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Jun
25

Autonomous Buses May Be Travelling Our Roads Soon

Hampton Roads Part of a National Pilot

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) and Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) have joined a national consortium of transit agencies to explore whether autonomous buses can be deployed in select areas of the country, including Hampton Roads.

Autonomous buses are technologically advanced vehicles that can run with either a passive human attendant, or with a fully automated operating system. No full-sized autonomous buses are in use today but the technology that could allow them is developing quickly.

The Automated Bus Consortium (ABC) is being overseen by AECOM, one of the nation’s leading design and engineering firms. AECOM has obtained commitments from 12 agencies, including Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), to serve as the consortium’s founding members and to jointly make decisions.

This first-of-its-kind approach may accelerate the deployment of autonomous transit technologies by combining the purchasing power and collaborative decision-making of cooperating agencies.

“The future of transit is now,” said Jennifer Mitchell, Director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “We are thrilled to engage in this pilot program with our partners at HRT as we work together to achieve our future vision of safe, efficient, and reliable transit services for communities across
the Commonwealth”

To advance understanding and limitations of the technology, the effort will bring together agencies that operate in different climates and unique topographies, from the flat deserts of the American southwest to flood-prone Hampton Roads where congestion and crowded tunnels are common.

Part of the reason for the pilot program is to demonstrate that automated bus technology can navigate and operate reliably in these environments. The consortium will define the best pilot regions and routes, while developing operating plans and automated bus specifications. It also will investigate the regulatory changes necessary for deployment of these vehicles.

The consortium hopes eventually to procure jointly 75-100 automated, full-sized buses. It is not yet known how many would be deployed in Hampton Roads or if HRT would move forward into part the program that includes the purchase of vehicles.

Even if HRT qualifies for some buses, they would be in limited use. The vast majority of HRT’s bus fleet will remain operated by men and women behind the wheel for the foreseeable future.

“This is an exciting time for public transportation,” said William Harrell, President and CEO of HRT. “Leveraging emergent technologies in automation may lead to greater operating efficiency while also enhancing the customer experience. We also hope this will help us assess our training needs as the technology evolves.”

Autonomous transit vehicles are being used in limited circumstances and select locations, typically as smaller, shuttle type vehicles. The research will help HRT determine if the technology is right for the Hampton Roads before committing financial resources to purchase these buses.

The consortium will also study the federal, state, and local regulatory framework to understand what changes are needed to allow autonomous vehicles to safely operate on the streets and highways. Currently, Virginia law does not allow fully autonomous vehicles to be operated without an attendant present.  To learn more, visit: automatedbusconsortium.com.

Jun
25

On The Road Again, Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot National Monuments, Arizona

 Story and photo By Jim Schlett

Dulles Airport and Corridor has been growing at a rapid rate with the expansion of the Silver Line of the Metro Rail System.   With so many companies relocating and expanding into the area, the population is also surging.  With such a fast pace of life, everyone needs some time to escape via the gateway and numerous flight selections at Dulles Airport.   I have published several articles about the “refocusing” phase of my life and my journeys to various National Park sites as the Artist-In-Resident (AIR) at five locations since 2016.  In early 2019, I was fortunate to be notified that I was also selected as the AIR at Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well and Tuzigoot National Monuments in Arizona just about 90 minutes north of Phoenix.  These locations are preserved and administered by the National Park Service.

From my previous trips to Arizona in spring to photograph the baseball spring training sites, I knew how photogenic the area could be in terms of the desert blooms, not to mention the amazing sunset skies.  My goal is to “capture the light” at our National Parks and I greatly favor the first and last hours of light each day.

The dates were for 2 weeks in April, just in time for the desert in bloom, which surprises most folks who have never experienced the desert in spring after substantial winter rains.  Montezuma Castle, in the Verde Valley, was established by President Theodore Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act of 1906.   This law gives the President of the United States the authority to, by presidential proclamation, create national monuments from federal lands to protect significant cultural, natural, or scientific features.   Like modern times, this allowed for numerous sites to be saved and preserved for future generations when things took too long for Congress to act upon.   The decision to save this site was due to the on-going removal of many Native American artifacts and damaging the ruins.  The Montezuma and Tuzigoot sites are considered to be one of the most important and valuable sites of Native Americans that were saved from additional looting.

Montezuma Castle actually consists of dwellings built into a sheer limestone cliff by the Sinagua people from many centuries ago.   The dwelling consist of approximately 20-45 rooms in a five story structure, connected through a series of interior ladders, built over the time span of 3 centuries, near the banks of the Beaver Creek.   The name of Montezuma is not really correct as it was named by the early European-American settlers under the mistaken belief that the site was connected to the Aztec emperor Montezuma.  Due to the amount of visitors and deterioration of the dwelling, in the early 1950s, the National Park Service decided it would no longer allow visitors to actually climb into the structure.   You can now walk to the site and look up into the structure, which some visitors say resembles an early version of a high-rise apartment complex—while talking with park rangers and volunteers about the lodging and the Sinagua people.   It is a spectacular site to look at.  To this day, no one has an absolute conclusion about why the Sinagua people abandoned the site.   

Part of the park, approximately 6 miles from the Castle is Montezuma Well is a collapsed sinkhole of limestone, where a spring emerges and warm water flows at a rate of about 1.5 million gallons a day.  When you first gaze out over the well from the top, you almost have the impression that you are looking at a crater created by a volcano.  At the top, it is almost 500 feet from side-to-side.   The water level is about 70 feet from the top with a maximum depth of 55 feet.  This enormous well contains several complex organisms found nowhere else on earth.  There are several Sinagua dwellings near the top of the cliff.  It is estimated that over 1,000 years ago, the Sinagua people diverted water from this well with a series of ditches and canals to irrigate and support their small gardens.  The canal is still in use today.  

The third section of the park, located approximately 25 miles from Montezuma Castle is Tuzigoot, centered on a pueblo on a hill and the surrounding area, containing over 100 rooms, which overlooks the Verde River.  This site came under the National Park Service in 1939 as a National Monument.  This site is also very close to Jerome, an old copper mining town that has been undergoing an artistic renaissance over the past 30 years.  The pueblo was built using local sandstone and limestone and consists of a cluster of many rooms in a 2-3 story structure. The equivalent of mortar was used to hold the structure together. Both Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot have excellent Visitor Centers with a wealth of information about the sites and people who dwelled there.

In addition to these National Park sites, I had arrived several days early to explore other parts of northern Arizona.   There are so many great outdoor activities to see and experience within a few hours drive from Montezuma Castle.  Some of the places we spent time at included Jerome, the Copper Art Museum in Clarkdale, the Verde Canyon Railroad, the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. We wandered around the amazing variety of red sandstone formations found in Sedona.  The red rocks of Sedona have such a “western” look, that the area has been used in over 60 Hollywood movies and attracts visitors from all over the world to feel the aura of the location and several unique vortexes.

As with all of these AIRs, the time passed so quickly and I am now in the midst of editing my photos for prints for future exhibitions.   I would strongly encourage you to make time to visit our National Parks.  I have also received notification that 2 more National Park locations have selected me as one of the AIRs in the second half of 2019.  What a great adventure this has been!

 To see more of my photos of the National Parks, visit photomanva.zenfolio.com/p570512401.

Jun
25

NoVa Transit Ridership Up Slightly Over 2017

The April – June (4th quarter FY2018) transit ridership figures recently released by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) show that usage was slightly up in comparison to the same period in 2017.  According to NVTC, “Ridership of Metrorail, VRE, and DASH increased by four percent, one percent, and two percent, respectively, while other systems experienced ridership decreases.”

From April through June of FY2017, SafeTrack was underway. In response to planned service disruptions to Metrorail, local transit agencies offered additional services. These SafeTrack surges included Blue and Yellow Lines single tracking between Braddock Road and Huntington/Van Dorn Street (March 4th – April 12th) and an Orange Line segment shutdown between New Carrolton and Stadium-Armory (May 16th – June 15th). 

Silver Line ridership also continues to improve.  More than 2.4 million riders used the Silver Line in the 2018 4th quarter, an increase of 7.9% over 2017 figures.

 

Source: WMATA. Ridership is based on station entries and exits. 

Note: On a quarterly basis, NVTC reports year to date ridership. This information is provided to NVTC by the local and regional transit service provider. Data is not finalized until NVTC’s Annual Transit Performance Update.

Jun
25

2019 July 4th Fireworks & Events

Alexandria – Oronoco Bay Park, 100 Madison St., Alexandria, Virginia. Celebrate Alexandria’s Birthday & the USA’s on Saturday, July 13, 7-10 p.m. Enjoy a concert by the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra at 9 and fireworks at 9:30 p.m.

Fairfax – Fairfax City, Independence Day Parade through the downtown area beginning at 10 a.m. Musical entertainment begins at 6 p.m. at Fairfax High School with a spectacular fireworks display at dark.  Thursday, July 4 – rain date – July 5th. (703) 385-7858.

Fairfax – Lorton Workhouse Fireworks, Workhouse Arts Center, 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, Virginia.  5:00 p.m. – 10 p.m.  Saturday, June 29.  Admission to Workhouse Fireworks is free; parking is $25 per car in advance or $30 on site (cash only) and is available at the Workhouse campus (enter via eastbound Workhouse Road).  Food, beverages – including craft beers, will be available for purchase on site. NOTE: Guests are welcome to bring blankets and low-height lawn chairs. Please leave at home the following items, as they are prohibited at the event: coolers, outside food and beverages (except unopened – seal intact – bottles of water), umbrellas, tents, and pets. Service animals are always welcome. Also, please note that tailgating is prohibited in our parking lots both before and after the event. Service animals are always welcome.

Falls Church – George Mason High School, 7124 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, Virginia. Food trucks on site and live music will start at 7 p.m. followed by fireworks at 9:20 p.m.  Thursday, July 4.

Herndon – Bready Park, Herndon Community Center, 814 Ferndale Ave., Herndon, Virginia. (703) 787-7300. Face painting, balloon sculpturing, bingo and crafts begin at 6:30 p.m.  Music at 7 p.m. Fireworks at 9:30 p.m.  Thursday, July 4.

Leesburg – Ida Lee Park, Rt. 15 (King Street) and Ida Lee Drive, Leesburg, Virginia. (703) 777-1368. Parade on King Street at 10 a.m.  Gates open at 6 p.m.  Music starts at 6:30 p.m.  Fireworks around 9:30 p.m.  Thursday, July 4.

Mt. Vernon – 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, Virginia. Mansion tour and fireworks $36 for adults; $26 for youth. No Mansion Tour: $30 for adults; $20 for youth. June 28 and 29, 6:45 – 9 p.m.

Manassas – 9431 West Street, Manassas, Virginia. (703) 361-6599. Enjoy live music, children’s activities, food and fireworks. Entertainment begins at 3 p.m. Fireworks at 9:15 p.m.  Thursday, July 4 – Rain Date – July 5th.

Reston – Lake Fairfax Park, 1400 Lake Fairfax Dr., Reston, Virginia. (703) 471-5415. Fireworks begin around 9:15 p.m. Saturday June 29 – Rain Date – June 30. $10 parking fee.

Vienna – Vienna Community Center, 120 Cherry Street Southeast, Vienna, Virginia. Arts and crafts, food, live music, vendors, and games. Celebrations start at 10 a.m – 2 p.m. Fireworks at 9:15 p.m. at Yeonas Park at 1319 Ross Dr. Thursday, July 4.

Jun
25

What The Region Is Doing To Help Riders During The Summer 2019 Blue and Yellow Line Metro shutdown

By ABIGAIL ZENNER 

This summer six Metro stations along the Blue and Yellow Lines are closed. Here are some of the ways the region is coming together to help riders, compile important data, and support Metro during the summer shutdown.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has been fixing its outdoor Metrorail platforms to bring them to a state of good repair. Ten platforms have already been rebuilt and WMATA has identified 20 more in need of repairs. To complete this work as quickly as possible, WMATA planned to close the stations and suspend service within the area where the work is being performed. As part of this on-going Platform Improvement Project, six stations and service along the Blue and Yellow Lines south of National Airport were closed on May 25 and are scheduled to be reopened on September 8, 2019.

The TPB and the Metropolitan Council of Governments (COG) have supported the shutdown through coordinating activities, compiling data, and supporting commuters through Commuter Connections. WMATA itself has taken the lead in getting the word out and working with partners. Plus, the City of Alexandria and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission have provided extensive support through communications, coordination, and transit alternatives throughout the summer shutdown. Here is a short round-up of these activities.

TPB and COG activities

COG/TPB’s Commuter Connections has formed a WMATA Platform Shutdown Transportation Demand Management Work Group which meets on a regular basis to exchange information on commuting solutions during this year’s and future year Metrorail station shutdowns related to the platform work.

Specifically related to the summer station shutdown, Commuter Connections’ outreach program included two pop-up events that occurred in May. The first event occurred on Wednesday, May 8 at the Huntington Metro station during the evening rush. The City of Alexandria, Fairfax County, Commuter Connections, and 94.7 FM radio station participated in the event to help Metrorail riders identify solutions for their summer commute. Commuter Connections hosted a similar event on Tuesday, May 14 at the Van Dorn Metro station also during the evening rush. The City of Alexandria, DASH, Fairfax County, Commuter Connections, and WTOP staffed the event. Approximately 1,000 commuters were reached between both events. Commuters were given information as they were exiting the station and both events were promoted through Facebook boosted posts.

Commuter Connections has been promoting the CarpoolNow dynamic ridesharing mobile app, along with the entire suite of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program services, at the pop-up events and through other means. The Commuter Connections spring employer newsletter featured a frontpage story on the shutdown. Targeted digital ads are being used around the affected Metrorail stations. COG/TPB staff also sent targeted email announcements regarding the shutdown and suggested commuting solutions to approximately 5,800 commuters and to 1,000 employers around the affected stations.

Commuter Connections created a standalone website for commuting options during the shutdown at commuterconnections.org/metro-station-shutdown.

What impact does the shutdown have on the region’s traffic congestion, and what impact does the region’s traffic congestion have on the shuttle and supplementary bus services being run in the area? COG/TPB staff are compiling congestion data along major commuter routes. Vehicle probe data shows speeds along these routes which can flag any anomalies along shuttle bus routes or major commuting areas. Data collected can show if speeds are slower or faster than normal, potentially helping advise adjustments to supplementary bus services.

The data collection will also be useful after the shutdown period is complete to analyze how the system responded. This type of analysis can be useful for operations planning for future transit disruptions. Over the coming months, staff will also look at other data sources (as data become available) to analyze shutdown impacts such as transit ridership, shifting travel patterns, and traffic volume changes.

Aside from the Department of Transportation Planning, COG staff has also assisted in coordination calls with Public Information Officers (PIO) and COG public safety committees. These coordination calls helped the region’s local jurisdictions, transit agencies, public safety, and other agencies prepare, share information, and monitor and respond to concerns. COG’s Office of Communications issued a press release that reminded Metrorail riders about the shutdown and provided information about resources available from Commuter Connections.

COG/TPB continues to support and provide information to numerous partner agencies during the shutdown, including on public outreach, operations planning, and public safety planning.

WMATA activities

WMATA has been coordinating with regional jurisdictions and partners since May 2018. The transit agency held regular conference calls and partnered with the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC). This coordination included state and local representatives including COG, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the Pentagon, Virginia Railway Express (VRE), OmniRide, the District Department of Transportation, Virginia State Police, congressional offices, and many more.

WMATA also organized its own PIO group to share information and coordinate on outreach, press releases, press conferences, communications materials, and other messaging. WMATA representatives participated in COG’s PIO communications call to share its outreach efforts. The agency has a dedicated team focusing on communications on the platform improvement project. This communications team created signage, website updates, information at events, and more. The team has also provided presentations at community groups, business groups, for elected officials, and government agencies including the TPB Technical Committee. WMATA also used social media and paid advertising to get the word out. Two weeks before the shutdown, outreach teams handed out brochures at each of the affected stations.

WMATA is providing shuttle buses throughout the affected areas for those who need to travel through the Blue and Yellow Lines. Free parking is available at Franconia-Springfield, Huntington, and Van Dorn Street. Temporary bicycle parking is also available at all six closed stations.

WMATA has a dedicated website with information about the project at
wmata.com/platforms.

NVTC, City of Alexandria, VRE, and other activities

NVTC worked with WMATA to organize a Northern Virginia stakeholder group, bringing together transit operators, communications specialists, and other government agencies to plan, conduct meetings, and coordinate in advance of the station and service shutdown. Over the course of the shutdown, NVTC and WMATA will continue to coordinate check-ins with local jurisdictions to analyze and adjust for shifting travel patterns, communications, and operational changes.

Once the shutdown work is complete, NVTC is planning a marketing effort to bring back riders when the affected Blue and Yellow Line stations and service reopen. Under this project, NVTC will implement a multi-pronged marketing effort to persuade former and potential riders to return to Metrorail and other local public
transportation options.

The City of Alexandria has provided a website with an extensive list of options for commuters during the shutdown. The page includes information about WMATA shuttle buses, DASH buses, links to Commuter Connections to find a carpool or vanpool, information on biking, and how to receive a subsidy for the water taxi. People interested in using the water taxi may fill out a form for the subsidized rate. The water taxi runs between Old Town Alexandria and the Southwest Waterfront in the District of Columbia.

A commuter tools website also explains that there is free commuter parking available at Franconia-Springfield, Huntington, and Van Dorn Street and that temporary bike parking will also be available at all the closed Metrorail stations. For transit riders using the DASH bus mobile app, introductory fares are available for $1. The City of Alexandria also leased 200 parking spaces at Landmark Mall to facilitate carpooling and ridesharing during the shutdown. Permits for these spaces were handed out on May 28 but there is an option for people who are interested to be placed on a waitlist as spaces become available. The City of Alexandria is also offering discounted rates in city garages.

On its site, the City of Alexandria offers numerous alternative options including those mentioned above and provides more detailed maps from WMATA showing each of the shuttle bus routes. The website can be found at: alexandriava.gov/goalex/info/default.aspx?id=109697

VRE has also reached out to Virginia Metro riders in advance of the shutdown. VRE provided a dedicated website specifically to Metro riders to explain the VRE option. VRE representatives were also available in Alexandria to answer any questions Metro riders may have about using VRE. In an agreement with Amtrak, VRE riders can also use select Amtrak trains with a VRE ticket and there are discounted rates available during the shutdown. These options may alleviate crowding on VRE trains.

More information for Metro riders interested in using VRE as an option can be found at: vre.org/service/vre-isnt-just-for-long-distance-commutes.

Other jurisdictions including Fairfax and Arlington have also provided information on dedicated websites providing links to help their residents find alternate commuting options. Many jurisdictions have shared information across social media platforms, using the coordinated messages. Some bus routes in the counties are also adding some additional service.

While this year’s station shutdown is focused on the Blue and Yellow Lines, future stations will be shutdown as part of this on-going project. Next year, stations and service along the Orange Line will be shutdown to repair platforms there. The region will need to prepare for those shutdowns and may learn lessons from this summer’s work.