. In 2019, a narrowly divided City Council approved removing traffic lanes on Seminary to install bike lanes. Although the decision had many supporters, some people bitterly opposed the loss of traffic lanes. Now City Council members are considering removing more traffic lanes along the city's only east-west corridor, prompting an existential question about what kind of city Alexandria wants to be in the future.
"One thing that everyone can agree on, and we heard this in all of our outreach efforts, is that people don't like Duke Street the way it is," said Hillary Orr, deputy director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. "We've done a couple of rounds of community engagement to come up with concept plans that would provide better service for people riding the bus, better sidewalks and paths and also making sure that we're moving our vehicles along the corridor."
The stated goals for the Duke Street transitway are to improve bus service and cut down on carbon emissions that damage the environment. The environmental benefits of reducing the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road are obvious, although improvements to bus travel are a bit murkier — especially the amount of time it will take bus riders to get from one end of the corridor to the other side of town. The Duke Street corridor currently has 20 stops for the existing DASH bus system. But plans for the transitway call for eight eastbound stops and nine westbound stops.
"Last year, DASH went through a big effort and was very publicly praised for increasing the number of stops so the buses were more accessible, especially to people with disabilities and people with kids," said James Lewis, chairman of the Alexandria Traffic and Parking Board. "So while there are definitely benefits in stop-consolidation, you also raise questions of is it equitable and is it accessible?"
WITH THE CITY COUNCIL vote expected before elected officials head into summer break, the June 27 vote is expected to be one of the more consequential decisions of the year. Because next year is an election year for the mayor and all members of City Council, it could end up being a dividing line for candidates in the Democratic primary next June. Although some have expressed a desire to delay the vote until the fall, the mayor says city officials have engaged in an expansive outreach effort that has taken input from a wide variety of people to make sure that people have been heard.
"I think they've done a really good job of engaging with transit riders, which is something we don't typically do," said Wilson, who says he has not yet determined if he will run for reelection next year. "We do a lot of transit projects where we don't engage with transit riders, which is frustrating. But they've been out there at bus stops getting to folks who are actually riding transit on Duke Street."