The King Street Metro Station in Alexandria, VA. Photo by m01229, via Flickr.
In a few weeks, Northern Virginia’s first bus rapid transit service will begin operations on dedicated busways through Alexandria, VA’s burgeoning Potomac Yard neighborhood. A visitor standing under one of the new station awnings can see a string of cranes stretching from north to south along US Route 1, at work on the planned 3000 residential units, 4 million square feet of office space, and 1 million square feet of retail space along the transit corridor. Alexandria City Councilor Tim Lovain, who championed the busway as an essential tool to support high-density growth in this corridor, smiles broadly as he describes the accomplishment, but is even more interested in the transit lines still under development in the city.
Many of these transit projects are included in the Transportation Master Plan Councilor Lovain helped adopt in 2008 during his first term on the Council. In addition to the Route 1 corridor, that plan identified two more high-priority corridors where bus rapid transit will be developed in anticipation of future streetcar lines. Both of those corridors are in the city’s newer West End, which is characterized by car-oriented lower density development. West End neighborhoods are more difficult to serve with transit, but Councilor Lovain makes the case for it as an essential tool for economic survival in the transit-rich metropolitan Washington, DC region.
The City of Alexandria, home to 146,000 residents, is prime real estate for people and businesses that want to be close to the federal government, and the US Patent Office and the Department of Defense are among the city’s largest employers. Assets in the West End include hundreds of Department of Defense jobs, Northern Virginia Community College, and a large light industrial enclave. These assets would be even more valuable if they were better connected to the regional transit system.
Nonetheless, high-capacity transit remains controversial in many of the city’s western neighborhoods, even as traffic congestion becomes a bigger issue. Lovain, who has made a career out of helping public transit systems across the country access federal funding as the Executive Vice President of a government relations consulting firm, has witnessed similar skepticism in other communities. “You see this in other places, the community that says no until after the transit line goes in,” says Lovain. “Then they see it and start to understand the benefits.” Lovain’s goal for Alexandria is to help the city get to ‘yes’ before critical opportunities have passed it by.
Councilor Lovain has dedicated more than a decade to helping the City of Alexandria expand its transit service and promote more multi-modal transit-oriented development. He founded the Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition in 2010 to champion streetcar projects that would connect Alexandria with Arlington County, and he also chairs the Washington Area Transit Industry Representatives Task Force and serves on the Alexandria Transportation Commission.
Many Alexandria leaders and residents are coming to embrace the value of multi-modal transportation investments thanks to the work of Lovain and his colleagues. The Potomac Yard development is the latest in a number of successful transit-oriented development and redevelopment projects in the city. Councilor Lovain points to good relationships with the private sector as a key factor in making these multi-modal development projects possible in Alexandria. “We are lucky to have developers in this region who really get it,” says Lovain. Alexandria’s neighbor, Arlington County, VA, also provides a very visible model for how transit and transit-oriented development can help spur economic growth and increase a city’s competitive advantage. “Arlington is ahead of us in many ways. They give us an impressive example,” says Lovain.
This wave of new compact multi-modal development is generating economic activity for the city, but it has also raised questions about affordability and displacement of residents as property values rise. Councilor Lovain notes that preserving affordability in the face of this growth is a high priority for the City. “Alexandria has a longstanding commitment to affordable housing. The City owns 1100 units and is committed to maintaining that number,” says Lovain.
Currently, Lovain and his colleagues on City Council are wrestling with the complications of building a new infill Metrorail station on Washington DC’s yellow and blue lines, which run along the east side of Potomac Yard. In addition to the common problem of how to raise local funding for a multi-million dollar investment, the team is also negotiating with the National Park Service about potential impacts to the George Washington Parkway viewshed.
Lovain takes these hurdles in stride, remaining focused on building the case for the value of multi-modal transportation investments. He is confident that Alexandria will meet the challenges that come with growth, forging a bright future one transit line at a time.
Rayla Bellis contributed to this article.