Tysons, VA

Fairfax County and Virginia state officials kicked off passenger service on Thursday (Oct. 22) for Relay, the first test of autonomous technology in public transportation in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

“Won’t it be great to look back and say, ‘We remember the day in 2020 when we were sitting in the Mosaic and this Relay vehicle successfully proved to the country that you can do this in a safe way and also look toward future innovations in transportation,” Jeffrey McKay, the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said.

Relay, a 100% electric, autonomous vehicle, runs 10 miles per hour from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metrorail Station to the Barnes and Noble in the Mosaic District. It makes the trip every 15 to 20 minutes, Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Relay can transport up to 12 passengers — six seated and six standing — but to encourage social-distancing, it will currently only take three passengers and a safety attendant at a time. The shuttle is fully accessible for people with disabilities.

The project represents a public-private partnership between Fairfax County and Dominion Energy aimed at improving road safety, encouraging the use of public transit, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It received a $200,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and a $50,000 match from Fairfax County. The county is contracting with Transdev to manage the operations of Relay.

EDENS, the developer of the Mosaic District, provides shuttle storage and stop improvements. The Virginia Department of Transportation provided signage, lane striping and bus stops.

The ribbon-cutting event held Thursday, three months after its first test run, was abuzz with officials talking about the future and innovation.

Mark Webb, the chief innovation officer for Dominion Energy, said Relay “is just plain cool.”

“It’s the sort of thing we’d see in a Star Wars movie or Blade Runner movie without lift-off capabilities,” said Webb, whose company purchased the shuttle and contracted with EasyMile, a driverless technology company that mapped the route and manufactured the vehicle.

Even without the futuristic promises, Relay improves road safety, extends public transit, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, Webb said.

Connecting the two ends of the Mosaic District will encourage people to ride public transit who are dissuaded by getting to and from transit stops, said Catherine McGhee, the director of research and innovation for the Virginia Transportation Research Council.

“Relay serves a real purpose. It’s not a one-off demonstration in a parking lot,” she said. “It is part of the transit ecosystem here in Fairfax County.”

Officials also reminisced about the underutilized, industrial, dull feel of the Mosaic District before serious efforts were undertaken to develop it, spearheaded by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia).

“Without a Mosaic, there would be no Relay. There would be no autonomous vehicle project,” McKay said.

Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik wants to see the development extend to the older, industrial, and partially vacant zone in between the two Relay stops.

“I really hope it will help develop the areas between the two stops,” Palchik said. “We don’t stop here.”

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Monday Morning Notes

Ketamine and Wellness Facility Opening in McLean — “Avesta Ketamine and Wellness is excited to announce the opening of their second location in McLean Virginia November 2020.” [Benzinga]

Cloud Networking Service in McLean Wins $2.15 Billion Sale — “McLean, Virginia-based telecommunications, internet and cloud services provider GTT Communications has signed an agreement to sell its infrastructure business to I Squared Capital, a Miami-based infrastructure investment company, for $2.15 billion.” [WTOP]

Vienna Community Center Selling Halloween Goodie Bags — “Those interested may come to the community center 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 am-6 pm Saturdays. Each bag is $20 and comes with two pie-sized pumpkins.” [Vienna Happenings]

OmniRide Cancels Woodbridge-Tysons Route — “Last week, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, which operates the bus service, announced a host of changes to reduce expenses that will take effect Nov. 2. Three commuter routes – Dale City to Mark Center, Lake Ridge to Mark Center and Woodbridge VRE to Tysons Corner – will be suspended until further notice.” [WTOP]

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After months of delays from the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Falls Church is starting to get back to work on implementing traffic calming measures across the city to reduce speeds.

The report included plans for new curb extensions and sidewalks along Great Falls Road, at the intersections with Little Falls Street and Maple Street — a busy set of intersections that run parallel to W. Broad Street.

Several new speed limit signs, and flashing warnings, would be installed in neighborhood streets around Falls Church.

An update listed eight traffic calming projects that had been underway in Falls Church, three of which have been completed. Completed projects include:

  • Annandale Road and Gundry Drive — heavy traffic calming measures at this intersection were completed in May
  • W.Jefferson Street — light traffic calming was completed in late September
  • Lincoln, Phase I — a restriping project completed in late September

Four other projects throughout the city are underway, with Falls Church staff saying work is starting to resume on moving projects through the bureaucracy. According to a report:

Response to COVID-19 pandemic did result in a March/April slow down as we converted to remote work sites, reduced crews to emergency and priority field work, cancelled in-person community meetings pending legal authority to conduct under the emergency declaration and adapted to virtual formats. Staff adapted quickly to the virtual environment and continued to work through the queued projects in order of petitions. With Zak Bradley’s promotion to Interim Public Works Director, we have made staff reassignments to ensure that the program moves forward.

The report also included a recommendation that $350,000 dedicated to the traffic calming that had been put on hold earlier in the pandemic be released.

Image via City of Falls Church

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The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) unveiled suggestions for ways to address speeding and safety concerns on Shreve Road in Falls Church during a virtual public information meeting on Oct. 7.

Possible improvements range from minor alterations, such as optical speed bars and vegetation management, to potentially complex projects, like Shrevewood Elementary School roundabouts.

Led by VDOT and the consulting firm Kittelson & Associates, the Shreve Road Corridor Study team emphasized that its goal is to give the City of Falls Church and Fairfax County options to consider, not to make decisions on funding or construction.

“This is a planning-level study,” VDOT transportation planning manager Amir Shahpar said. “The purpose of this study is to develop proposed improvements for localities to apply for funding for some or all of the recommendations.”

VDOT launched the Shreve Road Corridor Study on Mar. 25 in response to the advocacy efforts of the Shreve Road Community Working Group, which formed after a woman was killed in a hit and run at the intersection with Hickory Street in August 2019.

The study focuses on the two-mile section of Shreve that connects Route 29 with Route 7. That stretch averages up to 10,000 vehicles a day, according to VDOT, raising concerns about traffic speed and pedestrian and bicycle safety in the surrounding neighborhoods.

To address the Hickory Curve, the study team proposed adding optical speed bars, enhanced signage, and other means of slowing traffic ahead of the curve; moving the pedestrian pathway; clearing vegetation to improve visibility; or creating a barrier curb and gutter.

VDOT also considered installing additional guardrails to shield pedestrians from motorists but found that they are “not warranted” for that particular location, Kittelson engineering associate Amelia Martin says.

Options for improvements outside Shrevewood Elementary include building roundabouts or removing the street median, but the area’s topography, the presence of utilities, and other factors would make those complicated undertakings. Read More

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In the series of Q&A discussions, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) discussed plans to extend the 495 express lanes to the American Legion Bridge. Concerns from local residents about the project ranged from impact on the road to impact on surrounding communities.

While VDOT mostly maintained that the project will help travel times on I-495 and reduce impact on nearby neighborhood traffic, there were other areas where VDOT said the I-495 expansion may not live up to some hopes.

Implementation of dedicated transit, for instance, may not be in the cards without a public subsidy.

“Currently our number one goal is no public subsidies or funding to have this improvement on the Beltway,” said Susan Shaw, director of mega-projects for VDOT. “There’s not been any decision made about whether there would be additional revenue available for any type of transit, and there hasn’t been that kind of commitment, but we’re in discussions with Transurban. First and foremost goal is to complete the project without any public subsidy.”

In response to concerns about 118 acres of tree loss associated with the project, Shaw also said equal reforestation could be tricky.

“When we do reforestation, it needs to be within VDOT write of way,” Shaw said. “We’re often challenged to find space in right of way to do reforestation. Right now, we don’t have a specific budget. That will be something we work through as part of our work as we move into the final design.”

Shaw said the 118 acres projection would be maximum tree loss and VDOT is still working to minimize that.

The project is intended to add more capacity to I-495 to take some of the cut-through traffic off nearby McLean streets, though there are concerns without expansion of the American Legion Bridge and expansion on the Maryland side, the express lanes will only push the bottleneck further north.

Photo via Google Maps

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Monday Morning Notes

Fairfax Connector Launches New Service for CIA Employees — “We need to find solutions to get ppl out of cars and into public transit. Access to transit is important for our fed workers who come from around the region. Now, we have a @ffxconnector service for CIA employees that will connect more essential fed workers to transit.” [Twitter]

Regional Leaders Host Roundtable on Transportation After COVID-19 — “The three top leaders in the D.C. metropolitan region talked about the coronavirus pandemic, racial and social injustice and transportation Friday during a Capital Region Business Forum.” [Washington Informer]

Busy Opening at Han Palace — Dim sum fans lined up in Tysons for the opening of new restaurant Han Palace [Twitter]

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A representative from consulting firm Kimley-Horn presented the next steps to improve transportation through the Maple Avenue area to the Vienna Town Council for its consideration on Monday.

Following surveys of Vienna residents conducted by the town and Kimley-Horn, several portions of the Maple Avenue Multimodal Study were highlighted as top priorities and presented to the council. According to the town’s survey, residents identified eight items as top priorities.

Among those items are the redesign of the Washington & Old Dominion Trail crossings, integration of leading pedestrian intervals (LPI), filling vital sidewalk gaps and providing traffic impact analysis guidelines. A streetscape master plan and design, a long-range transportation master plan, parking and demand study, and the redesign of Church Street and Lawyers Road intersection rounded out the top concerns.

Jinks shared the priorities with the council while echoing the redesign of the W&OD Trail Crossing as one of the public works department staff’s top projects to “start to find funding and implement as soon as we can.”

While Kimley-Horn conducted independent engagement meetings with community members to address challenges or concerns, many of the top priorities were the same as reflected in the town’s survey.

Based on the meetings and a survey of the baseline condition of Maple Avenue, consultant David Samba from Kimley-Horn presented solutions to the council that could be implemented in the next five to 10 years. The projects presented would address some travel conditions or challenges – not just traffic with vehicles, but with biking, walking and transit experiences.

Kimley-Horn’s study looked at a single future development scenario including 13 mixed-use developments across the corridor that would add about 700 vehicle trips in the morning and 500 vehicle trips in the afternoon. According to Samba, analysis showed that even with the addition of the traffic, Maple Avenue would continue to function similar to how it does now.

“It gave us confidence that if we address today’s challenges, we’d be addressing tomorrow’s challenges at the same time,” Samba said.

The survey identified a number of challenges, but primarily established public concern that multiple means of travel in the area need to be addressed, not just the automobile experience.

Kimley-Horn presented 18 projects to the council with considerations for near-, mid- and long-term recommendations.

Short-term recommendations include the redesign of the intersection of Church Street and Mill Street, W&OD Trail Crossing redesign, implementing leading pedestrian intervals, and all way stops. They also include trail management or extension on Locust Street, redesign of the Pleasant Street and Courthouse Road intersection, roadway operation and safety improvement, filling sidewalk gaps and redesign of the Nutley Street and Courthouse Road intersection.

Mid-term recommendations include a local circulator, a bicycle network, Capital Bikeshare, curb reconstruction and bus stop enhancements on Maple Avenue.

The firm lists redesign of Branch Broad and Beulah Road intersection, raised medians and a Maple Avenue off-peak parking plan as long-term recommendations.

Of the 18 recommendations, Samba listed six as the top priorities:

  • The redesign of the intersection of Church Street and Mill Street
  • W&OD Trail Crossing Redesign
  • Leading pedestrian intervals
  • A local circulator
  • A bicycle network
  • Filling sidewalk gaps.

Following the presentations by Jinks and Samba, Council member Howard Springsteen expressed gratitude for the project documents, but also emphasized the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on traffic and commuting.

“I think your study is a very good reference document out there that we can look at,” Springsteen said of the Kimley-Horn report. “But I think right now, we’re just trying to keep our heads above water with the pandemic.”

Image via Town of Vienna 

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At tomorrow’s meeting, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will consider (Action 5) using $2.8 million to acquire a section of land to advance the Tysons street grid and turn the group of blocks into a more easily traversable city.

“The County Executive recommends that the Board approve the use of up to $2,790,000 in Tysons Grid of Streets Road Fund revenues for acquisition of a perpetual street easement and a temporary construction easement for Center Street in Tysons,” a staff report said.

The new road would connect Greensboro Drive to Leesburg Pike. The expensive acquisition is part of the county’s ongoing efforts to create a grid of streets connecting the various islands of activity around Tysons.

“Tysons Corner currently consists of large superblocks with a relatively small number of streets,” the county said on its website. “The large block size inhibits transit use, pedestrian and bicycle movement by limiting short, direct connections between points within Tysons. This places excessive reliance on the existing street system to accommodate most trips to, from and through Tysons by use of single occupant vehicles.”

The section will need to be acquired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make “Center Street” happen.

“The offsite portion of Center Street falls partially on US government property, administered by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which requires localities to provide compensation for obtaining land rights such as perpetual street easements for road construction,” the staff report said. “Appraisals were performed to determine the land value and cost associated with the perpetual street easement and temporary construction easement, and the US Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to the above referenced amount for the land rights.”

Image via Fairfax County

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“Relay,” a new autonomous electric shuttle, made its first test run throughout Merrifield’s Mosaic District yesterday. 

Relay is a free, driverless transportation option that will take people from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro Station to the Mosaic District. 

Yesterday’s testing was the beginning of a mapping process to teach the vehicle its route. In the learning process, the shuttle needs to stay on its route down to the millimeter, according to Dominion Energy’s Innovation Strategist Julie Manzari.

Testing and mapping usually take a few weeks or more with autonomous shuttles depending on the complicated nature of the route, according to Manzari. The route Relay will be taking is especially interesting due to busy roads. 

The project was launched by Fairfax County and Dominion Energy in partnership with EDENS, Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation and Department of Transportation, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and George Mason University.

Transdev will be in charge of the management and maintenance of the vehicle, which was made by EasyMile, according to the county’s website

In a YouTube video, EasyMile engineer Nathan Ramsey said that the shuttle has several different braking systems, uses GPS and has a LiDAR system, which observes the environment with infrared lasers.

“Using LiDAR, the vehicle can’t miss objects. It will see everything around it, and it will respond accordingly,” Ramsey said. “So if it needs to slow down or stop because somebody runs out in front of it — even if they dart out in front of it just a couple, mere feet — the vehicle will have no trouble stopping or slowing.”

Ramsey said that he believes the shuttle is safer than human drivers, noting that the technology can respond safely to human error.

The shuttle will be enforcing mask requirements and separation as much as possible to ensure COVID-19 safety. They plan on keeping a seat between each passenger and requiring passengers to wear their seatbelts, according to Manzari. 

“We have a lot of enthusiasm around the project,” said Manzari. “People are very curious about autonomous vehicles.”

Photo courtesy Peggy Fox/Dominion Energy

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Plans can now move forward for a pedestrian and bicycle connection in Tysons East.

Tysons Park Place II, LLC is looking to create the connection from the existing structured parking garage to a sidewalk along the Jones Branch Connector.

The new connection would improve walkability to a future redevelopment.

“This connection would provide pedestrians and bicyclists with a more direct site access to/from the Tysons East area and the McLean Metrorail Station when compared to the existing connections from Jones Branch Drive,” according to county staff.

On Tuesday, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted to support a break of the limited access line, which the proposed pedestrian connection would cross.

Prior to the board’s vote, the limited access line was restricting the creation of the new connection, county staff said.

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