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Posts about Alexandria


Virginia's commuter rail service may become more of a transit system

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE), a commuter rail system with a large coverage area but somewhat infrequent service, is considering both running trains more frequently and adding new stations, but funding constraints may force a choice between the two. More trains, more often would make VRE more like a transit system, with regular service throughout the day rather than just at rush hour.

A VRE train at the Woodbridge station. Image from VRE.

VRE's Fredericksburg Line, which uses CSX railroad tracks, carries commuters north from Spotsylvania County on a route parallel to I-95. The Manassas Line, which uses Norfolk Southern tracks, brings commuters to Union Station from Broad Run, which ends next to the Manassas airport, and is an alternative to commuting on I-66.

The VRE Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Project began in July 2015, with a proposal to build 11 miles of track and three new rail stations to extend the commuter rail service west to Haymarket. Environmental analysis and preliminary design are supposed to be completed in 2017, with service starting in 2022.

Map made using ArcGIS Online.

VRE is planning to add more trains to carry additional passengers during rush hours, as well as offer service in the middle of the day. VRE plans to add three new trains to the Manassas Line at rush hour, raising the total from eight to 11 (a total of 22 trips/day). A 10-car train can carry up to 1,000 people.

Running trains more frequently could mean more service

VRE is also considering adding service in the middle of the day from Manassas to Alexandria, starting the conversion of VRE from a commuter rail system to a transit system. The proposed Off Peak Shuttle would add seven additional trains each way between morning/evening rush hours. There would be a headway (gap between trains) of approximately an hour, bringing the total number of daily trips to 36.

Image from VRE.

Off-peak shuttle trains would terminate at Alexandria, where passengers could catch Metro to get into DC. The new service would add customers to Metro's Blue and Yellow lines outside of rush hours.

Outside of rush hours, VRE trains would not go further than Alexandria due to existing congestion on the CSX Railroad; the stretch of tracks between Manassas and Alexandria is a dead-end stub for Norfolk Southern, meaning the tracks don't see as much traffic as the CSX ones.

Map made using ArcGIS Online.

Building more tracks could also mean serving different locations

VRE has packed its proposal to expand service with plans to build new track and stations. The Fredericksburg Line was recently extended south to Spotsylvania County, and since 2002 VRE has been looking at extending its Manassas Line building an extension 11 miles west to Haymarket, near where I-66 crosses through Bull Run Mountain.

Among all of the options its considering, VRE's preference is to build the extension with three new stations at Innovation, Gainesville, and Haymarket. The existing Broad Run station would be closed and a new railyard would be constructed west of Haymarket, perhaps in Fauquier County.

Map of the proposed extension and station locations. Image from VRE.

The extension to Haymarket would cost $468 million. When Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) prioritized projects for the 2017-2022 Six-Year Improvement Program on June 13, 2016, the benefit/cost ratio was not high enough to justify funding.

The CTB uses what's called the "Smart Scale" analytical process (previously known as the "HB2" process) to prioritize transportation projects, and VRE staff called their proposal the "best project not to get funded this cycle."

Funding for the proposed expansion will be problematic. VRE claims it does not intend to rely upon local funding for construction, but 50% of current operations costs are subsidized by local jurisdictions.

VRE anticipates Federal/state grants would fund one-time capital costs for building track and buying new locomotives and railcars. The counties/cities in Northern Virginia would have to find the revenue in local budgets to fund the extra $4-5 million in annual operating costs not covered by customer fares.

Another option: Expanding by adding a station at Godwin Road

At the start of the analysis required to obtain federal funding, VRE identified expanding via Godwin Road as alternative to the three new stations. That would mean replacing the existing Broad Run Station with a new end-of-line station 1.5 miles to the northeast at Godwin Road, creating space for railyard expansion.

The Godwin Road option would also mean VRE could run more trains at rush hour and during the day, as the Broad Run railyard could support the extra service.

Map made using ArcGIS Online.

The proposed extension to Haymarket, compared to the Godwin Road alternative, would cost $250-350 million more for construction and $9 million more annually for operations. I believe, however, that it would remove only 100 more cars/day from I-66 in 2025 and only 300 cars/day in 2040. The project's justification in the Smart Scale process was based on claims for increased economic development, since congestion relief on I-66 would be so minimal.

Chart from VRE.

Funding for passenger rail is limited, and it is obvious that funding better maintenance for Metro will be a higher priority that any VRE expansion. Asking federal, state, and local officials to spend $500 million more by the year 2040 than the Godwin Road alternative, just to reduce 300 cars/day on I-66, will be difficult when so many rail projects are seeking funding.

For more details, see the Prince William Conservation Alliance blog.


Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is lucky to have over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap! Visiting a public gardens can refreshing your mental, spiritual, and physical being. Here's a rundown of the very best, all of which you can get to by taking Metro or the bus.

The Smithsonian Castle garden. All photos by DC Gardens on Flickr.

Smithsonian Gardens

The easiest to access are the Smithsonian Gardens. Yes, there is green space on the National Mall and it is not all lawn! The Smithsonian Gardens are made up of 12 distinct spaces—from a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History to the contemporary, sunken Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

All are free to all visitors, and many host educational programming and docents give regular tours. One of the most informative tours is hosted by Horticulturist Janet Draper at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October.

Getting There: Take Metro to the Smithsonian station or any of the surrounding metro stops near the Mall. You can also take the Circulator, 70 Metrobus lines, and 30 Metrobus lines.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall and easily accessible is the US Botanic Garden. Along with the adjoining National Garden, Bartholdi Park, and Capitol Grounds, it has administered through the Architect of the Capitol and is not part of the Smithsonian as is commonly assumed.

The US Botanic Garden.

The Botanic Garden is one of the few tourist sites open on both Christmas and New Year's Day. Over the past few years, it's become more and more crowded on those dates as the secret has spread, so go early and be prepared to stand in line to view the annual holiday garden railroad display.

Getting There: Take Metro to the L'Enfant station or any of the surrounding stops near the Mall. You can also take the Circulator and 30 Metrobus lines, which stop in back of the Botanic Garden. Often I take the Red Line to Judiciary Square and walk across the Mall rather than switch trains.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If you want to avoid crowds, try the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays timed around Easter, but come back in late May/early June for stunning roses and later in the summer for tropical gardens that include a few palm trees.

Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

Getting There: I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk up the steep hill along Quincy Street to get to it, but there are a few buses that get you closer (the H6 and the 80).

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. The Arboretum was closed three days a week due to the recent sequester and budget cutbacks, but thanks to fundraising by the Friends of the National Arboretum, the grounds are now back open every day of the year except December 25.

The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is under the US Department of Agriculture and its mission has been more one of research than of public outreach and education, but with a new director just named that has given local gardeners hope of great things to come. The grounds are large and it would take several visits to see it all. Plan to visit often and in all seasons to see how the gardens change throughout the year.

Getting there: There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but that service was infrequent and then was cut entirely a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance. (A bus route from the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro station would be a dream...)

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. If you go on a weekday, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself.

The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

This is the true hidden oasis of the city—a former waterlily nursery now a national park. It is also a wildlife haven. Both photographers and birders frequent the gardens in the early mornings, leaving before the heat of the day. They are missing out though as the hundreds of waterlilies and lotus open up in the direct sun and are best viewed in mid-day during July-August.

Getting there: You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the Metro to Deanwood and walk over.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. The secluded, walled garden is on the south-facing side of the Cathedral and is downhill from it as well, giving it a great perspective on the building.

The Bishop's Close.

The garden itself is sunny and bright to support the roses and English-style perennial borders, but there are some shady quiet spots for contemplation, quiet reading, and reflection.

Getting there: Take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, both Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria are free and run by their local county parks systems. Both take an effort to access by a combination of Metro and local bus systems, but are worth it for an afternoon outside of the city. Better access by transit would increase the usefulness and value of both of these gardens to their surrounding communities.

Getting there: Go to Brookside by taking the Red Line to Glenmont and walking one mile along Glen Allen Road. To get to Green Spring, take the Yellow or Blue Line to King Street and then transfer to the 29N bus towards Vienna. Get off at Little River Turnpike and Green Spring Road.

A new local nonprofit, DC Gardens, sprung up last spring to bring the profile of local public gardens in the DC region to the attention of both out-of-town tourists as well as to those who live here and only think of DC garden tourism as a once a year trip to see the Tidal Basin's cherry blossoms in bloom. On the site, you can view many of our public gardens month-by-month and learn what events, festivals, and activities are going at each.

A version of this post first ran in May 2015. With the summer weather back and in full effect, we thought it an opportune time to spread the word again!


David Alpert will take over AMC's The Walking Dead

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

AMC Networks has announced that it has hired David Alpert, founder and president of Greater Greater Washington, to be the new Executive Producer of its hit show The Walking Dead. In other news, The Walking Dead Executive Producer David Alpert will take over as President of Greater Greater Washington.

"We're really excited about this new direction for both our organizations," said Alpert. Alpert said, "This is an opportunity for both organizations to explore new directions."

The AMC show will be rebranded as The Walkable Dead and will focus on telling stories of the ways road design can keep people from facing serious injury or death. Jeff Speck will become the series' new head writer.

"I'm certain that audiences all around the nation will be just as riveted by the intricacies of sidewalk widths, traffic calming, and on which side of parked cars to put bike lanes as they are by stories of a world overrun by zombies," said Alpert.

For his part, Alpert plans to steer Greater Greater Washington toward more first-person narrative stories. An upcoming series of posts, tentatively called a "season," will depict a ragtag band of desperate survivors in Alexandria, Virginia who find their world, and neighborhood, completely destroyed by a pair of painted bike lanes on King Street.

An upcoming episode, previewed for the press, shows a suburban office worker having to wait a full 30 seconds to get out of his driveway as a few cyclists pass by. Having to back up very slowly and repeatedly look both ways epitomizes the difficult struggle to survive in a world suddenly filled with these two-wheeled menaces, who seem single-mindedly intent on getting to their destinations with their brains intact.

Alpert, who graduated from Harvard, said his past experience producing the TV show, which purportedly takes place in Alexandria, perfectly prepares him for the role of managing a blog and advocacy organization. He said, "I get it: density good, neighbor opposition bad, transit/biking/walking good, cars bad ... How hard can this be?"

Alpert, meanwhile, said he's confident that his degree from Harvard will prepare him for keeping The Walkable Dead one of the top shows on TV. He has been to Atlanta (where the series is filmed) a couple of times. "Most of Metro Atlanta already looks like a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland," added Alpert.

An additional revelation was promulgated by Alpert: In anticipation of the substitution, the phraseology that will be utilized in the production of Greater Greater Washington will entirely be composed of passive voice and nominalizations.


You did it! Come party!

With the generous help of 291 readers and supporters, we've surpassed this year's goal and raised $26,832 for this year's reader drive. Thank you! We hope to see you at the party, and read on for the answer to our sample trivia question.

Photo by Tobias Scheck on Flickr.

Our readers play a very important part in helping us remain financially sustainable, so we can keep having Jonathan Neeley edit our community's articles, Sarah Guidi keep the organization running, and soon start doing more organizing around housing as well.

We're pleased to be able to keep reader support as a major part of our budget, and hope that can continue. Thank you to everyone who stepped up!

We also now have 67 sustaining monthly donors. If you haven't supported us yet, signing up for a monthly gift of $5 or more will grow our base of reliable revenue and cut down on how much we have to push each year during the regular reader drive (but you can always cancel).

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See you at the party!

We hit the goal just in time for our 8th birthday party tonight (Tuesday), March 8, from 6:30 to 9 pm at Vendetta on H Street NE. If you haven't signed up yet, please do!

Dan Reed will be running a short, optional, but fun trivia contest around 7:45, with a $5 requested donation to play. Recently, we posted a sample question:

Millennials are flocking to this neighborhood outside DC, where the percentage of adults 20-34 has more than doubled since 1980 to 71%, making it one of the region's youngest. What is it?

Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

We got 13 guesses. Most people guessed Clarendon, which indeed gained many young people and was named the best neighborhood for millennials in 2014, but the most millennial-heavy Census tract around there just had 57% of residents ages 20-34.

That's quite a lot, but not as many as tract 2007.01 in the Eisenhower area of Alexandria, where the young adult share of the neighborhood's population grew from 31% in 1980 to 71% by 2013.

Congratulations to Nicholas Chen, the only person to get the question correct. Nice work, Nicholas!

And thanks again to all of our readers, commenters, friends, allies, and supporters who've helped make Greater Greater Washington a success!


This summer, Alexandria's King Street could become a complete street... or not

When it repaves a stretch of King Street this summer, the City of Alexandria wants make it safer for all users. But of the three design options Alexandria is considering, only one would make for a complete street.

This is the part of King Street that Alexandria will work on. Photo from Google Streetview.

Complete streets, which Alexandria has embraced since 2011, are streets designed in a way to make them safe for people of all ages and abilities, and which balance the needs of everyone using the street, whether they're traveling by car, bicycle, on foot, or via transit. When Alexandria repaves streets, the city's Complete Streets coordinator works to ensure these elements exist.

Where the changes will go

The section Alexandria is repaving this summer is from Janneys Lane to Radford Street, near TC Williams High School. That's immediately west of where in 2014, residents fought a protracted battle over adding bike lanes during another resurfacing process.

Contextual map of the project. Base map from Google Maps, with illustrations by the author.

But this time around, most neighbors living on this four-lane section of King Street seem to want changes. They consider this stretch of King Street a residential street in a residential neighborhood, and many have said in community discussions and on Twitter that they want to see slower traffic speeds, safer pedestrian crossings, and generally a more "residential" character for the street.

One resident pointed out that while it may become the major commercial corridor Rt. 7 in Fairfax, King Street is just two travel lanes in most of Alexandria (Janney's Lane eastbound to the river).

In feedback that city staff collected during preliminary public meetings and outreach last fall, residents reported that this stretch of King Street is difficult to cross, with pedestrian safety concerns near TC Williams, bus stops that are hard to get to, and unsafe conditions for cyclists, among others.

People driving need safety changes, too. Today, cars waiting to turn left along this stretch create delays for through traffic, and are in an exposed position, risking being rear-ended by fast cars in the left lane.

To address all of these concerns, the city is considering other changes, called the "King Street Complete Street Project," in addition to repaving. According to its project page, the goals of the project are to:

  • Improve the safety and convenience for all street users
  • Provide facilities for people who walk, bike, ride transit or drive cars
  • Implement City Council adopted plans and policies.
City staff has released three design options for the project, with offerings ranging from mainly car-oriented to a broadly-multimodal. Alexandria residents have an opportunity to give feedback on the options through this Sunday, February 28.

Design Option 1 only covers the basics

Option 1, while named "Complete Streets Maintenance," is basically the no-change option. According to the project sheet, there would be no major changes to the road's current 4-lane configuration, minimal pedestrian improvements, and no bike or vehicle improvements.

Cross section of Option 1. Image from the City of Alexandria presentation.

Basically, option 1 would bring the street up to what amount to most people's existing minimum expectations, by improving curb ramps, installing crosswalks along adjacent side streets, and bringing bus stops into ADA compliance.

Design Option 2 only focuses on intersections

Option 2 only focuses on making intersections better. Like option 1, it does nothing to change today's conditions, where people walking on the sidewalk are uncomfortably close to vehicle traffic. There are no improvements for people bicycling.

Pedestrian intersection improvements in Option 2. Image from the City of Alexandria presentation.

Under option 2, the main change is that planners would swap one of the two westbound through travel lanes for a left turn lane for the length of the project corridor.

This would help slow traffic and make the street safer, though residents have voiced concerns that it won't slow traffic enough. This option also adds pedestrian improvements at intersections, and improves crossings at bus stops.

Cross section of Option 2. Image from the City of Alexandria presentation.

One issue, though, is that slower speeds in option 2 translate into longer travel times for people traveling west by car or transit: 13 seconds during AM rush hour, and 11 seconds at evening rush hour, to get through the mile-long project corridor.

Despite many residents' calls to slow traffic on this stretch of King Street, other Alexandrians have already indicated in the city's online forum that they may see this slight increase in travel times as unacceptable.

Design Option 3 makes things better for all street users

Option 3 does the best job of addressing resident's concerns about traffic moving too fast and safety for people walking along this residential stretch. It not only swaps one of the two westbound through vehicle lanes for a left turn lane (as in Option 2), it also swaps an eastbound vehicle lane for a buffered bike lane for much of the project's eastern stretch, and incorporates a shared lane west of TC Williams High School.

Cross section of main section of Option 3. Image from the City of Alexandria presentation.

In addition to the bike infrastructure, this option facilitates safer turning and smoother through traffic for people in cars at TC Williams High School with left turn lanes, and includes planted pedestrian crossing islands.

Like Option 2, Option 3's safety improvements result in slightly slower travel times in the corridor for people in vehicles (7-13 seconds during peak periods through the mile-long project corridor). But that means some Alexandrians are up in arms about it:

Some residents are opposing bike lanes and other improvements in Option 3. Image from AlexandriaVAmom on Twitter.

But Option 3 provides the most separation between vehicles and the sidewalk, and creates a dedicated space for each user of the street. That makes it the best in keeping with Alexandria's Complete Streets policy.

What happens next

Alexandria has extended the public feedback survey on the three options through February 28. Once public comment on the three design options closes, city staff will review the comments and decide on a course of action. Staff has said that as of now, all options are still on the table. Look for more community discussions, before a design eventually goes to a public hearing of Alexandria's Traffic and Parking Board for approval.

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