Fairfax County is on track to host Virginia’s first state-funded self-driving public transportation project after receiving a grant for an autonomous electric shuttle pilot planned for the Merrifield area.
The Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a $250,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation on June 19 that the county will supplement with $50,000 in local funds.
Expected to connect passengers from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro Station to the Mosaic District, the electric shuttle pilot will be one of the first tests of driverless technology in public transportation in Virginia, according to Fairfax County officials.
“Fairfax County has a number of transportation challenges, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. We’re looking for multimodal ways to address our transportation challenges,” Fairfax County Department of Transportation director Tom Biesiadny said. “…This shuttle extends our transit system. It provides new technology, something we haven’t tried in Fairfax before.”
Fairfax County has partnered with the power company Dominion Energy for the project, though a formal agreement between the two entities still needs to be approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
A vote on the proposed memorandum of agreement has been scheduled for the board’s June 25 meeting.
According to the memorandum, the pilot program, which is officially called the Fairfax County Connected Autonomous Vehicle Demonstration Project, will function as a shared-ride shuttle service designed to bridge the first and last miles of travel between a transit center and residential mixed-use development.
The project’s goal is to “further explore and assess the potential benefits, impacts, and opportunities associated with new smart utility and transportation technologies” in the hopes of developing clean energy-based public transportation to reduce the county’s carbon emissions.
“Electric vehicles are the future of transportation,” Dominion Energy Chief Innovation Officer Mark Webb said. “…The benefits will mean reduced vehicular emissions, less traffic on the roads, smarter vehicles, and this will lead, we believe, to increased use of public transportation, which is a benefit to all of us.”
Under the agreement, Fairfax County would oversee all shuttle operations, including route planning and testing as well as storage arrangements. Dominion Energy will be responsible for soliciting the vehicle, providing electrical charging infrastructure, training staff on the technical operation of the shuttle, and paying all taxes associated with acquiring the shuttle.
While the county has not finalized the route that the shuttle will take, the plan is to operate the vehicle in a 25 mile-per-hour speed limit corridor with signalized intersections and mixed traffic, including bicycles and pedestrians, according to the memorandum of agreement.
The pilot is expected to last a year from the date when the shuttle begins public operations. Final reports on the project will be delivered both the shuttle operator or provider and a third party.
The Board of Supervisors authorized the Fairfax County Department of Transportation to apply for grant funding from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s Fiscal Year 2020 Project Demonstration Program on Jan. 22, when the board also approved using $50,000 from the county’s Economic Development Support fund to match the DRPT grant.
The Fairfax County Economic Development Support fund contains one-time seed money for investments in capital development projects, real estate, and programming support for economic development activities that are expected to bring economic benefits to the county.
Under the proposed memorandum of agreement, Dominion Energy would have the option to cover the shortfall amount if Fairfax County determines that the state grant and local funds are insufficient to ensure the shuttle’s continued operation for the full one-year term.
According to the county, the Virginia Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will both have authority to conduct safety reviews of the CAV Demonstration Project, which will put the shuttle through testing before beginning passenger service and have a safety steward on board to monitor operations.
While the Merrifield shuttle will be unique as a use of public funds, it is not the only self-driving vehicle planned for Fairfax County.
Real estate developer Brookfield Properties announced on Feb. 7 that it had partnered with the self-driving vehicle technology company Optimus Ride to deploy autonomous cars at its $1.4 billion mixed-use Halley Rise development in Reston.
Construction on the 3.5 million square-foot property was expected to begin in the middle of 2019, but during its May 22 meeting, the Fairfax County Planning Commission approved an amendment to the development plan requested by Brookfield to redistribute planned residential space.
Located at the former Reston Crescent adjacent to the future Reston Town Center Metro station, Halley Rise will be anchored by Reston’s first Wegman’s Food Market, which is scheduled for a June 2020 opening.
The CAV Demonstration Project and Brookfield’s partnership with Optimus Ride highlight the growing viability of electric vehicles as a more environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline-fueled transportation.
The Fairfax County Operational Energy Strategy adopted by the Board of Supervisors on July 10, 2018 committed the county to installing Level 2 charging infrastructure at up to 20 major government facilities by 2023 and making 5 percent of all purchased government passenger vehicles electric or plug-in hybrid by 2030.
In a first step toward fulfilling that goal, county staff proposed installing electric vehicle charging stations at up to 20 county facilities over two consecutive years to the Board of Supervisors during its Feb. 12 environmental committee meeting.
The total cost of the charging stations was estimated at $1.5 million over two years with the county allocating $750,000 for the first set of stations and contracting with a private company that would own, operate, and maintain the stations.
A Fairfax County community greenhouse gas inventory found that vehicles accounted for 37 percent of the county’s total emissions in 2010 with passenger cars producing the most gases of any vehicle and seeing an increase of nearly 4 percent over the five years surveyed by the study.
Transportation produced 28.9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, making it the largest contributing source, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition to signaling a pivot to cleaner energy, the CAV Demonstration Project is part of Fairfax County’s efforts to encourage commuters to use alternative travel modes, such as public transportation, biking, and carpooling, instead of driving alone.
Like the Capital Bikeshare stations that have been proliferating around the county, the shuttle in Merrifield would help save travelers from having to get in their car to make a short trip to the nearby Metro station.
“That last-mile connection is really important to make transit work, to make transit attractive to people,” Biesiadny said.