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Bicycling


Memorial Bridge fixes could help more than just cars

Arlington Memorial Bridge needs serious repairs, or perhaps even a full replacement, in the next five years. As the National Park Service works to make that happen, there's also a chance to address some surrounding conditions that are hazardous for people on foot and on bike.


Photo by Bernt Rostad on Flickr.

NPS first sounded the alarm about the bridge last year after an inspection forced emergency repairs that partially closed the bridge, and started a ban on heavy vehicles, like buses, that's still in place today. Now, NPS says those repairs didn't do enough, and that it's inevitable that without $250 million in repairs, the bridge will be too dangerous for automobile travel by 2021.

Northern Virginia's Congressional delegation is on board with funding the effort to fix it, citing the fact that 68,000 people cross the bridge daily. Hopefully, they can convince their colleagues to join them.


Rust underneath the Memorial Bridge. Image from NPS.

The bridge is unsafe for more than just cars

Memorial Bridge bridge itself has wide sidewalks that usually allow enough room for most cyclists and pedestrians to share space. But the routes that connect to the bridge aren't safe for people on foot or bike.

In Virginia, the bridge connects to the George Washington Parkway and its accompanying trail, which is one of the region's most popular. Despite its popularity the trail has some particular challenges, namely that it intersects with the parkway—a limited access, high speed highway—in several places. Drivers are supposed to yield or stop for anyone trying to use the crosswalks, but there have been a number of crashes thanks to people rear-ending cars that were stopped to allow people to cross.


Image from Google Maps.

Issues on the DC side of the bridge stem from a confusing web of roads that force cyclists on their way to the Mall or downtown to either ride in very busy car traffic or on a narrow sidewalk.


One of the crosswalks where few drivers slow down. Image from Google Maps.

NPS has actually known about these issues longer than they have known about the bridge being in disrepair. But the agency has been resistant to do anything to fix them except in small ways where the first priority was not to slow down cars using the parkway.

Here are some ideas for fixing the bridge

NPS is straightening out some parts of the trail near Washington National Airport, where curves snake around a large tree and make it hard to see. The agency is also working to make it so cyclists don't have to travel through a busy parking lot near Teddy Roosevelt Island. But closer to the bridge itself, the trail could still get a lot safer.

One option is to create separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians on popular parts of the trail. NPS could also keep working to remove some of sharp curves and blind corners that are on the trail beyond what is being fixed at the airport. Finally, NPS needs to decide what to do about the crosswalks. If the GW Parkway is going to remain a high speed highway, then crosswalks more appropriate for a city street just won't work. Solutions might include rerouting the trail, slowing down speed limits, or even adding trail overpasses.

For the bridge itself, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) put forth its own idea for removing two car lanes and creating protected bike lanes a while back:


Diagram of a redesigned memorial bridge. Image from WABA.

Cutting the number of car lanes on the bridge would work since congestion there is pretty low. Average speeds at rush hour are higher than the speed limit, and a new bridge wouldn't need six car lanes.

The crux of the Memorial Bridge issue is safety, and that of cyclists and pedestrians shouldn't go ignored. But a safe bridge and surrounding area for them would also mean a safer place for drivers, as deciding to follow the law and share the road would become far less dangerous. Both NPS and leaders in Congress should be concerned about all bridge users.

If a concern for safety is a big reason why NPS is sounding the alarm now then they should also be using this opportunity to fix the persistent hazards that cyclists and pedestrians have faced on the trails around the bridge.

Roads


Why Arlington might not sue Virginia over I-395 this time

This is part two in a series the 395 HOT lanes. Read part 1 to understand what happened the last time they were proposed.

VDOT has proposed converting HOV lanes on I-395 into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. The first time this proposal came up, Arlington County stopped it with a lawsuit. But Arlington seems receptive this time. What's different?


Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

New plan differences

Unlike last time, VDOT has committed to doing an environmental assessment from the start. The agency is also doing a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) study to "identify transit, carpool, vanpool and other demand strategies that can improve travel along the corridor."

The proposal includes "guaranteed funding" for new and enhanced transit service and carpooling incentives, though the amount of funding is still under negotiation. Unlike the prior plan, it leaves the Shirlington Circle interchange as-is and would keep the currently under-construction Seminary Road access ramp restricted to HOV use.

Questions remain about design, transit, and bicycle accommodations

Despite the changes to the proposal, Virginia transporation officials still need to answer many of the questions and concerns raised last time around and work to mitigate any potential negative impacts from the HOT lanes.

While the proposal adds capacity with a third lane, it also allows cars with fewer than three occupants, meaning additional traffic. Will this speed up or slow down the existing HOV and bus traffic? Slowing down HOV traffic would lessen the incentive to carpool. And slowing down buses would lessen the incentive to use public transit, as well as raising the operating and capital costs for local transit agencies.

One of those agencies, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, lost $1.5 million in federal funding when the 95 HOT lanes opened. What impact will the conversion have on transit funding for other local transit agencies?

There are other significant issues with safety, accommodating travelers without cars, and working the plan in with other transportation plans in the area.

VDOT claims that construction will not require taking of any residential properties or significant rights-of-way. Other than the construction of new sound walls, officials believe they can fit the third lane into the existing footprint of the HOV lanes. But that could require making the shoulders narrower or even removing them, which could impact safety, access for emergency vehicles, and the reliability of travel times.

It seems like every major highway expansion, from the 495 HOT lanes to the Intercounty Connector includes a major transit element, and yet they rarely seem to materialize or are quickly phased out. It's unknown how much money this plan guarantees for transit and TDM and who will determine how it is spent.

Likewise, the plan misses an opportunity to add to Northern Virginia's trail network, like the existing Custis Trail proposed trails along I-66. And it's unclear whether the plan will do anything to mitigate tree loss, which was a major issue with the I-95 Express lanes.

Virginia learned a tough lesson with the existing 95 HOT lanes: Eventually all HOT lanes have to end, and the merge situation when they do can create major backups. The 395 HOT lane extension would end at or near the already-congested 14th Street Bridge. How will VDOT avoid exacerbating an already ugly situation there and can they coordinate with DC's slow-moving initiative to add a network of HOT lanes within DC, including on the 14th Street Bridge?

The way the contract is written gives Virginia an incentive to discourage carpooling in the HOT lanes. The 395 HOT lanes will be governed by the existing contract the commonwealth has with Fluor-Transurban which requires Virginia to reimburse the firm if the facility carries "too many" HOV users.

I-395 and I-66 are very different

Comparisons between the plans for I-66 inside the beltway and I-395 HOT lane plans are easy to make; both would convert existing HOV lanes into HOT lanes and both would provide funding for transit. Beyond that, however, they differ quite significantly.

I-395 has, and would continue to have un-tolled, unrestricted lanes in addition to the HOT lanes. I-66 would consist of only HOT lanes. The I-395 HOT lanes would charge tolls at all times; the I-66 lanes would only charge during rush hour, and only in the peak direction.

The I-395 HOV lanes are already HOV-3 only; the I-66 lanes are HOV-2. The I-395 HOT lanes will be paid for by a private partner; the I-66 HOT lanes will be paid for by Virginia.

The cumulative effect of the differences in cost, alternatives options and existing HOV level shift the conversation being had about effectiveness and impact on surrounding jurisdictions enough that support or opposition for one doesn't necessarily translate into similar feelings on the other.

The plan is more predictable and it gives the local governments a say

The changes in the latest HOT lanes proposal appear tailor-made to reduce push-back and ease approval by making the effects of the proposal easier to predict and understand. It requires almost no land acquisition, changes the existing highway interchanges as little as possible, uses an existing vendor under an existing contract, commits to funding transit and TDM, and will include an environmental process from the outset.

The environmental process ensures that the public and the jurisdictions will have the leverage they need to ensure their questions get answered. Until they are, however, we can't know whether this proposal will help or harm. If Arlington sues again, or some other jurisdiction does, it likely won't be because they can't get their questions answered, it will be because they don't like the answers.

What question do you have? What should the public and jurisdictions be certain of before deciding whether to move forward with HOT lanes on 395?

Roads


395's HOV lanes may become HOT lanes. Here's what happened last time that possibility arose.

It looks like the HOV lanes on I-395 may soon become High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. The first time this proposal came up, Arlington County stopped it with a lawsuit. Why did Arlington sue, and is this new plan likely to meet the same fate?


Map of existing and proposed Express Lanes. Map by 395 Express Lanes Project.

A key commuter route, 395 carries traffic into DC from the Beltway. South of Edsall Road, which is just north of the Beltway, 395 has three reversible HOT lanes that continue south onto I-95. North of Edsall, 395 currently has two reversible HOV-3 lanes (meaning they're only available to vehicles with three passengers or more).

The new plan, which the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) announced in November, is to widen 395's existing two reversible HOV-3 lanes to three, and allow non-HOV vehicles to use them in exchange for a toll. The amount of the toll would dynamically fluctuate based on demand in order to maintain the free-flow of traffic in the lanes. Flour-Transurban, the private company that operates 395's existing HOT lanes, would run the new ones.

The original plan

In 2005, VDOT planned to convert the current HOV lanes on 395 to HOT lanes when the I-95 HOT lanes opened. VDOT and Fluor-Transurban proposed adding the third lane and making all three HOT lanes. The proposal added an access points at Seminary Road, added an access point at Shirlington Circle along with a major re-configuration of that area to speed traffic, and re-worked the interchanges with Washington Boulevard and Eads Street near the Pentagon.

From the start, Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William counties, as well as the City of Alexandria, all voiced concerns about the project. They were:

  • Would this speed or slow existing HOV traffic and buses? The HOT lanes would certainly carry more vehicles, but would they actually move more people or would they simply shift the same number of people into more vehicles?
  • Would adding new access points and reconfiguring Shirlington Circle dump additional traffic onto neighborhood streets and undermine Shirlington's efforts to be a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented place?
  • Would conflicts arise when the state trusted a private, profit-seeking operator with managing the road?
VDOT declined to provide answers, and the Federal Highway Administration cleared the agency to move forward without formally studying what, exactly, the impact of adding HOT lanes would be. In response, Arlington sued, hoping to force an environmental review.

Arlington prevailed through several initial rounds of procedural jockeying. While Arlington officials continued settlement negotiations behind the scenes, Republican lawmakers took potshots at the predominantly-Democratic county. Despite sharing similar concerns, Alexandria never signed on to Arlington's lawsuit, realizing that they could share any good outcomes of the litigation without actually having to share Arlington's legal bill, which ultimately topped $2 million.

In 2011, VDOT announced that it was dropping the original proposal and advancing a new proposal which led to what we have today. The HOV lanes north of Edsall Road remained as-is, a new HOV-only access ramp to Seminary Road went in to accommodate traffic from the BRAC military relocation, and the two HOV lanes south of Edsall became three HOT lanes. Most importantly, they did so through an environmental process culminating in an Environmental Assessment.

As a result of the new proposal, Arlington dropped its lawsuit without any final ruling on its merits. This didn't stop the General Assembly from punishing Arlington for bringing the lawsuit by revoking some of its taxing authority and withholding a portion of its transportation funding.

How is the new plan different than the old plan? Will Arlington sue again? We'll talk about it in tomorrow's post.

Roads


I-66 widening will happen soon whether it makes sense or not

Virginia Governor McAuliffe announced today that I-66 will become one lane wider eastbound inside the Beltway, from the Dulles Toll Road to Ballston. That changes previous plans to hold off on widening, to give transit and tolls a chance to ease congestion on their own.


Could only HOT lanes combined with transit and multimodal options have eased congestion on I-66? We'll never know. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

Until today, the plan was to allow single-occupancy vehicles to use I-66 in exchange for paying a toll, and to dedicate the toll revenue to transit and demand management. Then VDOT would study whether or not it was still necessary to widen the road.

However, Republican leaders in the Virginia General Assembly filed legislation to block that plan, and widen immediately instead.

The new compromise plan will immediately move forward with widening I-66 eastbound from the Dulles Toll Road to Fairfax Drive in Ballston. In exchange, Republican leaders will drop their opposition to the tolls and transit components.

One more compromise

McAullife's original tolling proposal had already been significantly compromised. His original plan called for tolls in both the peak and non-peak directions, and an immediate switch to HOV-3. Those proposals were axed months ago to appease Republican lawmakers outside the beltway.

What was theoretically finalized in late 2015 was converting the existing peak-direction HOV-2 lanes to HOT-2, an agreement to spend the majority of toll revenue on transit projects in the corridor, eliminating exemptions for hybrid cars, Dulles Airport traffic, and law-enforcement cars so that all single-driver cars had to pay the toll, and an agreement that Virginia would not widen I-66 without first studying the effects of the tolls and transit.

It's that final part, the agreement not to widen, that's now changing. The remainder of the 2015 deal, including tolling, dedicating most revenue to transit, and eliminating the various HOV exemptions, will continue.

Tolling is still expected to start in 2017, the same as the original timeline. It will take longer to build the new lane, but not much longer. The widening will likely be complete by late 2019, just prior to a planned sister project outside the beltway. The HOV-2 provisions will become HOV-3 both inside and outside the beltway in or around 2020.

The widening inside the beltway will cost $140 million.

This is a loss for Arlington, but there are silver linings

This new compromise is a blow to Arlington, which has long supported investments like transit, cycling, and transportation demand management as alternatives to widening I-66. It is also a blow to Virginia's move toward a more data-driven transportation decision-making process, as the lawmakers pushing for widening ignore data saying it's not necessary.

While Smart Growth advocates never like to see highways gets wider, there are some bright points in even this compromised proposal.

While induced demand causes most widened highways to fill back up with traffic quickly, I-66's tolls will adjust in price according to the level of congestion, which should fight that tendency. The widening will also require a thorough environmental review, giving the community a chance to discuss impacts to parks, trails, water quality, and more.

Crucial to the compromise is the fact that the majority of toll revenue will still be dedicated to transit and other multimodal improvements, and that HOV exemptions that currently make it easy for single-occupant cars to skirt the rules will be eliminated.

That said, serious concerns remain. The governor has stated that the $140 million is not being taken from any other project, but money doesn't just appear. Even if it hadn't been allocated to another project yet, it would have been eventually. What are we not getting because we're spending $140 million widening I-66?

McAuliffe's plan has been watered down several times already. Will Virginia stick to its guns now? Or will toll revenue eventually be stripped from transit? Will the planned move from HOT-2 to HOT-3 never materialize? Will tolls really follow the formula to rise with with traffic, or will political wrangling make tolls too cheap to be effective?

What do you think of the compromise? Is it better or worse than the status quo?

Pedestrians


Walkers were left out in the cold after the blizzard

If you try to walk around in many parts of our region, particularly in the suburbs, it's easy to get the feeling that you're an afterthought, at best. Governments' actions in the recent "Snowzilla" blizzard show even more clearly how being "multimodal" is more lip service than reality.


Photo by Fionnuala Quinn.

In Fairfax County, sidewalks in neighborhoods and along major arterial roads were impassable a week or more after the storm. Schools in Fairfax, Arlington and other jurisdictions closed for seven consecutive weekdays, putting many parents in a bind. Children lacked safe routes to school and safe places to wait for buses.

This was no simple issue of having to prioritize; as Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova told residents, the Virginia Department of Transportation, which plows all of Fairfax's public roads, was not going to clear the sidewalks, and the county had no plan to either.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

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Pedestrians


If students were cars, schools would have opened sooner

Many of the region's schools closed for a full week after the recent blizzard, leaving parents to scramble for childcare and students missing out on valuable classroom time. That's what happens when your storm recovery efforts prioritize making it easy to drive rather than giving everyone a safe way to move around.


Photo by Fionnuala Quinn on Twitter.

The historic storm hit the DC area on Friday, January 22nd. By the time the last flakes fell on Saturday night, just about everything was covered in over two feet of powdery, slippery, transportation-crippling snow.

It was soon pretty easy to drive, but not get around by any other means

As crews throughout the region got to work on their respective snow clearing plans (impressive work for which they deserve a lot of thanks), roads became passable and then completely clear. In contrast, sidewalks, curb cuts, and bus stops were often blocked not just by snow, but also frozen slush.

Some of the area's bike trails were cleared, but access points were plowed in, and the network as a whole was not rideable. Metro returned to service, but getting to stations was a dirty, icy, boulder-climbing adventure and plowed-in bus stops left people waiting often in very busy streets.

Without good options, the only choice left for most people was to drive, clogging our already strained roadways that the remaining snow had narrowed.

As the week wore on and roads became clear, adults returned to work. But faced with the conditions that would have left children walking and waiting for buses in the streets, school officials decided there were not enough safe routes to school, and kept most of the region's schools closed for the entire week.


DC's 5th and Sheridan NW, the Tuesday after the storm. To the right on 5th (the street going left to right) is Coolidge High School. To the left is Whittier Education Campus. Photo by Julie Lawson.

This didn't happen randomly. Arlington is an example of why.

These conditions were a result the fact that our systems for clearing snow focus first on getting cars moving again. People walking and biking are, at best, an afterthought in the region's snow clearing plans.

For example, Arlington posts a clearly thought-out snow operations plan on their snow operations web page:

  • Phase I: During the storm, county crews keep the arterial and collector roads as functional as possible to make sure that emergency access like EMS, fire, police, utility trucks etc. could still get through.
  • Phase 2: Immediately after the storm, they keep working those major corridors, widening lanes so everybody else could start driving again, too.
  • Phase 3: When those are under control they start working their way into residential streets.
Arlington has no unified public plan for clearing the rest of the transportation network - the sidewalks, trails, curb cuts and bus stops that are necessary for people walking, biking and taking transit.

Private individuals are responsible for clearing the majority of sidewalks, and various agencies of the County government are responsible for some routes. Apparently, there are designated "safe routes to schools" that are meant to get priority in snow clearing, but those routes are not made public and are not given priority if the schools are closed. However, many stretches are left without anyone to clear them, unless the County chooses to on an ad-hoc, complaint-based basis.

For example, the stretch of sidewalk along Lynn Street between the intersection of Lee Highway and the Key Bridge is along National Park Service Property. After this storm it took more than a week before the snow and ice were clear along this stretch, which cut off the main sidewalk access between Rosslyn and DC.


Arlington's "Intersection of Doom," at Lee Highway and N Lynn Street, just south of the Key Bridge. People walking and biking would need to climb over this snow/ice mound to get to the iced over sidewalk that leads to Key Bridge. Photo by the author.

When this snow plan was implemented, the streets were cleared, but the sidewalks and bus stops students would have needed to get to school were covered, often in mounds of snow deposited by snow plows. Instead of forcing kids to walk or wait for buses in the street, officials closed most of the region's schools for the entire week after the snow storm, forcing students to lose valuable instructional time at the end of the grading period.

Meanwhile, the region began to get back to work. By Wednesday, after three full days of being closed to allow the region to focus on digging out, most business were open and workers were working.

There are other ways to do this

During and immediately after the late winter blizzard of 1996 that dumped about the same amount of snow as last week's storm, New York City shut down all streets in Manhattan to private cars. The only vehicles on the roads were emergency equipment, garbage trucks, transit vehicles and of course snow plows.

NYC-DOT knew it could never get the city up and running again quickly if they decided that their first priority was to make it possible for everybody to drive their cars again. Roads were opened to traffic only after the sidewalks and bus stops were clear. In New York this took two days.

Arlington could do the same thing: Clear just enough of the roadway to accommodate emergency and service vehicles and eventually transit, but not more. With virtually no cars on the roads, people could at least get around on foot without putting their lives in danger.

And because transit and school bus stops would be cleared and almost no traffic on the road, these buses could actually get through and run on normal schedules. All kids, walkers and bus riders alike, would have a safe way to get to school.

Arlington does transportation well… when it doesn't snow

Fortunately, a good model exists right under our own noses. Arlington's transportation program looks at mobility as a public right, and sees all modes as legitimate. This includes mobility for people in cars, but doesn't leave out people on bikes, people on transit and people on foot.

Arlington's snow operations planners should try looking at mobility the same way when they plan for snow removal.

In this storm we saw a snow removal plan focused on getting cars back on the road. That happened by Wednesday. But cars don't occupy desks at schools.


After snow storms, it'd be smart to prioritize getting schools up and running. Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

Our public schools closed for a week because there wasn't a safe way for kids to get to them. We need a transportation system that serves the students, whether they drive, ride the bus, walk or bike to school.

We didn't have that after the recent blizzard, so we didn't have school.

Roads


For I-66, outside-the-beltway lawmakers say "toss the facts, widen baby widen"

A group of Virginia state legislators from outside the beltway are urging Governor McAuliffe to widen I-66 inside the beltway, rather than go forward with VDOT's transit and tolls proposal. But years of data say the multimodal proposal would be more effective.


I-66. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

What's happening with I-66

Over the course of 2015, the Virginia Department of Transportation settled on a plan to change how I-66 inside the beltway operates.

Instead of the current configuration where the entire highway is HOV-only in the peak direction during rush hour, the peak direction would become HOT, meaning single-occupant cars could travel on it if they pay a toll, while HOV cars remain free.

In exchange for letting single-occupant cars onto a highway they're currently not allowed to use, toll revenue would go to improving transit.

Then, after a few years of operating like that, VDOT would study how traffic changed, and either widen I-66 or opt not to.

That plan had been gaining steam all through 2015, as VDOT did the planning to take it from rough concept to fully fleshed out project.

Some just want a wider highway

Then the Virginia General Assembly began its 2016 session, and a prominent bill proposes to kill the project, replacing it with a straight-up widening of I-66. The bill's author, western Fairfax / eastern Loudoun delegate Jim LeMunyon, consistently advocates for bigger highways, and has a history of trying to cut transit and bike/ped funding.

Governor McAuliffe, who supports the transit and tolls plan, says he won't veto the bill if it reaches his desk on the back of support from Northern Virginia's delegates.

That prompted a group of seven other lawmakers, all from the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, to urge VDOT to drop the transit and tolls plan, and support widening only.

No lawmakers from inside the beltway, where this plan would actually take place, signed on to the letter.

Analysis says the transit and tolls plan is better

VDOT's transit and tolls plan has been in the works for 13 years. Studies in 2003, 2009, and 2012 built towards the 2015 proposal, all of which determined a widening-only approach wouldn't work very well.

Most recently, in 2015 VDOT ran three projects through a sophisticated computer model called "HB-599," to see how they would affect traffic congestion. The three projects:

  • "Transform66 Inside," the transit and tolls proposal
  • "Widen I-66 Inside," a widening-only alternate
  • "Transform66 Outside," an entirely separate project outside the beltway, that's less controversial.
The outcome: For inside the beltway, the transit and tolls proposal is a far more effective project than widening only. It reduces congestion on I-66 much, much more than widening only would. Never mind the added mobility and benefits to car-free urbanites. Simply in the terms of reducing highway congestion, the model says the transit and tolls proposal is better.


Image by VDOT.

Be objective, unless being objective doesn't produce what you want

Ironically, the HB-599 process is Jim LeMunyon's own brainchild. It's the result of a bill he sponsored in 2012 to force Northern Virginia to objectively evaluate the congestion reduction effects of major projects.

But now the HB-599 results are in, and alas, they aren't what LeMunyon hoped for. According to LeMunyon's own hand-picked metrics, the transit and tolls project is better than just widening.

But none of that matters to the outer suburban politicians who just want bigger highways. For them, I-66 seems to be a case of "Damn the numbers! Widen baby, widen!"

What will happen?

Until a bill to block tolls becomes law, VDOT is continuing to move forward with the transit and tolls plan. If the plan stays alive, construction will begin this summer, and the project will open in the summer of 2017.

With Governor McAuliffe threatening to withhold a veto, some of Northern Virginia's lawmakers will need to come out in support of the transit and tolls plan. Virginians can contact their lawmakers via the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Development


Three big urban planning efforts that will transform Northern Virginia

As 2016 kicks into gear, big plans are in the works to remake Old Town North in Alexandria, Reston Town Center, and Arlington's Lee Highway. In each jurisdiction, there are equally big questions about where housing will fit into future development.


Photo by Rocky A on Flickr.

All three are happening within the framework of last year's local election campaigns, with lagging economies, rising housing costs, growing poverty in the suburbs, and the question of where our jobs will sleep at night. Will 2015's campaign rhetoric translate into places that are affordable, accessible, and walkable, with amenities that can be enjoyed by all in the community?

Alexandria

Alexandria's Old Town North (OTN) Small Area Plan will be an update to the original, which came out in 1992. The goals of the plan are to create a sense of place with innovative architecture, design, and open space, while respecting existing residential neighborhoods. The plan will maintain views of the river and ensure public access to water activities, and promote walkability and accessibility to open space.

Existing city plans, namely the 1974 master plan and the Plan for the Redevelopment of the Alexandria Waterfront, will inform specific recommendations for the new SAP.


Alexandria's Old Town waterfront. Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

Regarding housing, there are 340 committed, affordable public housing units owned by Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) in Old Town North. There are no market-affordable units nor are there any affordable rental set-aside units from market-rate developers located in this study area.

What to look for: How proactive will the city be in promoting more housing that's affordable and accessible? Which tools will it use to achieve the housing goals identified in the city's housing master plan? What role will density play? Will the OTN community support the redevelopment of Hopkins-Tancil Courts and the Administrative Office Building for ARHA into higher density, mixed income developments? What role will the campaign commitment of the new mayor to slow the pace of development play in the plans for OTN?

Arlington

Summary of what's actually happening in Arlington: Redevelopment is happening along Lee Highway, and the Lee Highway Briefing Book will examine existing conditions and policies that affect the corridor between Rosslyn and East Falls Church.

The purpose of the briefing book is for data collection and research only; no redevelopment is planned at this time, but the hope is to ensure that future growth will be guided by a comprehensive vision for the corridor. The study boundaries will include all land within a quarter mile north and south of Lee Highway.


Lee Highway and Spout Run Parkway. Photo from Arlington County.

Since 2012, a coalition of civic association leaders known as the Lee Highway Alliance (LHA) has been actively engaged in conducting educational forums and walking tours, the ultimate goal being to develop a community-based vision for the corridor. The result has been growing interest and involvement in the work of the LHA.

What to look for: How will the County's need for more housing that's affordable align with the visioning sessions led by the civic associations? As redevelopment occurs, will Arlington be successful in putting housing that's affordable in geographically diverse places? The newly adopted Affordable Housing Master Plan calls for the Lee Highway corridor to be one of those places. What are the challenges to providing additional housing posed by this narrowly defined commercial area abutting established single-family residential neighborhoods?

Fairfax

In Fairfax, Reston Town Center North will redevelop a 49-acre area of irregularly-shaped parcels north of Reston Town Center. The concept plan envisions creating eight block parcels with a grid of streets and a mix of uses "improving the current county services, integrating them into a new mixed-use community with housing, shops, restaurants, and a publicly-accessible central green open space."

This redevelopment takes advantage of a number of large employers and retail and restaurant opportunities located there, as well as proximity to the future Reston Town Center Metro station, creating additional opportunities to live/work/play in this popular and desirable location.


Rendering from Fairfax County.

County leaders are working with the community to refine objectives for the site. In addition to redeveloping the existing county facilities, other possible public uses could include transitional housing for people moving out of the homeless shelter that's there, additional affordable housing, an indoor recreation center or swimming pool, a performing arts center, and community meeting rooms.

Redevelopment plans will move forward in two phases. The first phase calls for the redevelopment of the 6.65 acres just south of Bowman Towne Drive where the library and shelter are currently located. These parcels, known as Blocks 7 and 8 (and which the county owns), are planned for mixed-use development that would include the proposed replacement library and shelter, as well as new affordable housing. The county will be seeking redevelopment partners for these block developments.

The county and Inova will jointly pursue rezoning of the remaining parcels, and then negotiate a full development agreement for swapping land at the conclusion of the rezoning, building the common infrastructure, and establishing easements. Future development of individual blocks would require separate, subsequent rezoning actions.

What to look for: Will the recent collapse of the Lake Anne redevelopment plan inform the county's thinking with regard to selecting a development partner? Will the county use this opportunity to address stated goals in the Housing Blueprint, especially regarding permanent supportive housing and housing for families at lower income levels?

A version of this post is also up on the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance's website.

Politics


Arlington's naysayer-in-chief is now its chair. Will she move the county forward?

Two years ago, Libby Garvey was the lone voice on the Arlington County Board opposing most of the county's major capital projects. On January 1, she was elected the board's chair.


Garvey. Image from Arlington County.

Garvey has spent most of the last two years being most vocal about what she was against. We're familiar with her opposition to the controversial Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar, but that was only the most visible such campaign.

The streetcar represented a compromise among unattainable ideals. Metro is too expensive to build under Columbia Pike, and a dedicated bus or rail lane is not physically possible. Yet the street is reaching the limit of what more and larger buses could achieve, making some higher-capacity transit solution necessary.

Not being able to offer high speeds, however, made the project's costs look less worthwhile, and Garvey led the fight against the project, even going to Richmond to try to talk Virginia officials out of sending state money to Arlington County.

This was always about much more than the streetcar

Garvey's opposition fit into a broader backlash against the Democratic Party establishment in Arlington. A disaffected group including Peter Rousselot, a former county party chairman who formed the anti-streetcar group, Garvey, and John Vihstadt attacked the county board's actions and spending, sometimes fairly, sometimes deceptively.

Some residents were frustrated with ways the county government had been unresponsive and non-transparent. Others wanted to see a more conservative shift amid a period of economic difficulty, where sequestration and BRAC cut incomes and removed federal jobs.

Rousselot, later joined by Garvey, waged a campaign against county spending with high-profile projects like the Artisphere in Rosslyn or an aquatic center in Long Bridge Park. The streetcar was the biggest fight, and Rousselot's group won over some voters who genuinely didn't support it after weighing the pros and cons, but also fooled many others with impractical comparisons to imaginary, unrealistic "alternatives."

What's next, for Garvey and for Arlington?

A year after the county board suddenly reversed course and canceled the streetcar, the county's current vision is drastically less ambitious than it was five or ten years ago. The only ideas for transportation in Garvey's public statements thus far are small-scale bus improvements like letting people pay the fare before boarding and having signals give them more green time—potentially valuable, certainly, but ultimately likely to have minor impact at best on Columbia Pike's and Crystal City's transit capacity needs.

Garvey has also started criticizing county officials for not moving faster to implement these, even though it was clear when the streetcar was canceled that it would take time to replace a transportation project decades in the making.

A big part of the reason for choosing rail, with its concomitant costs, was to drive significant new development to Columbia Pike, to make it the next booming corridor like (though somewhat more modest than) Rosslyn-Ballston. The plan also used the revenue from this development to pay for large quantities of new and preserved affordable housing.

People can debate whether the streetcar would have done this, or that the reason it's not happening now isn't because of the economy instead, but right now the idea that Columbia Pike will ignite into the county's next big growth area (while protecting lower-income residents) seems distant.

The rhetoric from Arlington used to be one of great vision—that Arlington could grow substantially without adding traffic, could use transit to enormously improve people's mobility and reduce car dependence, and could provide first-class public services to make the county a top place to live. Now the talk at the county board is mostly about customer service, civic participation, and sign regulations—again, all valuable, to be sure, but without big ideas.

It's not just Arlington. There has been a similar trend in many jurisdictions around the region to shrink our ambition and work on little things. But this isn't the kind of thinking that propelled Arlington to transform itself when Metro arrived.

Garvey gains an opponent

Perhaps the coming year will offer opportunities for Arlingtonians to choose a vision once more. Planning Commission member Erik Gutshall has announced he will challenge Garvey for the Democratic nomination in June.

Gutshall said he wants "to engage our community in a forward-looking vision for Arlington." We can look forward to hearing more about what kind of vision he might have in mind. Meanwhile, Garvey will have a few months to start articulating some vision of her own.

It's always easier to criticize the work of others than to get something done yourself. Denouncing the county's work from the sidelines helped Garvey get into office and elect some allies. This year will be a chance for her to demonstrate she can also lead—or have this turn at the chair be her last.

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