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Montgomery backtracks on a sprawl-inducing highway

After a decade-long process, it looked like Montgomery County was pushing ahead with a new highway through streams and wetlands at the edge of the county's built-up areas. But last week, county officials announced they don't support the road project after all.


Image from TAME.

In March, the county Department of Transportation issued a report recommending a new limited-access highway, around the edge of developed areas. The road, designated M-83, would approximately parallel I-270 and MD-355 but farther east, connecting the east side of Clarksburg to the current Midcounty Highway, Route 124.

This dismayed advocates who had been asking the county instead to study ways to better connect to Clarksburg with transit and fixes to local roads. Last week, DOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh put out a statement essentially repudiating the DOT's earlier recommendation:

The County Executive does not support building this road, he did not recommend the preferred alternative, nor was it an option that I as MCDOT acting director recommended. Further, there is no funding proposed for the project in the County's capital budget.

The study, "Draft Preferred Alternative/Conceptual Mitigation Report" (PA/CM) was conducted before the Route 355 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system was in the master plan, and therefore it was not considered as one of the alternatives. If BRT is considered, I believe the results of the PA/CM study and its recommended alternative could be significantly different. I strongly endorse this reassessment.

During my three months as MCDOT Acting Director, I continue to look for ways to promote a broader view of mobility in Montgomery County that is not necessarily wedded to building more roads. Taking a fresh look at various M-83 options, including the Route 355 BRT, is an important step in my vision for this department.

The council pushes M-83 out of limbo

In 1964, before the Clean Water Act had passed, Montgomery planners drew a future highway on maps to the east of MD 355. The road ran through wetlands and stream valleys to complete a "ladder and rung" network of arterial roads that would facilitate development in upcounty Montgomery. Since then, Midcounty Highway, also known as M-83, has been the subject of battles for over 50 years.

In its most recent chapter, the Montgomery County Council asked the county DOT in 2004 to study whether the highway, with its impacts to wetlands and streams, would be legal under modern environmental laws. Last year, DOT officials said they would complete the study in March of 2014, but were then silent about their progress for the rest of the year.

On March 2nd, the council's Transportation and Environment Committee surprised MCDOT leadership by asking about the study. Members suggested that, if it was complete, it should go to federal regulators for a decision one way or the other. It appears that Council transportation staffer Glenn Orlin learned that the study had been finished for some time, and suggested that the committee ask for some resolution on the issue.

"If we're not going to build it, we should take it out of the master plan", he said in the committee session. "My understanding is that the report was done last summer and has not been sent to the feds. However you feel about the project, it's delaying a resolution."

Chair Roger Berliner said, "It's no secret I'm not a big fan of this project. I'm even less a fan of ambiguity and being in limbo." The committee members, while harboring different opinions about the project, all agreed that MCDOT should make the study public and send it to regulators. Berliner and fellow committee member Tom Hucker, along with a majority of council members, now publicly oppose to the project, while Nancy Floreen, the third member of the committee, supports it.

The county suggests a destructive option, then backs away

After getting the prod from the council, the DOT issued its report and recommended Alternative 9A, the original alignment from the 1960s master plan. At $350 million, it is the most expensive of the six alternatives analyzed, a price tag that doesn't include environmental mitigation to compensate for the wetlands, floodplains, and forests it would damage.

In contrast to his agency's position, County Executive Leggett has said he is against the road: shortly after the release of the study, a spokesperson for the County Executive told the Washington Post that Leggett "opposes the road project because of its cost."

Throughout the study, it has been clear that the those in charge were building up arguments towards 9A. But more recently, top leaders who were most focused on building roads have left. Their replacements are already backing away from the controversial project.

WTOP reporter Ari Ashe tweeted recently that MCDOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh told him he was against M-83, and that it was "over." After I mentioned the M-83 report in a list of cautionary notes about whether the DOT was really reforming, DOT spokesperson Esther Bowring called to say that Roshdieh considers the 9A option "dead."

"If we don't do this, we need to do something else"

During the March 2nd committee meeting, Councilmember Floreen said, "If we don't do this, we need to do something else." Many residents in Clarksburg rightly feel that the county made and broke many promises, including to build retail and provide good transportation. Development in Clarksburg was initially supposed to coincide with transit service, but the transit has not materialized.

However, this road is not the answer. It will only make new sprawl development, including up in Frederick and Carroll Counties, even more desirable, leading people to live there and work in Rockville, Bethesda, or DC, be dependent on cars, and clog the roads further for commuting and shopping.

The better solution for all upcounty residents is to build the transit that was promised in the first place. Berliner and many advocates have recommended building the study's Alternative 2, a package of small widenings to congested intersections as well as new sidewalks and bike paths, and Alternative 5, which would widen MD-355—but using the new lanes as dedicated lanes for BRT rather than new car capacity.

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Left: Alternative 9. Right: Alternative 5.

Bowring said that county officials are meeting next week to discuss next steps to reexamine the county's recommendations and start moving toward, or at least seriously studying, the transit options that many residents are pushing for.

To fully put the idea of a new highway to rest, the county would have to remove it from the master plan. The decision to do that would be up to the county council, Berliner said, and the council could ask the planning department to be involved if it wished.

Unless something changes, the Army Corps of Engineers will go ahead and evaluate Alternative 9A. Some may be hoping the corps just tells Montgomery County it can't build the road; that would forestall a local political battle between those who still want a new highway and the majority of the county council that doesn't.

Either way, this 50-year battle is far from over.

Rural Montgomery residents write their own transportation proposal

Boyds, a rural town in Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve with a MARC station, is a commuting destination for the residents of Clarksburg, a rapidly growing town just north. To handle increasing traffic and make transit more accessible, Boyds residents want to move both a central road and the MARC station.


Boyds, Maryland today. Note that the MARC station's location is off; it's actually one block west of the Clarksburg/Clopper intersection. Base image from Google Maps.

Clarksburg is transit-oriented development without transit. 1994 plans included comprehensive regional and local bus and rail networks. Today, Clarksburg residents only have two weekday-only bus routes and a circuitous trial shuttle to the Germantown MARC station.

Increasing numbers of people are driving through Boyds from homes in Clarksburg and Frederick County to jobs in Germantown and the I-270 corridor. This leads to traffic back-ups at the bottleneck in Boyds where Clarksburg Road meets MD 117 (Barnesville and Clopper Roads) in a double intersection separated by an underpass.

Soon, Clarksburg's Cabin Branch section will have 2,386 housing units, an outlet mall, and an outdoor amphitheater. The adjacent Ten Mile Creek will have 500 houses. The Boyds MARC station would be reachable with a short trip south on Clarksburg Road.

But there are no buses to the Boyds MARC station, and its 15-space parking lot is often full.

The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) is currently studying a bus turnaround and some 40 additional parking spaces for the Boyds MARC station. Their favored site for both may be the future Boyds Local Park, which sits south of the intersection of Clopper Road and Clarksburg Road and a block downhill from the train station. But would the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), who owns the park, agree to that? The M-NCPPC wants to put cricket fields in the park.

Also, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is studying traffic signals and/or roundabouts to speed car travel through the intersection-underpass-intersection bottleneck in Boyds. The results of the study may be ready in late spring.

While the Boyds community has asked MCDOT for improvements to the MARC station for years, residents are wary of the suburbanizing effects of MCDOT's and SHA's ideas on an area whose master plans designate it as rural and historic.

Boyds residents propose their own possible solution

In an effort to participate in the planning process, the Boyds Civic Association has asked SHA, the Maryland Transit Administration, MCDOT, and M-NCPPC to study a two-part proposal.

The first part is to relocate part of Clopper Road either over or under the railroad tracks. This would form a single, modern, more efficient intersection between Clopper, Clarksburg Road, and Barnesville Road. It would also keep traffic away from the Boyds Historic District and out of Boyds Local Park.


The proposed new locations for the MARC station and Clopper Road. The intersection could have a roundabout or traffic signals. Image from the author.

The second part is to move the MARC station from its current location in the Boyds Historic District to a three-acre industrial storage lot just to the east on Clopper Road next to the proposed new bridge or underpass.

The new station would be much larger, with space for 300 cars and for buses that would run between Clarksburg, Boyds, and Germantown. The additional parking would also delay the need for a parking garage at Germantown, the next station to the east on the Brunswick Line.

SHA's traffic study and MCDOT's park-and-ride study are short-term plans. In contrast, the Boyds Civic Association's long-term, comprehensive idea, if feasible, would both remove the traffic bottleneck in Boyds and greatly expand car and bus access to the Boyds MARC train station. Boyds residents hope that their idea is a vision for the area that everyone can share.

Events roundup: Get up and go!

Get outside and grab some exercise with these great events, or if you're feeling a little less active, mark your calendar for Metrobus meetings. Still too much for you? Take an online survey to give your feedback!


Image by the author.

New modes in New Carrollton: New Carrollton as a vibrant, multimodal hub? New Purple Line connections, pedestrian and bike-friendly development, and state of the art planning are all in the works to make that a reality. Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth's walking tour to get your learning and exercise out of the way for the weekend.

After the jump: Bicycle counts, bike to work, the future of Columbia Pike, Metrobus meetings, and more...

Talk water with the White House: Early risers, join Samantha Medlock of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and other experts over breakfast to talk about the future of water infrastructure policy in the US. The breakfast is hosted by the American Planning Association. Breakfast is free, as long as you register.

Metrobus meetings and survey: WMATA and DDOT are studying how to improve service on the 60, 62, 63, and 64 bus lines, which are some of DC's most heavily-used routes. They are seeking public input via an online survey and public meetings on Wednesday, April 15 (5:30-7:30 pm at Petworth Library) and Saturday, April 18 (12:30-2:30 pm at Takoma Community Center). The study will wrap up in late 2015.

What is "Tactical Urbanism"? There's still time to sign up for our free book talk with Tactical Urbanism co-author Mike Lydon at 6:30 pm on April 21 in Brookland. We're co-sponsoring the talk with Coalition for Smarter Growth, CNU-DC, and Island Press, so be sure to mark your calendar and snag a space before they're all gone!

Future of Columbia Pike: With the cancellation of the Columbia Pike Streetcar, what's next for the corridor? Listen to and ask questions of a panel of community leaders about the future of Columbia Pike on April 30 starting at 6:00pm. The Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization is hosting the event at the Salsa Room on Columbia Pike. Space is limited, so be sure to get the full details and RSVP.

Bicycle counts: How many cyclists ride in Alexandria? Advocates count just that 2-3 times per year, and this time, they're looking for volunteers to help! The Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) is conducting counts on Thursday, May 7 (5-7 pm) and Saturday, May 9 (12-2 pm). If you can help, be sure to sign up for an assignment!

Bike to Work Day: On Friday, May 15, join over 10,000 area commuters for this year's Bike to Work Day. Be sure to register (it's free) to get your free t-shirt. 79 pit stops throughout DC, Maryland, and Virginia will host refreshments and raffles.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

An interactive map will help make Fairfax more bike-friendly

Fairfax County wants to know how people bike to the county's transit stations. A new crowdsourced map lets cyclists tell them.


Fairfax County's interactive map. Image from Fairfax County.

People who frequently commute by bike are most likely to know the best routes to various transit stations. They're also likely to have ideas on how those routes could get better. Planners in Fairfax want this kind of firsthand knowledge so they can better know what to prioritize when it comes to adding bike lanes or installing signs that point cyclists in one direction or another.

The Wikimap lets users propose new routes, as well as point out and describe "problem locations." It's a good way for people to talk about barriers and obstacles to biking in Fairfax.

The map will be open for suggestions until June 30th.

DDOT's newest performance parking program will be its best

In May, DDOT will launch its most robust performance parking experiment to date. The program, called ParkDC, will significantly change how people park in Gallery Place: the cost to park a car on some of downtown's most in-demand blocks will rise or drop according to demand.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

ParkDC's boundaries will stretch from 11th to 3rd and from E to H Streets Northwest.

Under the performance parking program, DDOT will use cameras and sensors to measure when parking spaces in the designated area are occupied and when they're empty.

Each quarter, the agency will measure that data against a target occupancy rate of 80-90% (or about one empty spot per block) and adjust how much it costs to park in a given spot accordingly. It's possible that prices will change more frequently after the first few quarters, and DDOT will assess ParkDC's overall impact sometime before the end of 2016.


A map of where ParkDC will go into effect. Image from DDOT.

Charging market rate for parking will make sure there are enough empty spots for people who need them while also eliminating an oversupply. That, in turn, will cut down on the congestion that comes from people driving around looking for somewhere to park.

ParkDC is based in part on the success of SFpark, which was introduced to several busy areas in central San Francisco in 2011. An evaluation of SFpark showed that the program made streets better for everyone, with 30% fewer miles driven, 23% fewer parking tickets, 22% less double parking, and 43% less time wasted looking for parking. The average price for parking even fell by 4%. Compared to control areas, buses ran faster and retail sales grew more.

The local business improvement district supports ParkDC: in its press release, businesses touted the project's ability to make parking "easier to locate" and cut down on double parking and drivers circling for spaces.

ParkDC will be DDOT's best parking effort to date

DDOT has tried pilots on Capitol Hill, H Street, and Columbia Heights. They were less successful than supporters hoped because DDOT did not have a cost-effective way to measure occupancy. It also didn't put forth a schedule for updating the meter rates, nor a timeframe for evaluating effectiveness.

For each of these pilot areas, DDOT only reported occupancy data publicly twice, and it hasn't changed prices in some places even when the data show they're either too crowded or empty.

ParkDC's real-time cameras and occupancy sensors, along with a pre-announced schedule, make the program smarter and more responsive.

According to Soumya Dey, DDOT's director of research and technology transfer, ParkDC will use a number of methods to gather occupancy data. A traditional "hockey puck," transaction data from the meters, historical data, cameras, and law enforcement data are all among the ways DDOT will know how many people park, and when, on each block. Dey said the hope is to use fewer embedded sensors, and to evaluate which method is most cost-effective.

Dey said that once the program is up and running, the public will be able to view spot occupancy in real time on DDOT's website or its app.

NIH says: Our scientists are too important to pay for parking or take transit

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wants to expand at its Bethesda campus, but despite being on top of a Metro station, wants to build a lot more parking. Why is that necessary? NIH thinks its "high-ranking scientists" can't be asked to pay for parking or ride Metro in greater numbers like "regular people."

Sound unbelievable? Just listen to this:

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) slapped down NIH at a meeting on April 2. NCPC has a policy defining how much parking is appropriate for federal facilities. At locations outside the core but right near Metro, like NIH, that level is one space per three employees.

NIH, however, currently offers one space per two employees. It wants to plan for 3,000 new employees and build new parking garages with 1,000 new spaces. That's 1:3 for the new employees, but doesn't bring NIH into compliance for the other employeees with NCPC's policy, which has been in place since 2004.

If, instead, NIH fully met NCPC's standard, it could remove 2,300 spaces even with the new employees, said Drew Morrison, aide to Councilmember Roger Berliner, who represents the area. Berliner and other local elected officials have asked NIH to meet NCPC's standard, so far to little effect.

Morrison said that the traffic from all the cars driving to NIH impedes economic development in downtown Bethesda. "Many property owners in downtown Bethesda are telling us right now that they can't attract new businesses to Bethesda precisely because of this traffic problem." Reducing parking and driving to NIH, Morrison said, would improve that situation.

At the meeting, Ricardo Herring, NIH's Director of Facilities Planning, repeatedly said that it was "impossible" for more NIH employees to get to work by transit. He said this is because many employees live in far-flung areas not near Metro (though he didn't really explain why driving to Metro parking, like at Shady Grove, is not an option).

Of course people drive if parking is free

However, NIH also offers free parking to every one of its employees and contractors. Small wonder that so many people drive when it's subsidized by their employer (and by Maryland, which has to pay for the roads).

Mina Wright of the General Services Administration pressed Herring on why NIH can't try charging for parking. Herring said that was tried in the Carter Administration, but "there was a major rebellion." Wright acknowledged that it might not be popular with everyone, but said that sometimes management has to do unpopular things.

Besides, it's not unreasonable to ask scientists of the National Institutes of Health to respect their impact on the health of people who live around them. Presidential appointee Elizabeth Ann Wright asked, "What does it say when we encourage our nation's top scientists to drive?"

Commissioners noted that the Bethesda Naval medical center, now called Walter Reed after the Army's facility on Georgia Avenue closed and moved in, is able to operate with a 1:3 ratio.

National Park Service representative Peter May said, "There are ways to achieve 1:3 at NIH. There is no doubt about it. Other agencies do it." NIH seems uninterested in trying.

Herring's dismissiveness irritated many commissioners, who ultimately voted to disapprove NIH's master plan. May said, "It seems apparent to me that the policy that NCPC has adopted and has been trying to communicate to NIH for ten years has not gotten through and not been communicated at high enough levels at NIH."

The board's recommendation is technically advisory, but chairman Preston Bryant pointed out that federal agencies rarely if ever directly flout NCPC's express will, and strongly urged NIH not to either.

Watch the juiciest 13 minutes of the video below, or the full thing here or by scrolling in the timeline. Watch Drew Morrison talk at 54:20, then Herring respond at 57:17, May at 1:01:25, and Wright bring up charging for parking at 1:02:42, which elicits some of the most jaw-dropping statements from Herring until 1:07:13 when they move on to talk about bollards.

Oh, and check out those graphics showing the Metro service at 9:46 near the start of the video. Where could they have gotten those from?

A temporary fix could make Cherry Blossom Festival traffic safer

Each spring, thousands of visitors flock to the Tidal Basin during the Cherry Blossom Festival. The crowds make it hard for bike commuters using the 14th Street Bridge path to get into the District. Temporary changes to the street and sidewalks could ease the problem.


Looking northeast along East Basin Drive. The Jefferson Memorial is to the left. All photos by the author.

When someone rides into DC from Virginia on the 14th Street Bridge, they take the sidewalk on East Basin Drive to get from the bridge exit to Maine Avenue. This is because East Basin is one-way southbound from where it splits from Ohio Drive.


The stretch from the 14th Street Bridge to Maine Avenue, a short .4 miles, is a common route into DC. Image from Google Maps.

During the festival, there are pedestrians all over the sidewalk. Tour buses, taxis and even the DC Circulator-operated Haines Point Shuttle use the East Basin Drive sidewalk for loading and unloading behind the Jefferson Memorial.

This forces cyclists coming off the bridge to either ride against traffic on the street or through throngs of pedestrians on the sidewalk. Neither is a safe option.

This is an especially big problem because the festival coincides with an upswing in temperatures and, with that, bike commuters. In all of March, an average of 873 cyclists used the 14th Street Bridge to cross the river on weekdays. But on days when temperatures rose above 50 degrees, the average number of cyclists rose with them, to 1,101.

Despite the clear conflict, the National Park Service (NPS), which controls the roads around the Tidal Basin, has no plans to accommodate bike commuters along East Basin Drive during this year's festival.

"While we have taken some measures for bicyclists attending the festival, including providing bike tours of the blossoms and extra bike parking at the Jefferson Memorial, we are not implementing any new dedicated bike lanes or restricting pedestrian access along Maine Avenue, or any other streets," says Mike Litterst, a spokesperson for NPS.

A temporary protected bike lane could work here

One way to fix the problem could be a temporary, contraflow bike lane that separated people on bike from people on foot.

The lane could start on the south side of East Basin Drive, at the entrance to the 14th Street Bridge. After only 330 feet, it could put cyclists onto the sidewalk that runs along Ohio Drive on the way to Maine Avenue. The sidewalk is big, so blocking off a portion off for bikes won't necessitate inconveniencing pedestrians.


A temporary protected bike lane could run along this section of East Basin Drive, roughly where the cyclist is in the photo.

While it'd be ideal to keep cyclists off the sidewalk altogether, doing so isn't feasible because East Basin narrows to one lane for a short section when it meets the bridge.

This temporary fix could lead to a longer-term solution

A temporary protected lane during the Cherry Blossom Festival could be a good way for NPS to test this much-needed improvement to Washington DC's cycling infrastructure.

DDOT is considering plans for a permanent protected bike lane that would run counter to traffic on East Basin Drive in order to serve cyclists coming off the bridge.


A potential contraflow bike lane on East Basin Drive. Image from DDOT.

Temporary protected bike lanes are increasingly common. Last year, Streetsblog USA profiled nine of them in cities that included Atlanta, Lawrence, Kansas, and Oakland.

They are also easy to put in. The lanes Streetsblog looked at used a mix of traffic cones, temporary planter boxes, old tires, and chalk to separate bikes from car traffic.

Here's a video from STREETFILMS about a bike lane that went up for a week in Pittsburgh:

Budget cuts in Alexandria would delay more Capital Bikeshare stations

Alexandria's plans to expand Capital Bikeshare next year are on the chopping block in the city's proposed FY2016 budget.


Photo by Euan Fisk on Flickr.

The cut will save the city an estimated $150,000 in operating costs up front. But cutting the operating budget will be particularly harmful to Alexandria's Capital Bikeshare because it limits the program's access to capital funds, which don't come out the city's belt-tightened general fund.

Through federal and other grants, Alexandria has access to $700,000 in capital funds for up to 16 new Capital Bikeshare stations.

But in order to use those funds, the city must dedicate the operating dollars to run the new stations, and it's those expanded operating funds that have been cut from the general fund budget. So instead of spending the capital funding this year, the city plans to set aside some of the $700,000, and spend some of it elsewhere.

Approximately $200,000 of the capital funding is from developers, and has been earmarked for Capital Bikeshare stations as part of community amenities negotiated by the city in development deals.

If not spent on bikesharing this year, those dollars might go to fill budget holes in other developer-funded projects instead, getting spent on other amenities, such as pocket parks and walking trails rather than Bikeshare.

Expanding Capital Bikeshare in Alexandria makes sense

Parks and walking paths are great, but Capital Bikeshare is actually a very sound investment for Alexandria. Bikeshare in Alexandria has a 70% cost recovery, compared to about 30% for a typical bus system. And that number could be higher if the potential demand were met: in DC, cost recovery is almost 100%. Fees from the system have exceeded expectations in Alexandria this year, producing an estimated $59,000 surplus for 2014-15.

According to Alexandria transportation planners, bikesharing operations cost about $10,000 per station, meaning that surplus could be used to operate six more stations in the jurisdiction next year.

The city's 16 current stations only sparely cover the flat, very bikeable geography that includes Del Ray, Old Town, Potomac Greens and Carlyle. Arlandria, Lynhaven, Potomac Yard, Rosemont, and South Old Town have no stations at all yet.


Alexandria Bikeshare station demand map. Image from Capital Bikeshare.

In Del Ray alone, obvious station locations are at Commonwealth and Mount Vernon, Commonwealth and Monroe, and Mount Vernon and Alexandria. They include restaurants, a library, a community center, and concentrations of apartments.

Economically, expanding Capital Bikeshare is a good idea because the program brings tourism to Alexandria. Old Town is an appealing destination to tourists who have already paid for a membership in DC, and who want to ride on the world-famous Mount Vernon Trail. Even before there were stations in Old Town, people visited on Bikeshare bikes.

With bikesharing fully available in Alexandria, users can shop and eat at Alexandria businesses. Moreover, Alexandria gets a portion of their user fees. Having only one station on the Alexandria waterfront is, to put it simply, leaving money on the table.

Even with supplier problems, the expansion should be able to move forward

When Alexandria recently expanded from eight bikeshare stations to 16, there were delays because of problems with the bike supplier. Public Bike System Company, popularly known as Bixi, went bankrupt in January 2014 but was purchased by Montreal businessman Bruno Rodi last April.

The bankruptcy delayed Alexandria's last system expansion until August 2014. The expansion order was filled eventually, in part using refurbished equipment that became available as other Bixi customers returned or upgraded equipment.

It's unclear whether or not Bixi is still having supply problems, but Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) chair Jim Durham said Alexandria should "fund the full 16-station bikeshare expansion planned for next year," possibly with refurbished equipment.

When he first introduced Bikeshare's arrival in Alexandria, Mayor William Euille talked about how much resident support the program had. More resident feedback, this time to let Alexandria know that money that's available for bikeshare shouldn't go to waste, could certainly help keep the program moving forward in advance of the City Council discussion of its transportation budget this Thursday.

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