Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Lost History of BRT

Happy New Year to all of the Growler's faithful readers!

Today the Cranky One is going to focus on a subject of paramount importance to our neighborhood in 2008: the Ad Hoc Transportation Task Force's identification of Route 1 as a major transit corridor and a potential site for bus rapid transit (BRT), which is strongly opposed by a number of Parker-Gray residents living on Patrick and Henry Streets.

This is a timely issue for several reasons. First, on Thursday, January 3 at 6:00 PM in the Council Workroom at City Hall, Planning Commission will hold a work session with the Task Force on the draft plan. Then on Monday, January 7 at 6:00 PM at Jefferson-Houston School we have the next to last Braddock Road Metro small area plan meeting, which will focus on transportation.

And many in our community have questioned which plan will prevail when it comes to transit and transportation issues.

At the heart of the controversy over BRT on Route 1 is this question: is it proposed because it will mostly serve Alexandrians or more likely is it really about moving pass-through commuters from the Pentagon to Ft. Belvoir?

Members of the Task Force have stated both in writing and in public utterances that their proposed changes to the City's Master Transportation Plan (including the identification of U.S. Route 1 and two other thoroughfares as transit corridors) are about meeting local needs rather than accommodating pass-through commuters.

This is declared on the very first page of the draft plan overview. "With the update of the City’s Transportation Master Plan the City seeks to initiate an unprecedented paradigm shift, putting Alexandrians first, and providing them with innovative options for transportation."

It is echoed in a memo that Task Force members Poul Hertel and George Foote wrote to other members in March 2005:

"While we will always meet our obligations to our neighbors in the region, it is not reasonable for the City to allocate significant amounts of its money and street space to non-productive and detrimental transient commuter uses. It is far preferable to allocate our street space and financial resources to the transportation needs of Alexandria citizens, businesses and workers. Those needs include commuting within, to and from the City."
So sensitive is the Task Force to criticism about serving commuters that the City's consultants pulled together data purporting to show that the plan's proposal for three transit corridors -- Duke Street, Route 1 and Van Dorn/Beauregard -- was developed to address the need to accommodate future increases in local trips Alexandrians might make inside or between the four quadrants of the City. The Growler will tackle that data in another posting.

Nevertheless, the draft report's transit chapter is chockablock with references to Ft. Belvoir and regional transportation needs.

“This Transit Concept proposes essential regional connections with destinations beyond the City of Alexandria for each corridor including connections to Fort Belvoir, Fairfax City, the Pentagon, and potentially to Maryland via the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.” (p. 1-5; emphasis added)

“The Route 1 transit corridor is a primary link between the Pentagon to the north and Ft. Belvoir to the south. The focus of the Route 1 corridor is on accommodating through trips and providing connectivity between City neighborhoods." (p. 1-7; emphasis added)

"To the south, the Route 1 corridor will coordinate and integrate with service provided by Fairfax County to Fort Belvoir." (p. 1-7; emphasis added)

“Coordination with services provided by adjacent jurisdictions including connections to Crystal City, Fairfax, Fort Belvoir and the Pentagon.” (p. 1-7; emphasis added)

If this isn't sufficient to illustrate that the Task Force is focused on serving Pentagon to Ft. Belvoir commuters, one need only go back and carefully review the chronology of the Task Force's work. And in that chronology lies the evidence that Route 1 in Parker-Gray was not part of the original package until the recommendations of the Defense Base Closing and Realignment Comimssion (BRAC) were unveiled in May 2005.

Two months earlier, in March 2005, Task Force member George Foote created a presentation entitled "How Will Alexandrians Get Around their City in 2030?". Although it carried a disclaimer that it was not an official document reflecting any action or proposed action of the Task Force (which had been established the previous year by City Council), it's hard to imagine Mr. Foote making this effort as a mere intellectual lark. Indeed, the presentation includes some of the same elements that can now be found in the draft report and was also apparently used in discussions on the Task Force with civic groups such as the Seminary Hills Association, which published the report and other Task Force material on its Web site.

In this document, Mr. Foote mapped out areas of population and employment growth in the City through 2030 and then proposed six different transportation corridors that would rather neatly serve these areas:

1. Eisenhower-Landmark-Duke (running along Duke Street and Eisenhower Avenue)

2. Potomac-Arlandria-NOVA-Landmark (running up N. Beauregard Street to Arlington and cutting back into Alexandria at West Glebe Road and thence to East Glebe Road and Potomac Yard)

3. Del Ray (running down Mt. Vernon Avenue from East Glebe Road to the Braddock Road Metro station)

4. King Street (running down King Street from the Metro station to the intersection with Washington Street)

5. Braddock Road (running down Braddock Road from the intersection with N. Beauregard to the Metro station)

6. Old Town-Potomac (running from the center of Potomac Yard to Powhatan Street, and then south on Washington Street to the intersection with King Street)

At this stage, there was no concept of a transportation corridor down Route 1 through our area, only a corridor that swept around Potomac Yard to the north.

A few months later, in July 2005, Mr. Foote and Councilman Rob Krupicka attended a Seminary Hills Association board meeting to discuss transportation. According to a summary of the meeting published on the SHA Web site, “Krupicka stated that 60-80% of Alexandria traffic is from people who live outside Alexadria. Fairfax County drivers desire North-South movement. He has worked to improve East-West traffic movement for the benefit of Alexandrians."

Another paragraph in the summary notes:

"The thing for us is the street space that we control to get people East-West within Alexandria, rather than North-South through Alexandria, through the use of street cars and dedicated bus lanes. Such a plan would offer through traffic commuters less opportunity to get through the city quickly. Eisenhower, Duke and Potomac Yard and the Northern crescent offer potential transit lines" (emphasis added).
And this:

"... George Foot [sic] clarified that Alexandria is not trying to move more Fairfax County residents through Alexandria N-S movement. Emphasis on helping Alexandrians by focusing on flow of traffic from E-W."
Today, the proposed north-south Del Ray corridor has vanished from the Task Force draft report, even though Mt. Vernon Avenue has historically handled a large volume of bus traffic and offers service as frequently as every five or 10 minutes at rush hour. The Braddock Road corridor is gone as well as the King Street line. And most significantly, the north-south Old Town-Potomac Yard corridor — which incorporated a significant chunk of the historic route of the No. 9 Metrobus route to Ft. Belvoir down Powhatan Street to Washington Street — has vanished.

The Growler will leave it to cynical readers to figure out which Task Force members killed which corridors in their own back yards.

Instead, the draft plan now includes the entire Route 1 corridor in Alexandria and encompasses our neighborhood's Patrick and Henry Streets, which unlike the other corridors past and present has never had bus service for at least 30 years or more.

Why?

Let's account first for the portion of Route 1 between Crystal City, Potomac Yard and Braddock Road Metro: BRT is being deployed there to make up for the City's failure to secure a Metro station at the Yard by mandating lower development density. BRT's purpose in the northern stretch of Route 1 is to bring new homeowners in the Yard either to Crystal City Metro or Braddock Road Metro.

So how did Patrick and Henry Street south of Potomac Yard end up in the mix? Mr. Foote's economic analysis didn't show major employment growth here in Parker-Gray, undoubtedly because most of the new development around Braddock metro will be residential rather than commercial. At one of the Braddock Road Metro small area plan meetings in the spring of 2007, a WMATA representative publicly stated there was sufficient capacity on Metro to handle new development at Braddock Road. And the number of new residents in our area will be dwarfed by the number of new residents once Potomac Yard is built out.

So what changed from 2005 to 2007?

In May 2005, two months after Mr. Foote's presentation was created, the Department of Defense unveiled the findings of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and revealed that significant numbers of DoD jobs were to be moved from Arlington and Alexandria to Ft. Belvoir. The Commission's report was signed by the President and became law in November 2005.

Ever since the announcement of the BRAC findings, Congressman Jim Moran has been fighting hard to minimize the transportation impacts of the job migration to Ft. Belvoir. He has achieved some hard-won successes, since the Army is now examining the feasability of relocating some defense jobs to the GSA Center near the Springfield Metro station or to the Victory Center at the Eisenhower Avenue station rather than Ft. Belvoir. Mr. Moran may have even more luck if a Democratic candidate is elected President in 2008.

Given these developments as well as neighborhood opposition, why is there any need for BRT on Patrick and Henry Streets? And how can the Task Force claim it is serving Alexandrians when BRAC-related pressures clearly shaped its recommendations?