Email Newsletter
The autonomous Relay shuttle travels between the Mosaic District and the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The autonomous Relay shuttle that has been puttering around Merrifield will stay in operation at least through the end of this year.

Fairfax County accepted additional funding from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation last week to extend its pilot project through December 2022, as it hopes the recent decline in COVID-19 cases will boost the shuttle’s ridership.

The $208,000 state grant is supplemented by a required local match of 20%, or $52,000, bringing the total amount to $260,000, according to county documents.

“Ridership levels have still been relatively low due to omicron and winter weather, but we are expecting an increase during the summer,” Robin Geiger, head of communications for the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, told FFXnow.

The Relay shuttle opened to passengers on Oct. 22, 2020, in the Mosaic District. It is free to ride and travels between Barnes & Noble and the nearby Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays.

A partnership between the county and Dominion Energy, which provided the shuttle, the demonstration project is Virginia’s first state-funded use of a self-driving, electric vehicle in public transportation.

The county enlisted the Virginia Transportation Research Council and Virginia Tech to conduct an independent study of the technology and the service’s effectiveness as a transportation option, but that effort has been unavoidably shaped by the pandemic.

Though the shuttle can accommodate up to 12 passengers, capacity has been limited to three people, including a safety attendant, throughout the pilot to encourage social distancing.

Geiger notes that face masks are also required on the shuttle as long as the federal mask mandate for public transportation remains in effect, which is currently through April 18. Governors from 21 states, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, filed a lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s administration yesterday (Tuesday), calling the mandate an example of federal overreach.

Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19 and some more mundane logistical issues, such as drivers illegally passing the 10 mile-per-hour vehicle, the Relay pilot “has been going well” overall, Geiger says, adding that the county has been learning throughout the experiment.

The shuttle will be on display this weekend (April 2-3) at the Mosaic District’s “Art Blooms” festival, a celebration of spring in partnership with the National Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C.

Art Blooms at Mosaic will also feature crafts and farmers markets, a beer garden from Caboose Brewing Company, a wine garden, live musical performances, and various family-friendly activities, such as face-painting and cooking demonstrations.

“[Relay] will not be operating during the festival, but we will be promoting the days and hours of service,” Geiger said.

0 Comments
A Fairfax County bus driver waits for the next leg of his route (staff photo by David Taube)

Fairfax County is seeking community input to guide the future of its Fairfax Connector bus system.

The Transit Strategic Plan review will examine how service could be adapted to address community needs over the next 10 years.

A survey open to everyone, regardless of their current Fairfax Connector usage, launched on Tuesday (March 22). Responses will be accepted through April 16.

The Fairfax County Department of Transportation will also hold online meetings on March 28 and 31.

Available in 10 different languages, the survey addresses existing routes — which could be tweaked with more frequent buses, for example — as well as potential new routes. The plan will also look at whether more bus stops are needed, why routes might be underperforming, and other considerations.

“Your input is crucial,” Michael Felschow, the county’s transit planning section chief, said during a public meeting on the plan in January 2021.

The final result will be a priority list of services and investments in capital and infrastructure projects that Fairfax County can try to implement over the next decade, he noted.

This is the second round of community engagement for the Transit Strategic Plan, which is required by state law for large public transportation agencies. FCDOT previously held public meetings and shared a survey during January and February 2021.

The plan will incorporate findings from more short-term studies that the county has been conducting over the past few years for specific parts of the bus system, including Herndon and Reston, Franconia and Springfield, and the Tysons and Chantilly areas.

Bus service in Huntington is being evaluated as part of the Richmond Highway bus rapid transit project, according to the news release.

Staff will eventually submit a plan to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for approval, possibly by the end of the year.

0 Comments
Yellow Line tunnel and bridge over the Potomac River (via WMATA)

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and other Northern Virginia officials are looking for ways to help commuters during a lengthy planned shutdown of Metro’s Yellow Line for rehabilitation work.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will stop service on a key section of the line for seven to eight months to repair a Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac River and tunnels that are over 40 years old.

The project is scheduled to start in September and finish in the spring. The shutdown will be between the Pentagon and L’Enfant Plaza stations.

“The seemingly endless stream of shutdowns, delays, and missed completion dates is making Fairfax County commuters increasingly frustrated and hampering Metro’s ability to rebound from pandemic ridership numbers,” Chairman Jeff McKay said during the board’s meeting yesterday (Tuesday).

The board agreed to write a letter urging WMATA to accelerate the project timeline and provide more alternatives for commuters, such as improved bus service and parking fare reductions at Yellow Line stations during construction.

McKay also encouraged Virginia Railway Express to play a “lead role in possibly providing relief in ways like fare incentives for Yellow Line riders.”

The work is occuring at the same time the new Potomac Yard Metro station is being connected to rail lines as part of a six-week project. The station is slated to open this fall, following delays.

McKay said that while safety must be the highest priority, he’s concerned about the effects of the shutdown, especially as people return to the workplace. Metro service has already been significantly reduced systemwide for months since a train derailed in Arlington County in October.

“WMATA needs to find a way to shorten that timeframe and do a better job of at least getting our commuters through that bottleneck, which is frankly, for us, Alexandria,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said.

The Mount Vernon District borders the City of Alexandria and includes the Huntington Metro station at the end of the Yellow Line.

“That’s not a criticism of Alexandria,” Storck added. “It’s just the amount of people that’s going to go through it is even more than in the past.”

WMATA spokesperson Sherri Ly said the authority is working with its regional partners, businesses and the community to create a mitigation plan, including bus service enhancements and changes to parking policy for the project’s duration.

0 Comments
A conceptual route for the Envision Route 7 Bus Rapid Transit system (via NVTC)

Fairfax County officials have not ruled out the possibility of incorporating pull-off areas on Route 7 for the bus rapid transit (BRT) system planned along the corridor from Tysons to Alexandria.

Areas for buses to pull off or pass each other would let the road accommodate an express service for riders who want to get from one end of the route to the other without having to make every stop in between, Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity proposed at the county Board of Supervisors’ meeting yesterday (Tuesday).

“I’m hoping that as we move this project forward — if we move this project forward — we take into account the ability to get people there more quickly and have the option to do express routes, so that we can actually get people on these buses and using them,” Herrity said.

As evidence that transit’s success depends on providing shorter trip times than driving, he cited the collapse of Fairfax and Arlington counties’ plans for a streetcar on Columbia Pike a decade ago. A suggested bus rapid transit alternative never materialized either.

County and regional transportation staff can look at including pull-off areas once they start designing the bus service, Fairfax County Department of Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny told the board, but that phase of the project is still months away.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted yesterday to authorize an agreement with the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission that commits the county to providing $25,000 for a “project roadmap,” which will guide the BRT’s implementation, including a timeline and possible funding sources.

Under the agreement, NVTC will contribute $50,000 and hire a contractor to develop the roadmap. The regional organization is leading the Envision Route 7 BRT project, since it involves the cities of Falls Church and Alexandria as well as Fairfax County.

NVTC is currently working on the fourth phase of a mobility study evaluating the benefits and impacts of the proposed service. Initiated in October, this phase focuses on the route from Tysons to Seven Corners and could take 12 to 18 months, the project page says.

A follow-up study will look at the rest of the route from Seven Corners to Mark Center in Alexandria.

Fairfax County’s board approved the Tysons portion of the route in July. FCDOT is now working on an amendment to add BRT to the county’s comprehensive plan, which is expected to come before the board this spring, and preparing preliminary conceptual engineering designs, according to county staff.

While having express service as part of a “rapid” bus system seems like a “no-brainer,” in Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust’s words, Biesiadny said pull-off or passing areas would require more land and right-of-way for the project.

The cost, environmental impact, and potential displacement of residents and businesses along Richmond Highway led the county to eschew an express service for its upcoming Route 1 BRT, according to Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay, who disputed Herrity’s characterization of the decision as a missed opportunity.

The Richmond Highway BRT, which has been branded The One, will have a total of nine stops, still providing a shorter ride than the existing Fairfax Connector and Metrobus service in the corridor, Biesiadny noted.

“We didn’t expect that there would be a significant amount of congestion in the bus lanes, nor significant delay for those buses as they travel from Fort Belvoir up to the Huntington station,” he said. “But we will look at that again as part of the Route 7 project, and we’ll be able to have a discussion with the board in terms of the pros and cons of doing something different in the Route 7 corridor.”

He confirmed that FCDOT is looking at providing transit-exclusive lanes for the county’s Route 7 BRT segments, as proposed by an NVTC conceptual engineering study.

0 Comments
×

Subscribe to our mailing list