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A Fairfax Connector bus leaves the Dunn Loring Metro station (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fairfax Connector is set to start its electric bus pilot program by the end of the year.

The county-run bus service plans to introduce eight electric buses by December, according to a presentation to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ transportation committee last week.

Phase one of the pilot program will run out of the West Ox bus division, which serves routes in the western and central portion of the county. Initially, electric buses will be tested on four routes. Phase two is expected to begin in 2023 and will include four additional buses on routes in the southern portion of the county.

No exact timetable was given for how long the pilot program is anticipated to last, but it will likely follow other neighboring localities and run about two years.

Planned routes for the Fairfax Connector electric bus pilot (via Fairfax County)

The hope is to transition the entire Fairfax Connector fleet to 100% zero emission buses by 2035. This deadline is based on the county’s established goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040.

Staff identified several challenges that they will closely monitor, including ensuring there’s no reduction in service as a result of the transition. Several supervisors noted during the meeting that slower service, a reduction of routes, or constant maintenance taking buses offline could lead to fewer riders.

There are also technology limits to consider and whether the electrical grid will meet the energy requirements needed for large bus fleets.

According to the county’s Chief of Transit Dwayne Pelfrey, two thirds of current Fairfax Connector routes exceed the battery capability of electric buses. Coupled with potential issues with cold weather and hills, like Alexandria experienced late last year, electric buses may not completely meet the needs of the Fairfax Connector just yet.

That, in turn, could push potential riders back to single-occupancy vehicles, negating the emission reductions that many hope electric buses will provide.

Pelfrey also noted that obtaining buses has been increasingly difficult between supply chain issues and manufacturers not being ready to “pivot” to producing electric vehicles.

The used bus market is difficult to navigate as well, though the county did purchase 10 used buses out of North Carolina that will be transitioning to electric and 12 hybrid buses from WMATA.

A rendering of what a Fairfax Connector electric bus might look like (via Fairfax County)

Considering the county’s goals and the current price of gasoline, though, staff and board members believe the issues are worth navigating. While capital and infrastructure costs may be higher for electric buses, fuel and maintenance costs would be significantly lower over a 12-year period, according to a graph presented by staff.

The county is also exploring using hydrogen as fuel, but that technology remains expensive and more costly than electricity.

The county has already started creating infrastructure in preparation for the pilot to begin in about six months. Electric chargers arrived in April and are currently being installed, a process expected to be completed within the month.

“We are just doing simply plug-in chargers,” Pelfrey said. “When we transition full garages…we will have to do something much, much more complicated from a construction and power standpoint.”

The county’s electric buses are expected to start being manufactured late next month, received by October, and put on the road by December.

Fairfax Connector is the largest bus system in Virginia with a fleet of more than 300 buses providing nearly 18,000 rides a day.

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Fairfax County police car lights (file photo)

(Updated at 3:05 p.m.) An unconscious woman who appears to have been assaulted and seriously injured was discovered at a bus stop in Hybla Valley, Fairfax County police said.

Officers responded to the bus stop near 7849 Richmond Highway around 12:05 a.m. this morning, a tweet from the department said. The woman appeared to have “trauma to the upper body” and was taken to the hospital.

Exactly what happened is unclear, but police say that, preliminarily, the woman does not seem to have been shot.

“Detectives continue to investigate the circumstances that led up to this woman’s injuries,” the Fairfax County Police Department told FFXnow by email.

Police ask anyone with information to call the department’s non-emergency line at 703-691-2131.

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A Metrobus at the West Falls Church Metro station (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fairfax County is expanding its student Metrobus pass program to four new schools in the fall, letting more students ride the bus for free.

Starting in September, students at Annandale High School, Falls Church High School, Marshall High School, and Davis Center will be able to get a pass that allows them to ride Fairfax Connector, the City of Fairfax CUE, and the Metrobus for free.

The bus pass can only be used on certain routes in Northern Virginia and in between the hours of 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The county launched a program in 2015 letting all Fairfax County Public School students ride Fairfax Connector at no cost. A year later, the City of Fairfax CUE was added to that program. In 2018, a pilot program was approved allowing students at Justice High School to also ride certain Metrobus routes for free.

The program is intended to give students more independence as they go to and from school, participate in after-school activities, and work jobs.

The Metrobus pilot is now ramping up with a memorandum of understanding going before the Board of Supervisors later this month. The county is also working to hire a new coordinator to oversee the program and order new cards to distribute to students.

A launch event will be held at Marshall High School in September.

Since the program began more than seven years ago, students have taken over 2 million trips on local buses, according to data presented by staff at the board’s transportation committee meeting on Tuesday (June 14).

Since April of this year, students have made up nearly 8% of all Fairfax Connector ridership.

“Students are proving to be some of our most loyal customer base,” Kala Quintana, Fairfax Connector’s head of marketing, said.

For the Metrobus pilot program, the county noted that about half of Justice students had and were actively using the specially-designed Smartrip card.

The county hopes that, by the end of the 2022-2023 school year, 8,500 students from 30 high schools, 23 middle schools, and nine centers for students with different needs and abilities will be using the bus pass.

When the program launches at the four new schools later this year, a form will be available on the FCPS website that students’ parents can sign and turn into the school so their kid can get a bus pass.

While members were okay with the process for the foreseeable future, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said he would eventually like to see students’ identification, bus pass, library card, and other services all consolidated on one card.

The board also discussed doing more outreach to students who don’t attend FCPS, like those who are homeschooled and attend private institutions.

“The fact that we had this Covid break and kids weren’t even going to school and we have these kinds of ridership numbers…and demand is a proven testament to the vision we had for this at the very beginning,” McKay said. “It’s a program that all of our kids in FCPS, middle and high schoolers, can take advantage of.”

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Traffic fills the Richmond Highway (via Fairfax County)

The public’s chance to comment on proposed tweaks to Fairfax County’s plan for bus rapid transit in the Route 1 corridor is almost over.

In a pair of April meetings, staff from the Fairfax County Department of Transportation recommended reducing the number of turn lanes currently along Route 1, also known as Richmond Highway, as well as some revisions to the project design, including reducing the design speed from 45 to 35 mph.

Branded The One, the planned BRT will travel to nine stations on Richmond Highway between the Huntington Metro station and Fort Belvoir. Prompted by community concerns, the proposed turn lane changes seek to improve the corridor, particularly for bicyclists and pedestrians.

In coordination with the Virginia Department of Transportation, county staff analyzed 30 proposals and recommended changes at 13 intersections:

  • Penn Daw Area — Entrance to Kings Crossing​
  • Penn Daw Area — Shields Avenue​
  • Furman Lane
  • Southgate Drive
  • Beacon Hill Road
  • Memorial Street​
  • Arlington Drive​
  • Fordson Road/Boswell Avenue​
  • Sherwood Hall Lane​
  • Ladson Lane​
  • North Buckman Road/Mount Vernon Highway​
  • Sacramento Drive/Cooper Road​
  • Jeff Todd Way/Mount Vernon Memorial Highway​

A 17-question survey seeking public input on whether to reduce turn lanes at those intersections will close at 5 p.m. today (Tuesday).

Federal money is projected to help the estimated $795 million project, according to the county. Construction could begin in 2026 and end in 2030.

Photo via Fairfax County

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Fairfax Connector buses in Reston (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

A new program will make bus fares half off for certain Fairfax Connector riders, including individuals with disabilities, low-income residents and aging adults.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a three-year agreement on Tuesday (May 24) for the plan, which would offer the discount to people making as much as twice the federal poverty level.

Those eligible for the benefit include “eligible older adults, individuals with limited income or individuals with disabilities residing in Fairfax County, the City of Fairfax or the City of Falls Church,” county staff said in the board agenda.

When discussing the program in December, the county planned to provide the discount to those with incomes of 225% of the federal poverty level, which would benefit individuals making up to $30,577 and families of four making up to $62,437.

“It is expected that this reduced fare program will aid families recovering from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and help restore Fairfax Connector ridership,” county staff said for the board item.

It’s unclear exactly when the reduced fares will be available. The agreement had a start date listed as May 1, but the county said it’s working with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to get special SmarTrip cards.

The agreement said those SmarTrip cards would be produced no later than June 1, and the county’s Neighborhood and Community Services will help administer the program.

“We know that this is a necessary mode of transportation for many of our vulnerable community members,” Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said at the board meeting.

The $9.7 million assistance will rely on nearly $5.5 million from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and supports the program through April 30, 2025.

The state funds come from DRPT’s Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP), which awards grants for projects to improve connectivity and reduce barriers to transit.

According to the county, low-income households represent approximately 58% of Fairfax Connector riders.

The county will also expand a free bus pass program for students later this year, Palchik said. More details are expected at a board transportation committee meeting on June 14.

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A school bus in Vienna (file photo)

(Updated at 11:20 a.m.) A former Fairfax County Public Schools bus driver and an attendant have been charged with abuse and neglect after a 3-year-old kid was injured on a ride home from school, police reported today (Monday).

According to the Town of Vienna Police Department, its officers were called to a school bus stop on March 18 in response to a verbal argument between the bus driver and a parent, who requested that their kid be taken to a hospital by Fairfax County firefighters.

“It was later determined that the 3-year-old special needs child had suffered a severe head injury,” Vienna police said.

Rqia Tabite, 36, and Teresa Wessells, 70, both residents of Falls Church, have been charged with one count each of abuse and neglect of a child — a class 4 felony in Virginia — after a Vienna police investigation determined that they had “failed to provide proper care to the child,” according to the news release.

The department says the investigation was done with “the full cooperation” of FCPS, which launched an independent follow-up investigation. An FCPS spokesperson told FFXnow that Tabite and Wessells are no longer employed by the school system.

Fairfax County Child Protective Services also conducted an investigation.

Vienna police obtained warrants on May 19, and Tabite and Wessells were arrested on May 20 by the Fairfax County Police Department. They have since been released on unsecured bonds.

“The child is not being identified at this time but is at home with his family and is receiving necessary treatment,” the VPD said.

In a separate incident, a former FCPS bus driver remains under investigation by Fort Belvoir after allegedly slapping a student on March 16.

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Fairfax County school bus (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 5 p.m.) A former Fairfax County Public Schools bus driver reportedly slapped a student at Fort Belvoir, according to a Fairfax County court affidavit filed on May 4.

An Army investigation for Fort Belvoir stated that there was probable cause to support allegations that the driver assaulted the student on March 16. According to a special agent, photos from a parent showed apparent bruising on the boy’s cheek and under his left eye.

The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division declined to provide further details, including whether any charges have been filed. However, it said its investigation was still “active,” as of Tuesday (May 17).

Virginia banned schools from using corporal punishment in 1989, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether FCPS trains staff on the law.

FCPS refused to answer questions about the incident or its policies. It confirmed that the driver is no longer an employee but didn’t provide any further context on why.

The driver provided a statement to FCPS about the incident, but school officials have refused to release it in response to public records requests.

The district initially claimed the statement — identified as a student behavior incident report — was exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which has exclusions for personnel records with personally identifiable information and scholastic records involving identifiable individuals.

FFXnow requested that the record be released in redacted form without the driver’s name, stating that Virginia’s law doesn’t allow an agency to withhold a record in its entirety if there’s an exemption.

An FCPS public records officer then said that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act also prohibits releasing a record linked to “a specific student that would allow a reasonable person in the school community, who does not have personal knowledge of the relevant circumstances, to identify the student with reasonable certainty.”

Megan Rhyne, director of the nonprofit Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said by email that she believes in general that school districts and higher education systems “overuse the FERPA/scholastic records exemption,” stretching beyond the law’s purpose.

“The way so many interpret it is that ANYthing that has to do with a student or shows their image is off-limits,” she wrote. “We know this isn’t true because if it were, there wouldn’t be graduation programs (complete with dean’s list, cum laude distinction, etc., which touch on their academic record), featured students on district websites, Facebook posts of science fair winners, etc.”

She said the mere mention of a student does not turn an entire record into an exempt one.

“I also see a lot of overuse of the personnel exemption to withhold information on anything an employee does,” she wrote. “Again, this goes too far. The employee may have a zone of privacy around her, but that doesn’t extend to her public-facing work.”

Rhyne stressed that public agencies aren’t required to use the exemptions, and some choose an overly broad interpretation to justify keeping valuable information away from the public, even when the law’s policy statement says to interpret exemptions narrowly.

Virginia law allows a court to resolve disputes about whether a record should be released, but the process can unnecessarily waste public resources and newsroom budgets. Some states have an appeal mechanism for a state agency to handle issues, such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Rhyne said those remain rare, but Virginia would benefit from an administrative appeal system.

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Morning Notes

A Japanese maple tree on Church Street in Vienna (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Heat Raises Risk for Outdoor Activities — “The National Weather Service (NWS) has issued a special weather statement for early season heat for Friday, May 20, through Sunday, May 22. Temperatures will rise into the 90s this weekend for the first time since last fall, with Saturday forecast to be the hottest day.” [Fairfax County Emergency Information]

FCPS Teacher Arrested on Child Porn Charges — “A 28-year-old middle school teacher from Springfield faces two felony charges of possession of child pornography…At the time of her arrest, Kristine Knizner was employed by Fairfax County Public Schools as a teacher at Irving Middle School in Springfield. She had previously been a teacher at Key Middle School in Franconia.” [Patch]

School Bus Crashes at Inova Fairfax Hospital — “Two-vehicle crash involving a Fairfax County School bus on the 3300 block of Gallows Rd @ 5:53pm. Two students were taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Bus driver & the driver of the other involved vehicle have non-life-threatening injuries.” [Allison Papson/Twitter]

Natural Gas Tank Explodes in Springfield — “Approximately 6 PM, units were dispatched for a cylinder tank in natural gas vehicle that exploded/ruptured in 6800 block of Industrial Road in Springfield. Fire in vehicle extinguished. No hazard and no reported injuries.” [FCFRD/Twitter]

Metro Eyes Late Summer to Restore Troubled Trains — “Amid a leadership shakeup at Metro, the transit agency says its plan to restore its long-sidelined 7000-series rail cars by late this summer remains on track. Late Thursday afternoon, Metro submitted a formal return-to-service plan aiming to safely bring back a limited number of 7000-series rail cars, and Metro’s safety watchdog…gave the plan a green light.” [WTOP]

Project Near West Falls Church Metro Begins — The City of Falls Church broke ground yesterday (Tuesday) on West Falls, a major mixed-use development that, in its first phase, will bring five buildings totaling 1.2 million square feet to the former George Mason High School site. It’s the biggest project in the city’s history and will eventually be joined by development from Metro and Virginia Tech. [Washington Business Journal]

Couple Thankful After Reston Fire Station Baby Delivery — “It’s been a whirlwind couple of days for Isabelle Ahearn and Ray Qasimyar, after Ahearn went into labor early Tuesday morning and wound up delivering her baby in the parking lot of a Fairfax County fire station.” [ABC7]

Colvin Run ES Teacher Turns Basketball into Education — “P.E. teacher Patrick Noel had started his first year, a virtual one, at Colvin Run Elementary School during the pandemic. He says during his breaks, he would perform trick shots and share them with his students, ultimately presenting them on Tuesdays and dubbing it Trick Shot Tuesday.” [ABC7]

Vienna Adds Street Beacons — “Vienna has two new sets of Rectangular Rapid-Flashing Beacons! The LEDs flash with high frequency when activated to improve pedestrian safety. Check out the new RRFBs at the intersection of Courthouse Road SW & Glen Ave SW as well as Beulah Rd NE & Creek Crossing Road NE.” [Town of Vienna/Twitter]

It’s Friday — Partly cloudy throughout the day. High of 87 and low of 66. Sunrise at 5:54 am and sunset at 8:20 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts’ Filene Center will start its summer 2022 season on May 28 (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Fairfax Connector will continue providing express bus service to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts for at least the next five years, but the point of origin will be different from years past.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors authorized Director of Transportation Tom Biesiadny on Tuesday (May 10) to extend the county’s license agreement for the Wolf Trap Express shuttle with the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, the nonprofit that organizes the park’s programming.

Set to launch on May 28, the shuttle will transport passengers between the McLean Metro station in Tysons and Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, which will kick off its summer 2022 season that day with a lineup of go-go bands headlined by Big Tony and Trouble Funk.

The shuttle will only operate during Filene Center performances, leaving the McLean Metro at approximately 20-minute intervals starting two hours before each show until showtime.

Return trips will leave Wolf Trap 20 minutes after each show, but they will be available no later than 10:45 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday or 11:20 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Fairfax Connector previously ran the Wolf Trap Express service from the West Falls Church Metro station. It shifted to the McLean station, because it’s easier to access and shortens the travel time for buses, making it more convenient, the Fairfax County Department of Transportation says.

FCDOT spokesperson Robin Geiger notes that the new location will also save travelers from Reston and the western part of the county from having to transfer between Metro’s Silver and Orange lines.

Rail service on the Orange Line will be disrupted this summer, with five stations closing in D.C. for platform renovations. In addition, the county anticipates more passengers using the Silver Line in the future, assuming its second phase ever opens.

This will be the Filene Center’s first full summer season of the pandemic, after the 2020 season got canceled and last year’s was mostly limited by capacity restrictions and other health protocols.

“I’m excited for Wolf Trap to be back in full force this year,” Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said.

According to county staff notes, Fairfax Connector has provided shuttle service for Filene Center performances since 2009. Originally signed on April 20, 2009, the agreement has been extended twice before, in 2010 and 2015.

The latest extension will keep the agreement in place until May 31, 2027.

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Morning Notes

Wall art by Starr Hill Biergarten at The Perch in Tysons (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

County Board to Adopt New Budget Today — “Board of Supervisors set to adopt FY23 budget tomorrow, May 10. It fully funds @fcpsnews employee compensation and invests in priorities. $96 million balance to reduce real estate tax rate, increase affordable housing, parks, among others.” [Fairfax County Government/Twitter]

Lee District Gets New Community Center — Elected officials and community members gathered on Saturday (May 7) to cut the ribbon for Fairfax County’s new Lee District Community Center, which will provide recreation, educational workshops, and other programs to residents in the Buckman Road area on the west side of Richmond Highway. The center also hosts a workforce training and development center. [Neighborhood and Community Services]

Metro Reports Higher-than-Expected Ridership — “Ridership has already surprised their conservatively-estimated projection of 28 million rides by nearly 40% through the first three quarters of the fiscal year…The numbers bode well for the region’s economic recovery as tourism rebounds and more workers return to the office, but it is less welcome news for train and bus riders who are experiencing more crowded vehicles.” [DCist]

Great Falls Road Closure Starts Today — “Springvale Road will be closed for 48 hours starting Tuesday to allow VDOT crews to reconstruct the road’s approach to Route 7. During the closure, drivers on Springfield Road can access Route 7 by taking Georgetown Pike to the Utterback Store Road.” [Patch]

Mental Health Services Facility to Be Renamed — “Fairfax County officials on May 12 will celebrate the renaming and dedication of the former Merrifield Center as the ‘Sharon Bulova Center for Community Health’…Bulova served as chairman through 2019, when she retired after 31 years on the board.” [Sun Gazette]

Route 7 Bus Service Plan Inches Forward — “Plans to create a bus-rapid-transit, or BRT, line using Route 7 to connect Tysons to Alexandria continue to move forward, with the next installment to hire a consultant that will guide the next phases of the project.” [Sun Gazette/Inside NoVA]

Fort Hunt Teacher Reflects on Three-Decade-Long Career — “Reading Specialist Jill Norris joined the staff of Stratford Landing Elementary School in Fairfax County last August after a break from a 35-year career as a teacher. ‘To share my passion for reading and writing with kids and teachers,’ is what brings joy to Norris.” [ABC7]

It’s Tuesday — Clear throughout the day. High of 66 and low of 46. Sunrise at 6:02 am and sunset at 8:11 pm. [Weather.gov]

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