When the U.S. Department of Defense opened the BRAC 133 complex at Mark Center in August 2011, local residents and politicians alike predicted a traffic nightmare. Built to house 6,400 employees with limited parking and nowhere near a Metro station, Mark Center made an unfriendly home from a transportation perspective.
More than a year later, officials say the nightmare scenario of clogged neighborhood streets and backups onto I-395 never came to pass. More cars have added to congestion, acknowledged Rich Baier, Alexandria’s director of Transportation and Environmental Services, but DASH and Metrobus shuttle buses have helped minimize the number of additional cars on the road, as has vanpooling, carsharing and a parking cap.
The number of single-vehicle occupants who work at BRAC is less than half of the employees, Baier said.
“The number of people that are getting there by other means than a single-occupancy vehicle is actually higher than the number of people who are getting there by car, “ he said. “ … I think we’ve got a success story out of this.”
A Parking Cap and New Transit Options
There are 3,800 parking spaces available at Mark Center. In December, Congress capped parking at the BRAC complex at 2,000 spaces as part of the 2012 Omnibus Appropriations Bill at the request U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8th). Moran, along with Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb, worked to implement the parking cap until congestion around the site could be mitigated.
Moran spokeswoman Anne Hughes said the congressman has also included language in the fiscal year 2013 Military Construction Appropriations bill to keep the spots limited to 2,000. The congressman himself says the parking cap has made all the difference in the world.
“It was a legitimate concern, and it would have been a horrible nightmare if they had been allowed to use all 3,800 parking spaces,” Moran told Patch. “But by limiting the spaces they could use to 2,000, the nightmare was averted.”
However, Moran added that if traffic at nearby intersections continues to move freely and doesn’t reach failing levels of service, he would be willing to sit down with representatives from the Defense Department and the Virginia Department of Transportation to discuss incrementally lifting the parking cap.
Also, public transit is serving an increasing number of BRAC employees. In August 2011, DASH launched a Mark Center Express route, the AT2X, that runs during peak periods between Mark Center and the King Street Metro station.
“It’s been pretty popular,” said Raymond Mui, transit planning manager for DASH. “The route’s been increasing in ridership since the inception of the route, and it’s really popular among people who commute to Mark Center, especially traveling from the south.”
That includes VRE riders and riders on Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines, he said.
The first week the new bus was in place, it counted about 220 trips each week, with a daily average of 44 riders. The most recent week for which ridership data are available, the week of Aug. 27, the new route transported 1,626 riders for the week, with a daily average of 325 people.
Metrobus also has made changes to accommodate Mark Center employees. When BRAC opened, Metro added the 7M line, linking Mark Center to the Pentagon. Ridership on the 7M has increased 58 percent from September 2011 to September 2012 and is now counting more than 38,000 passenger trips per month, according to data provided by Metro spokesman Philip Stewart.
Additionally, ridership on three bus routes serving Mark Center — the 7A, 7F and 28X — increased from September 2011 to September of this year. Ridership on the 28X increased nearly 33 percent. However, ridership on the 7W and 7X routes between the Pentagon and Lincolnia fell over the same time period, likely due to the creation of the 7M line as an express alternative.
Monthly Monitoring of Streets Under Way
According to the legislation promoted by Moran, the parking cap remains in place unless traffic does not reach failing “levels of service” for 90 consecutive days. Then, the Defense Department could waive the cap if it and VDOT agree on the number of additional spaces that could be used.
Engineers rate a street’s level of service, or performance, as they would a school report card, with a level of A having a free flow and F having very congested conditions, said Project Manager Paul Prideaux, who is vice president of Michael Baker Jr., Inc., the contractor monitoring traffic conditions surrounding Mark Center for VDOT.
“From the monthly monitoring conducted over the last year, while some individual traffic movements occasionally show failing levels of service, we are not seeing overall failing levels of service at the intersections near the Mark Center,” Prideaux said in an email. “We do sometimes report failing levels of service at the intersection of Beauregard and Little River (Turnpike), but this was the case before the BRAC 133 facility began staffing and cannot be necessarily linked to that operation.
He continued: “Certainly there has been a steady increase in daily vehicle trips to the BRAC 133 facility over the last year. However, this has been offset by a recorded decrease in non-BRAC 133 (background) traffic during this same time at these same intersections."
Baier, with the city, said congestion has increased, but not to “horrible” levels.
“Looking at it from the numbers, the actual traffic volumes, the traffic is slightly worse, which would be expectation since before August 2012, when BRAC opened up,” he said.
Transportation Improvements Continue
Since BRAC opened its doors, transportation officials have made a number of adjustments to nearby roads and intersections, Baier said. These include two lanes of traffic coming off northbound I-395 heading west; signage improvements made to orient people into correct lane; and additional off-lanes to widen the ramp from northbound I-395.
Another project under construction adds an additional lane from eastbound Seminary Road to southbound I-395. Two additional lanes into Southern Towers are also being designed. Also, motorists traveling westbound on Seminary Road will have a right turn lane onto northbound Beauregard Street.
An $80 million flyover ramp to accommodate HOV traffic directly to Seminary Road won’t be finished until at least 2015, according to VDOT. Other short- and mid-term transportation improvements, including road-widening and lane restriping, have already been completed.
Original plans called for a pedestrian bridge from Southern Towers to the BRAC complex, but Alexandria City Council abandoned those plans this spring because the bridge was not recommended by the Beauregard Small Area Plan Work Group, which didn’t envision many people using a bridge, Baier said.
Prideaux said traffic conditions around Mark Center are still changing due to the fact that the facility is not yet fully staffed and that roadway improvements are still under way. The only ongoing monitoring of I-395 traffic operations has been at the northbound off-ramp to Seminary Road during weekday mornings and afternoons, he said.
That traffic is not backing up to the I-395 through lanes, which is VDOT’s biggest concern.
VDOT is also monitoring a few intersections in Fairfax County to determine if they are experiencing any additional congestion as a result of the BRAC staffing. These intersections include Seminary Road and George Mason Drive, Beauregard Street and Quantrell Avenue, and Beauregard Street and Little River Turnpike.
“In all of these locations, there has been no increase in traffic congestion during the last year while VDOT has been conducting the monitoring,” Prideaux told Patch.
Since August of 2011, VDOT has been doing monthly monitoring including traffic counts at ten nearby intersection as well as eye-witness photography for these same locations to create a record of changes in traffic operations.
“I think we’re making the most of a difficult situation,” Moran said. “I still believe it should not have been built there, but given the fact it was built there, I think we’ve mitigated some of the worst of the potential ramifications.”