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I-495 approaching the Eisenhower Avenue exit in Alexandria (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Any extension of the I-495 Express Lanes along the south side of the Capital Beltway should support additional transit options, Fairfax County leaders stressed in a recent letter to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

VDOT is currently studying options for completing the I-495 toll lanes by expanding them from the I-395/I-95 interchange in Springfield to Maryland Route 210 in Prince George’s County, an approximately 11-mile span that crosses the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Alexandria.

At a meeting on Nov. 21, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a letter to Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sheppard Miller emphasizing the importance of accommodating transit in the project, which is intended to relieve congestion on what VDOT has said is the most heavily traveled segment of the Beltway.

“The County is appreciative that the Commonwealth is assessing solutions on the only interstate segment in Fairfax that does not have a transit benefit at this time,” the board’s letter said. “It is critical that additional travel choices are available in the Capital Beltway Corridor to move the most people as efficiently as possible in this region.”

VDOT staff presented several preliminary concepts at a public meeting on Sept. 12, including the addition of one or two general-purpose or express lanes in each direction or two reversible express lanes that would change direction with rush-hour traffic.

Staff said it has also explored adding a dedicated transit lane for buses and making adjustments that wouldn’t require new construction, such as supporting new bus routes or allowing the existing I-495 shoulders to be used as travel lanes during peak traffic periods. However, the congestion relief benefits would be limited without more space on the highway, according to the study team.

Taking a slightly more open stance than officials in Alexandria City, the Board of Supervisors didn’t comment on specific concepts, but it urged VDOT not to pursue any option that would rule out the possibility of future rail service over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Opened to traffic in May 2008, the bridge was designed with a median to accommodate future transit, not with the expectation of toll lanes, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay noted at the Nov. 21 meeting.

“From an equity standpoint, I do appreciate the fact that this is on the table, because this remains the only piece of interstate highway in Fairfax County that currently has no transit benefit whatsoever,” McKay said. “I acknowledge a failure of past efforts when projects were done to literally cut off this part of the county from the same types of transportation options that other parts of the county now have, including the communities that are sandwiched between the Springfield interchange project and the Woodrow Wilson project.”

According to the board’s letter, Fairfax County staff would support “an interim phase” without rail while Metro continues exploring how to increase capacity on its Blue, Orange and Silver lines, a study that has been underway since 2019 and could conclude by the end of this year. Read More

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The Route 7 bus rapid transit service from Tysons to Alexandria (via NVTC/Twitter)

A new bus rapid transit (BRT) route could connect Alexandria and Tysons, and the golden spike in that project could be Falls Church.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) is reviewing a study of Envision Route 7’s impact on Falls Church. The study doesn’t make recommendations but provides analysis on how BRT might impact bus and car traffic in Falls Church.

According to the NVTC agenda:

The Commission will be asked to accept the findings of the Envision Route 7 Phase 4-1 Mobility Study, a key element of the fourth phase of planning for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system designed to connect the Mark Center in Alexandria to Tysons via Bailey’s Crossroads, Seven Corners and Falls Church along the Route 7 corridor.

The study included a variety of scenarios for how the BRT route could run through Falls Church, from a “no-build” option to full transit lanes, along with various “hybrids” inbetween.

Unsurprisingly, the scenarios with the higher number of dedicated bus lanes having the largest travel time decrease for buses, though travel times would also increase for cars and other vehicles.

The study also included feedback from public engagement, which determined 60% of respondents agreed improving bus speed and reliability was a high priority, though there was also concern about how the changes might impact bicyclist safety.

The full report is available online.

NVTC is working with Falls Church throughout this fall to develop a preferred scenario, with the project going to various boards and commissions in Falls Church, Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington this winter.

Image via NVTC/Twitter

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The faregates at the Vienna Metro station are sporting a new look.

Workers installed taller doors on the gates on Aug. 9 as part of a systemwide retrofit project intended to combat fare evasion, which costs Metro an estimated $40 million per year in lost revenue, according to the transit agency.

“The bottom line is fare evasion is not okay, and we will continue our efforts to ensure everyone is respecting the community’s system and each other,” Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority CEO and General Manager Randy Clarke said in a news release announcing the rollout of the project last month.

The Vienna station is the only one in Fairfax County to be featured in the project’s first phase, which also includes stations in Arlington, D.C. and Maryland.

The first phase is expected to be completed by early fall. A Metro spokesperson says there are no updates yet beyond that initial timeline, but all 103 rail stations are slated to get the retrofit over the next year.

At 55 inches tall, the new doors are stronger and more resilient than the original faregates, which were updated just last year, WMATA said.

The new design includes an L-shape door panel that extends over the faregate to minimize gaps between the openings. The increase in barrier height from the original 28 to 48-inch prototype to 55 inches will also make it more difficult to jump over faregates. The new height is taller than a hockey net or nearly half the height of a standard basketball hoop.

The swing doors are made of a polycarbonate which is 200 times stronger than glass, lighter weight, and more durable. The final design also includes more robust hinges and a more powerful motor to strengthen the door. As stations are retrofitted with the new barriers, Metro is also raising the height of fencing and emergency gates.

Metro will install a single door panel for all regular faregates, and double door panels at the wider gates for accessibility and wheelchairs.

Prior to the rollout of the new doors, Metro launched a reduced fare program that lets SNAP recipients who live in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. ride its trains and buses at a 50% discount.

“To-date, more than 1600 customers have enrolled, taking nearly 17,000 combined trips,” WMATA said on July 24.

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The autonomous, electric Relay shuttle at the Mosaic District (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Fairfax County is winding down its groundbreaking experiment with self-driving public transportation.

The autonomous, electric Relay shuttle will cease operations after June 23, concluding almost three years of bussing passengers around the Dunn Loring Metro station and the Mosaic District in Merrifield.

Since launching on Oct. 22, 2020, the shuttle has provided 356 trips, as of last Thursday (June 1). While attracting riders was a struggle at times, the pilot project was successful at demonstrating the potential and challenges of using the technology for public transit, Fairfax County Department of Transportation Chief of Operations John Zarbo says.

“I would think we would determine it as a success,” Zarbo told FFXnow. “Our ultimate goal of the project was sort of to be a test bed and to learn about the technology and sort of have an infrastructure area that we could see what the vehicle did. Ridership was extremely important to us, but it wasn’t everything…There was so much more to it.”

The first state-funded test of its kind in Virginia, the Relay pilot was intended to last just one year but got funding for multiple extensions, as the county and Dominion Energy, which owns the vehicle, waited out the hit that public transportation took nationally during the pandemic.

According to Zarbo, ridership has increased in recent months as the sense of COVID-19 as an emergency has faded. He also attributes the uptick to changes to the shuttle’s route and schedule that took effect on Dec. 5.

Originally, the shuttle traveled from the Dunn Loring Metro down Merrilee Drive, crossed Route 29 onto Eskridge Road, and looped around Merrifield Cinema Drive to stop by the Mosaic District’s Barnes and Noble.

The project team expanded the route to include three stops along District Avenue, giving them the chance to see how the vehicle handled a busier street.

“The vehicle does really well interacting with the pedestrians, which was a concern of ours at the beginning, but it did really well adjusting and driving autonomously on its own with very little interaction from the safety steward,” Zarbo said, referring to the on-board operator who assists riders and can take manual control if needed.

The current schedule of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday also “definitely worked better” than the original Monday to Thursday timeline, according to Zarbo, though the county wasn’t able to get approval for Saturdays.

The vehicle technology, provided by EasyMile, also improved throughout the pilot. A software upgrade enabled the shuttle to better navigate vegetation so it didn’t detect every overhanging tree branch as an object to be avoided. Read More

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The American Legion Bridge into Maryland (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

If you find trips on the Capital Beltway into Maryland nightmarish now, imagine what they would be like without any transit options.

That’s the scenario posed by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) in a new study on the value of the region’s transit network, including Metro, local bus services like Fairfax Connector and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE).

Released today (Thursday), the study found that the American Legion Bridge — the only direct link between Fairfax County and Maryland — would need to carry 24,653 or 8.2% more vehicles per day in 2025 if there was no transit (325,619 vehicles) compared to the projected traffic volume with transit (300,965 vehicles).

The other bridges across the Potomac River would see even bigger differences, led by a 39.2% increase on the Arlington Memorial Bridge.

“These bridges are congested today, and congestion will increase in the future. Without transit, however, the capacity constraint on the bridges would be substantially greater,” the study report says.

The report notes that rush-hour traffic on all of the Potomac crossings is projected to exceed capacity in 2025 regardless of transit availability. The American Legion Bridge would exceed capacity by 3,651 vehicles under the “base” conditions and by 7,379 vehicles under the “no transit” scenario — a 102% difference.

Projected Potomac River bridge peak traffic volumes in excess of capacity (via NVTC)

Construction is underway to widen the Capital Beltway (I-495) by adding two toll lanes in each direction from the Dulles Toll Road to just south of the American Legion Bridge. The Virginia Department of Transportation has forecast that the 495 NEXT project will move approximately 2,500 more people per hour in both directions, starting in 2025.

However, Maryland’s plans to replace and expand the bridge remain in limbo following the exit of its private partner. Replacing the American Legion Bridge would allow the Beltway to move 5,400 more people an hour, VDOT has said, but the endeavor will cost an estimated $1 billion.

According to an NVTC spokesperson, the study’s calculations incorporated the 495 NEXT project, but it didn’t include the possibility of future bus service between Tysons and Bethesda, as proposed by both Fairfax Connector and Metro.

“Our study evaluated the difference between what’s currently planned for 2025 and a scenario in which all transit in Northern Virginia is removed,” NVTC said. “That means the proposed future route from Tysons to Bethesda, using the American Legion Bridge, was not included since it won’t be in service by then.” Read More

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Fairfax Connector bus to Springfield (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Fairfax Connector is shaking up its service along the I-66 corridor in anticipation of two major parking facilities finishing construction later this year.

The Fairfax County Department of Transportation has proposed adding or revising almost 30 routes in Tysons, Vienna, Springfield, Chantilly and Centreville, as it seeks to incorporate the upcoming Springfield and Monument Drive garages into its bus system.

According to FCDOT, the changes will improve travel throughout the D.C. region, with the Monument Commuter Parking Garage and Transit Center in particular supporting new connections between the eastern and western sides of the county.

“By creating a transfer point at the new Monument Park-and-Ride facility, riders will have the opportunity to transfer between local routes, access regional routes, and connect to the Vienna Metrorail Station, Franconia Metrorail Station, Tysons, or…D.C.,” FCDOT said in a news release.

Shaped by two previous rounds of public engagement, the proposed service plan will be presented today (Monday) at a 7 p.m. community meeting in the Franconia Government Center (6121 Franconia Road). Virtual meetings are also scheduled for 7 p.m. tomorrow (Tuesday) and Thursday (May 25).

The public can also provide input through an online survey until June 5.

Monument Drive

The $43 million Monument facility will boast 820 parking spaces, eight bus bays, a pick-up and drop-off area, and bicycle racks and storage. Located at the Government Center Parkway intersection next to Fairfax Corner, it broke ground in November 2021 as part of the I-66 widening.

FCDOT has proposed adding the facility as a stop on Route 660, a cross-county connector from the Stone Road Park & Ride in Centreville to the Tysons Metro station that launched in February.

Other notable changes involving the Monument facility include:

  • Route 605: Reston Town Center Metro station to Fair Oaks Mall
  • Route 622: Fairfax Towne Center circulator with more local links and new weekend service
  • Route 625: New route to Random Hills Road and Pender Drive
  • Route 651: New seven-day service to the Westfields, Chantilly, and Fair Ridge areas
  • Route 663: Stringfellow Road Park and Ride to the Vienna Metro station
  • Route 670: New peak express service between Chantilly and the Franconia-Springfield
    Metro station
  • Route 671: New peak service from Chantilly to the Dunn Loring Metro station

Read More

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Looking down on Route 123 from McLean Metro station walkway (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Some transportation projects on the horizon have sparked excitement among the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors over potential transit improvements.

Visualize 2050 is a federally-mandated long-range transportation plan with an emphasis on projects that adhere to new emission reduction goals.

In a meeting of the Board of Supervisors Transportation Committee earlier this month, staff said the county has six projects it’s considering adding to Visualize 2050. The projects have to be considered regionally significant.

Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said the inclusion of Route 7 BRT is a positive step, helping take the project from the conceptual stage to something being actively planned.

“I think it’s really exciting that we’re considering this and I would support BRT 7, “Palchik said. “It brings dedicated bus lanes. We’re talking about reducing congestion and using these roads to more easily have multimodal. I think it’s not super helpful when buses get stuck in traffic for people to give up their cars and opt for the bus.”

The Route 7 BRT proposal would eventually connect Tysons to Alexandria on a new route designed to prioritize public transit. Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said she’s hopeful districts between the two major stops will also benefit.

“Certainly Route 7 BRT will go all along Route 7, coming from Alexandria [in one direction] and Tysons [from the other],” Gross said. “I’m hoping that [Mason District] can be the golden spike.”

Elsewhere in county planning, Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk advocated for Metro’s Yellow Line extension down into Hybla Valley.

“That’s in alignment with what we’re doing with bus rapid transit and our Embark Richmond Highway study,” Lusk said. “The goal is that we eventually get to the extension of that Metro line. I just want to advocate for that and put a plug so that it can be considered.”

County staff said there will be two public meetings on the Visualize 2050 plan in April before the project works its way through the bureaucratic process, eventually heading to plan adoption sometime in December 2024.

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Metro is retrofitting its new fare gates with taller doors intended to prevent fare evasion (via WMATA)

Saloon-style doors are coming to the Vienna Metro station’s fare gates.

The Orange Line terminus is one of nine stations in the first phase of Metro’s fare gate retrofits, which will install taller, glass doors on all of the transit agency’s recently modernized gates to deter people from jumping over to avoid paying to ride the rails.

The first phase will focus on stations with only one entrance and, therefore, fewer gates, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials told the Board of Directors on Thursday (March 23).

Other stations in the first phase include Court House and Pentagon City in Arlington; Federal Center Southwest, Congress Heights, Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten in D.C.; and Bethesda, Wheaton and Addison Road in Maryland.

“We have done some work to determine that the infrastructure needs to do the retrofits are minimal, a way for the team to learn and progress as they’re installing these retrofits,” WMATA Chief Planning and Performance Officer Tom Webster said.

Metro began testing doors aimed at preventing fare evasion last November at the Fort Totten station, including a design with “anti-vaulting arches” that proved ineffective.

The pilot launched before the agency had even finished outfitting all stations with their first updated fare gates since the 1990s, a process that lasted from 2021 to this past December. Though Metro estimated in 2019 that fare evasion was costing it $10 million, board members didn’t want gates that evoked cages like the ones in New York City, according to DCist.

However, reducing fare evasion has emerged as a top priority for WMATA General Manager and CEO Randy Clarke since he took over the job in July.

The new gates have sensors that register all users, regardless of whether they tap their SmarTrip card to pay, giving WMATA more accurate data on rail ridership, Webster said.

So far this year, Metro has seen about 22.3 million rail users, averaging 324,000 trips on weekdays, and the roughly 404,000 trips recorded on Wednesday (March 22) represent the system’s highest single-day ridership of the pandemic, Webster reported at the board meeting.

Metro’s new data indicates that approximately 13% of those total riders didn’t pay at the fare gate. While acknowledging that riders may not be paying for a variety of reasons, including college and D.C. students who can ride for free, the agency says fare evasion affects both its finances and its optics. Read More

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A new dashboard looking at transit around the region illustrates Fairfax Connector’s slow climb back to pre-pandemic ridership levels.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission recently released an interactive website that lets users break down ridership at various local transit services and compare and contrast those figures.

For Fairfax Connector, data from the last year of ridership shows a stark upswing that started in June and has gradually brought the system back up to pre-pandemic levels.

The bus system had a promising start to 2020 with 669,501 riders that January — higher than numbers for that month in previous years. Those numbers dove over the next two months as the Covid pandemic kicked into gear, dropping to a low of 248,866 riders in April.

Ridership only marginally recovered through the rest of 2020 and 2021, but the pace of recovery picked up in 2022 and shot up from June to July, reaching a post-pandemic high of 738,968 riders in August 2022. In September, Fairfax Connector surpassed pre-pandemic ridership for the same month for the first time since February 2020.

The Connector isn’t alone in this recovery. DASH in Alexandria and the CUE bus in the City of Fairfax saw similar recoveries in the second half of 2022.

In Alexandria, DASH’s dramatic uptick in ridership seemed fueled in part by switching to a fare-free system. Fairfax County was considering a similar move for the Connector, but that was tabled by the Board of Supervisors earlier this month in favor of a discounted rate for low-income passengers.

Overall transit ridership in the area, though, remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels — in large part due to Metro accounting for more than 78.6% of the region’s ridership.

Metro didn’t have quite the same dramatic return to pre-pandemic ridership in Virginia that Fairfax Connector experienced.

While Metro’s combined ridership for rail and bus was higher every month in 2022 than it was in 2021, it’s still half what it was in 2018 and 2019. In Virginia, Metro’s ridership for September was roughly 4.1 million — less than half of the 9.2 million riders in 2019.

Fairfax County doesn’t have the same high percentage of access to transit — around 61.3% of the total population — compared to neighbors like Arlington and Alexandria, but that’s to be expected given that it’s significantly larger with less urbanized areas.

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

Fairfax County is poised to halve Fairfax Connector fares for low-income riders, beginning in February, through a pilot program.

The Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP) is a state grant initiative that aims to increase transit ridership. Reduced fares would only apply to individuals whose annual income is at or below 225% of the federal poverty level by household size. That would put the eligibility cap around $29,000 for an individual or $59,625 for a family of four.

The state awarded the county roughly $5.5 million for a three-year pilot program, which includes a county share of $4.2 million.

But at a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ transportation committee meeting last week, staff and board members concurred that permanently cutting fares for the bus system was not a financially prudent decision and could impact quality of service.

Instead, staff recommended continuing the county’s existing free fare programs, including free student bus passes and reduced fares for seniors and passengers with disabilities. Other programs include free transfers to and from WMATA bus and rail service and free rides for children under 4.

Staff also recommended expanding free fare to children between ages 5 and 11 with a paying adult.

Board Chairman Jeff McKay said that he supported the recommendation.

“I do think if we were to go full fare free, I am worried out about our capacity issues to be able to accommodate and degradation of service that may come as a result of that,” he said.

However, he said he was concerned that only up to two children could be eligible for free fares when traveling with a parent or guardian, asking the county to examine removing that cap.

Fairfax County Director of Transportation Tom Biesadny said his department would gladly look into the issue — which has remain untouched since the service began.

Bus fare reductions and eliminations have gained momentum in the D.C. region, as local leaders look to encourage the use of transit after ridership tumbled due to the pandemic. D.C. will waive Metrobus fares starting July 1, and Alexandria’s DASH system has been fare-free since fall 2021, though the operating costs may not be sustainable long-term.

John Zarbo of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation noted that while free fares would provide equitable access, increase ridership and cut fare collection cost, the possible repercussions were more severe.

Consequences include the loss of roughly $9 million in yearly ridership revenue, an increase in non-destination riders that could lead to security issues, and possible Title VI civil rights concerns on the impact of free fares to non-economically disadvantaged riders.

Staff also noted that the county would lose data specific to riders or fare categories because of the lack of a fare box, and the program could result in an inequitable benefit to county riders with only Metrobus options.

Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said she hopes the county will continue to find ways to invest in the program.

“We’re building lifelong riders,” she said.

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