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Posts about Crystal City


Arlington starts work on the region's first BRT line

Alexandria is putting the finishing touches on their part of the region's first Bus Rapid Transit line, the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway, and Arlington has begun work on their section. The transitway's first phase will open this summer, and it will be completely open in 2015.

Buses called "Metro Way" will serve the transitway. Image from WMATA.

This project will speed up bus service along the Route 1 corridor between Arlington and Alexandria by creating transit-only lanes. Buses will come every 6 minutes and will operate earlier in the morning and later at night. Stations will have real-time arrival screens and ticket kiosks to allow people to pay before boarding the bus, speeding up service.

Arlington has already created a limited-stop bus service, the Metrobus 9S, as a precursor to what's coming. In addition, a new Metrobus 9X route branded "Metro Way" will travel the entire busway between Braddock Road and Crystal City and continue to Pentagon City. Other buses will use the transitway as well, including the Fairfax Connector and private shuttles.

The transitway is a joint effort between Arlington, Alexandria, WMATA, and the federal government. It will serve Crystal City and Potomac Yard, which are both growing rapidly. Alexandria is planning a new Metro station at Potomac Yard as well. But many of these areas are too far to walk to that station or the existing Crystal City and Braddock Road Metro stations, so officials are hope the transitway will make them easier to reach.

Eventually, Arlington will run streetcars in the transitway that connect with the future Columbia Pike streetcar at the Pentagon City Metro station. Meanwhile, Alexandria no longer has any streetcar plans and will use the transitway for BRT indefinitely. Alexandria may also eventually add streetcars to their portion, but Alexandria's planning is on hold while they focus on their infill Metro station.

I asked county officials why Arlington didn't put in streetcar infrastructure in the first place. The federal government provided a grant for busway construction, and although Arlington is free to upgrade to streetcar later, the original construction has to follow that busway agreement. But Arlington's Capital Improvement Plan, to be released this spring, will include an updated streetcar construction schedule.

Rendering of a future BRT station from Arlington County.

This project has largely flown under the radar, and without the controversy that has followed other transit projects in Arlington like the Columbia Pike streetcar or the "million dollar bus stop." I asked why this was, and was told that the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway enjoyed a lot of community support from residents and businesses who want better transit service.

It seems that people generally agreed that the transitway could help make Crystal City easier to get around. And since the line passes mainly through office buildings and what are currently empty fields, there weren't the same concerns about gentrification on Columbia Pike. The county should definitely look at the specific differences for why these projects were received so differently, and how to apply those lessons in the future.

Bus ridership in the DC area is growing, and in some congested corridors, buses carry half of all traffic. Regardless of mode, dedicated transitways are a great way to provide dramatic improvements to transit riders. This will be a great BRT line, and eventually a great rail line as well. Metro Way and the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway are a big, but not final, step in the right direction.


Europe's real streetcar lesson: Context matters

In the ongoing debate about where and when to build streetcars, the topic of whether they should run in mixed-traffic or dedicated lanes is a major point of contention. But outside the ivory tower of the blogosphere, it's not an ideological question so much as a contextual one.

Like many cities, Portland builds both. Photo by BeyondDC.

Virtually all transit advocates agree that both rail and buses run better when you give them a dedicated right of way. But since real life isn't SimCity, cities only dedicate space to transit where the geographic and political context allows.

For most cities, that means dedicated transitways sometimes, and mixed-traffic others.

But Stephen Smith, who blogs at Next City and Market Urbanism, has made it a point to categorically attack mixed-traffic streetcars:

Smith admits that Europe does build mixed-traffic streetcars, but argues theirs usually have fewer and shorter mixed-traffic segments.

While the lines Malouff mentioned do at times travel in lanes with cars, these segments are, with one exception, very short.
That's true. It's because European cities are starting from a stronger transit context than most US cities. Many of them still run their original mixed-traffic trolley networks, so they don't need to build those now. Meanwhile, with such convenient transit networks already in place, taking lanes from cars is more politically palatable.

Yet still, Stephen admits that European cities use mixed-traffic when the context is appropriate.

Of course that's what they do. That's what US cities do too. That's what everyone does.

That's why DC's east-west streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on H Street but will have a dedicated transitway downtown, why Arlington's streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Columbia Pike but in a transitway in Potomac Yard, and why Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Westlake Avenue but in a transitway on Valley Street.

Context is why Tacoma and Houston have transitway streetcars, while Tucson and Atlanta will have the exact same vehicle models running in mixed-traffic. It's why Salt Lake City's "light rail" sometimes runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight corridor. And it's why Portland runs a mixed-traffic streetcar line and a dedicated-lane light rail one on perpendicular streets through the same intersection.

And it's why half the cities in Europe run a combination of mixed and dedicated trams.

That isn't an argument for or against mixed-traffic streetcars, nor for or against BRT, nor for or against anything. It's an admission that everyone builds the best thing they can based on the circumstances of where they are, who they are, and what they're trying to accomplish.

It's an admission that context matters, and we all make decisions based on real world constraints and opportunities rather than black and white dogma.

Don't use hypothetical perfects to ruin real life goods

Smith is right that every streetcar line in America that's planned to run in mixed-traffic would be better if it had a transitway. Every one. In the places where dedicated lanes aren't proposed, it's totally appropriate to ask why not, and advocate for their inclusion. Transit advocates should absolutely be doing that.

But if we don't get everything we want, we need not take our ball and go home. There are plenty of benefits to streetcars besides where they run, plenty of room for meaningful transit improvements even without a lane.

Sometimes there's a good reason for running in mixed-traffic. Probably not as often as it actually happens, but sometimes. For example on Columbia Pike, where Arlington is prohibited from taking lanes.

Even if the only reason is political, as it seems to be in Cincinnati, some places face such a monumental uphill battle to get anything transit-related done, even a single mixed-traffic streetcar can raise regional transit ridership by almost 10%. That's a huge victory in a place where holding out for something perfect would likely kill the project completely.

What transit advocates shouldn't be doing is falsely claiming that nobody except misguided Americans builds streetcars. It's not true and it's not helpful. Broad brush attacks lead others to pen bogus anti-rail screeds with misleading information.

So by all means, let's do more to fight for transitways. But in our attempts to do so, let's not tear down the places that for whatever reason are merely capable of making good investments instead of perfect ones.

For the record, the same argument is true for BRT. Sometimes it's the right answer, even though BRT creep, where costly transit features are stripped away to save money, is often a problem.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Crystal City-Potomac Yard BRT will be "Metro Way"

WMATA has chosen a brand for its upcoming Crystal City Potomac Yard BRT line: Metro Way, featuring a flashy new blue paint scheme.

Metro Way. Image from WMATA.

The BRT line will run south from Pentagon City through Crystal City and then into Alexandria. It will have dedicated lanes, with large rail-like stations. The line will run every 6 minutes during rush hour and every 12-15 minutes at other times.

In a few years it will be upgraded to a streetcar line. But in the meantime, it's the DC region's first bona fide BRT.

WMATA selected the Metro Way brand and livery following a survey this past March that considered several options. The blue livery, although clearly unique, reflects the blue Metro uses for its MetroExtra express buses.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Maryland, Virginia, fund these projects!

Maryland and Virginia will both enact major new transportation funding bills this year. Neither bill says exactly which projects will be funded, but here are the top 10 projects in Maryland and Virginia that most deserve to get some of the funds.

Tysons grid of streets, no. 2. Image from Fairfax County.

1. 8-car Metro trains: Metrorail is near capacity, especially in Virginia. More Metro railcars and the infrastructure they need (like power systems and yard space) would mean more 8-car trains on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.

2. Tysons grid of streets: Tysons Corner has more office space than downtown Baltimore and Richmond put together. Converting it to a functional urban place is a huge priority.

3. Purple Line: Bethesda, Silver Spring, Langley Park, College Park, New Carrollton. That's a serious string of transit-friendly pearls. The Purple Line will be one of America's best light rail lines on the day it opens.

4. Baltimore Red Line: Baltimore has a subway line and a light rail line, but they don't work together very well as a system. The Red Line will greatly improve the reach of Baltimore's rail system.

5. Silver Line Phase 2: The Silver Line extension from Reston to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County is one of the few projects that was earmarked in Virginia's bill, to the tune of $300 million.

6. Arlington streetcars: The Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars both have funding plans already, but could potentially be accelerated.

7. Route 7 transit. Leesburg Pike is the next Rosslyn-Ballston corridor waiting to happen. Virginia is just beginning to study either a light rail or BRT line along it.

8. Corridor Cities Transitway: Gaithersburg has been waiting decades for a quality transit line to build around. BRT will finally connect the many New Urbanist communities there, which are internally walkable but rely on cars for long-range connections.

Corridor Cities Transitway, no. 8. Image from Maryland MTA.

9. MARC enhancements: MARC is a decent commuter rail, but it could be so much more. Some day it could be more like New York's Metro North or Philadelphia's SEPTA regional rail, with hourly trains all day long, even on weekends.

10. Alexandria BRT network: This will make nearly all of Alexandria accessible via high-quality transit.

Honorable mentions: Montgomery County BRT network, Potomac Yard Metro station, Virginia Beach light rail, Southern Maryland light rail, and VRE platform extensions.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Bright hopes, some obstacles for Northern Virginia streetcars

Streetcar supporters in Northern Virginia hope to see streetcar lines traversing many of Northern Virginia's cities and counties, linking housing to employment centers within and across jurisdictions, often retracing routes operated decades ago.

A modern streetcar. Photo from Arlington County.

To get streetcars across boundaries, however, the many local governments must coordinate their plans and deal with differences in their abilities to fund projects.

The Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition's top priority this year is supporting Arlington's plans for the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar lines. It also will encourage other cities and counties to consider streetcar options.

Arlington has steadfastly supported a vision of smart growth around transit nodes and multimodal transportation options for a great many years. Thanks to this consistency, their work has paid off in positioning Arlington as a good place to live and work.

By selecting streetcar rather than some variety of enhanced bus service, Arlington is reinforcing its past planning efforts by providing investors and developers along the two corridors with the certainty that only a commitment to a fixed alignment can give.

Arlington and Fairfax counties worked together on plans for high-capacity transit along Columbia Pike for several years, and in July 2012 voted to select streetcar as the preferred option for Columbia Pike and apply for federal funding. Arlington also plans a streetcar line for Crystal City to connect with the Columbia Pike line.

The 5 mile long Columbia Pike line, as currently planned, will cross into Fairfax County, terminating at Skyline. The 2½ mile long Crystal City line, on the other hand, will terminate at Four Mile Run, the boundary between Arlington and Alexandria.

Proposed streetcar alignments in Arlington. Image from Arlington County.

Meanwhile, Alexandria has been studying transit for Route 1 and the Beauregard/Van Dorn transit corridors. NVSC wants to ensure no decisions would preclude using streetcars in those areas.

NVSC also will encourage Fairfax County to expand its streetcar lines beyond Skyline, going either toward Falls Church along Route 7, toward Northern Virginia Community College and the Mark Center east of Skyline, or along Route 1 south of Alexandria. Finally, ongoing studies in various jurisdictions could identify additional corridors suitable for streetcars.

Leaders emphasize need for transit, desire to coordinate

In November, the Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition hosted a public meeting where leaders from Arlington, Fairfax County, Alexandria, and Falls Church discussed, in a spirited but positive manner, regional cooperation in planning high-capacity transit.

They saw Northern Virginia's future as multimodal, with mixed uses around transit stations. Then-Arlington Board Chair Mary Hynes noted that Virginia commuters to DC must cross Arlington. Without its multi-modal strategy, she said, the county would "become a parking lot."

All of the officials emphasized that the jurisdictions want work together, and have coordinated in many ways. However, due to differences in funds available for transit and each jurisdiction's priorities, it has not always been possible to think regionally in spite of best intentions.

Arlington has been more successful at raising funds for transportation capital projects than its neighbors, partially due to its more balanced ratio of commercial to residential property and its commercial add-on tax for transportation.

Paul Smedberg, a member of the Alexandria City Council, spoke of the need for a streetcar connection to the BRAC-133 building at Mark Center. Fairfax Supervisor Penny Gross said that although extensions to the Columbia Pike line are desirable, it was important to get the first segment built rather than bogging down the whole process by considering alternatives.

Former Falls Church City Council member Dan Maller, standing in for Vice-Mayor David Snyder, noted that he was eager to work with Fairfax on a Route 7 extension to Falls Church. Somewhat reassuringly, Alexandrians learned that they would have continuous transit options to get from their city to Arlington without transferring at Four Mile Runalthough presently these are bus options rather than streetcar options.

As local and regional plans for high-capacity transit develop, decision-makers must think long-term and regionally. Not every transit route is suitable for streetcars, but where cities and counties want environmentally-sound, reliable, clean transportation that also contributes to local economic development, they should consider streetcar lines and ensure they can interoperate across jurisdictional boundaries now and in the future.


Full steam ahead for suburban skyscrapers

Within the confines of the District of Columbia, the question of whether to allow tall buildings is a subject of much debate. But in the burgeoning urban centers of Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, there is no question: more tall buildings are coming.

Alexandria's proposed Hoffman Towers. Image by DCS Architects.

For many decades Rosslyn has been home to the tallest skyscrapers in the Washington region. The taller of its Twin Towers is 381 feet tall. But soon that building will rank no better than 3rd tallest in Rosslyn alone, with the 384 foot tall 1812 North Moore and the 387 foot tall Central Place in construction or soon to begin.

Even with those new buildings, Rosslyn could soon lose its crown. Buildings as tall as 396 feet could soon be built around the Eisenhower Metro station in Alexandria. They would eclipse Alexandria's current tallest building, the 338 foot tall Mark Center Hilton.

Tysons Corner is in on the action too. It's tallest buildings right now are the 254 foot Ritz Carlton and the 253 foot 1850 Towers Crescent. But at 365 feet, a building in the proposed Scotts Run Station development will soon dominate.

North Bethesda Market II, soon to be the tallest building in the Maryland suburbs. Image from JBG.

In Maryland, North Bethesda Market I topped out last year at 289 feet tall, beating out Gaithersburg's 275 foot tall Washingtonian Tower and thus becoming Montgomery County's new tallest skyscraper. Its reign will be short-lived, as a new 300 foot tall ziggurat has already been proposed nearby.

And this week, big news is coming to Reston and Crystal City.

Fairfax County approved a 330 foot building in Reston yesterday that will become the tallest building in the Reston Town Center cluster.

Reston's next tallest building. Image from RTC Partnership.

Meanwhile, the Arlington County Board is scheduled to vote this coming weekend to either approve or deny a 297 foot building in Crystal City that would tower well above all its neighbors. Tall buildings have long been constrained there by restrictions due to Reagan National Airport, but those rules recently changed, so taller buildings are now allowed.

These aren't particularly tall buildings by the standards of large central cities. Baltimore and Virginia Beach both have buildings over 500 feet tall, and the world's current record holder is a whopping 2,717 feet. But still, the trend in the DC area is unmistakable; buildings are getting taller, and will most likely continue to do so.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Arlington candidates discuss streetcars and Crystal City

5 Democratic candidates are vying for Barbara Favola's vacated seat on the Arlington County Board. Where do they stand on the issues? 3 of the candidates responded to a Greater Greater Washington questionnaire about the major issues facing Arlington.

Left to right: Melissa Bondi, Libby Garvey, and Kim Klingler. Images from the candidates's websites.

Favola was elected to the Virginia State Senate in November, leaving an open seat on the 5-person board. Arlington Democrats will hold 2 caucuses on January 19th and January 21st to nominate a replacement. No Republicans will challenge the Democratic candidate.

Since the race got underway in November, candidate Melissa Bondi has received notable endorsements from sitting board members Walter Tejada and Chris Zimmerman, while former School Board member Libby Garvey just announced an endorsement from Favola for her own former position.

I distributed a questionnaire to 5 participating candidates, and received responses from Bondi, Garvey, and Kim Klingler. The questionnaire asked about the candidates' positions on the Crystal City Sector Plan, the Columbia Pike streetcar, the need for more affordable housing, and more. The candidates also participated in a January 4th debate at GMU's Founder Hall that featured many similar questions.

While the 3 respondents agreed on many points, key distinctions emerged. Bondi and Klingler offered more pointed, direct suggestions for bolstering Arlington's affordable housing stock, while Garvey's experience serving 15 years on the Arlington County School Board gave her detailed knowledge of the ACPS system's current efforts at mitigating the capacity crisis.

All 3 candidates, when asked about the County Board's October 2011 decision to approve Boeing's new regional headquarters in Crystal City, cited concerns with poor urban planning and citizen involvement throughout the process.

Below are exerpts from the candidates' positions on some of the most significant urban issues in Arlington County right now.

What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Arlington County today?

From the need for more affordable housing to transparent governance, each candidate expressed a different view on Arlington County's greatest challenge. What all three candidates appeared to agree on in their answers, however, is the need for collaborative, systematic planning between the County Board and the County's citizens for Arlington's growth.

Melissa Bondi:

I think the most pressing issue is to mitigate the continued threats to, and losses in, Arlington's affordable housing stock. A significant portion of our diverse Arlington population, from immigrants to seniors to persons with disabilities and young families need access to safe, decent affordable housing.
Kim Klingler:
As Arlingtonians, I believe our most pressing issue is to be able to maintain our identity, diversity, and quality of life as we continue to grow as a community. Therefore, we must pay special attention to:
a. Smart Growth and Transportation.
b. County/Schools Collaborative Planning.
c. Maintaining a Diverse and Caring Community.
Libby Garvey:
I think the most pressing issue is the need for more intentional and transparent systems for planning and improvement to manage growth: an overall strategic plan with clear goals, measurable data points and monitoring systems to see if we are progressing towards our goals and working as efficiently as possible.
What are your thoughts on the practicality and cost of the Columbia Pike streetcar? Is this project a good use of funds?

Arlington plans a $261 million streetcar project along Columbia Pike, which leaders say will drive economic growth and improve mobility far beyond what buses can provide, but critics charge is too expensive to justify the benefits. Bondi is a strong supporter of the project, while Garvey and Klingler expressed some doubts in their answers.


While I can see many benefits from a streetcar, the question for me and many people is, are those benefits worth the cost. Arlington needs a clear cost benefit analysis for the streetcar so we can make an informed decision as a board and a community.
In order to determine whether this $261M investment is justified, we need to take a step back and address the following:
a. What do Arlingtonians want? What is their strategic vision and plan for Arlington?
b. How will the street car project be implemented?
c. Can we afford it?
d. Do we have the resources to appropriately manage the contractors?
With the appropriate planning I think the Columbia Pike streetcar could be a promising investment; however, per my points above, I would need to be convinced that now is the right time.
I am a supporter of the Columbia Pike Streetcar, as an integral piece of Arlington's transportation network that will insure mobility for the residents of Columbia Pike in the near term, and for the region in the long term. Major transportation efforts, like a modern streetcar system, require extensive planning and are subject to rising costs. We need to be able to explain any changes in costs and to provide context that helps to reinforce the overall value Arlington residents will realize through such an important investment.
What is your opinion of the Crystal City Sector Plan and its impact on the economic development of Crystal City?

In response to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, which could take up to 18,000 jobs from Crystal City and leave millions of square feet of office space empty, Arlington embarked on a years-long planning process to develop a Sector Plan to shape the neighborhood's future growth.

The plan calls for a modified street grid and a shift in demographics to better balance workers and residents. In their responses, Bondi and Klingler are supportive of the Sector Plan, while Garvey is skeptical that Crystal City residents truly had their voices heard throughout the planning process.


If it can be fully executed, the plan will favorably impact the economic development of Crystal City. [However], the plan will need to be updated to address: offering competitive pricing per square foot, lowering and maintaining emergency response times to Crystal City, planning for additional school and health services, and designing appropriate transitions between denser areas and traditional neighborhoods.
Among the positive achievements I see in the plan are: 1) generally better urban design, more walkable streets, enhanced parks and public spaces; 2) affordable housing targets, perhaps the most ambitious yet included in an Arlington sector plan; 3) a commitment to transportation infrastructure, especially streetcar, which is essential; 4) inclusion of a vehicle for on-going citizen participation and monitoring in implementation, through the "CCCRC," a permanent advisory body led by residents.
Residents of Crystal City value the underground networks for their convenience and protection from the weather. They value the small open spaces that provide relief from many tall buildings. [With the Plan], these amenities will be lost. I've heard from several the sense that excellence in planning, emphasis of transit use and preserving the amenities valued by residence were not included in the plan. Only two residents were on the task force and many residents who tried to participate and work on the plan as citizens, finally quit the process in frustration and anger. This is very unfortunate.
Tomorrow, we'll post Bondi's, Klingler's, and Garvey's responses on the impact of defense spending cuts on the Arlington economy, the capacity crisis in Arlington County Public Schools, and what each candidate would most like to improve about Arlington County.


Help choose station names for new Crystal City transitway

Arlington County is seeking your input in naming stations on the new Crystal City/Potomac Yard (CCPY) Transitway, the first phase of which will provide Bus Rapid Transit service over part of a 5-mile corridor between the Pentagon in Arlington and Braddock Road Metro Station in Alexandria.

CCPY Transitway Proposed Station Stops

Arlington County has been moving aggressively with the project and is finalizing the designs for the portion that will run from the Crystal City Metro station to Four Mile Run, which separates Arlington from the City of Alexandria. As part of the design, the County has identified eight station stops and is seeking input from the community on station names.

Station names carry a particular significance as many of the bus rapid transit stations will become the core of a future light rail line, if current longer term planning carries through.

With few exceptions, the survey's choices pit effective wayfinding against more colorful, albeit sometimes less useful, station names. For most stations, it presents a fairly descriptive choice, such as "27th and Crystal" and a more creative option like "Potomac Yard Gateway." The survey also asks whether to name the key transfer station at the Crystal City Metro station "Metro Gateway" or "Crystal City Metro."

As for Alexandria's portion, the City received an $8.5 million design/build grant for the CCPY Transitway. It is anticipated that a design/build firm will be selected and under contract later this month.

The project will begin this fall with construction to be completed in Winter 2013. It is anticipated that a the bulk of Alexandria's portion will run along a dedicated center lane on Highway 1.

The survey is short and simple. If you think you might be likely to use the CCPY Transitway, you should make sure your voice is heard. Please share your preferences (or any suggestions for alternatives) in the comments.

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