The Mother of DASH Is Starting a New Chapter
By Kris Gilbertson
This is the story of how a young girl from Brooklyn, New York, grew up to create DASH, “the best bus system in the world,”—and where she’s going from here.
Sandy Modell was raised in the most urban of American environments, but on summer vacations upstate, she came to love the mountains, the animals, the tranquility of the countryside. Back home, she fed this love by collecting farm catalogs that promised a different life. Her dad encouraged her, but she says, “he was just placating me.”
This was the mid-1970s. New York City teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Graffiti covered everything, fixed or moving. Sandy’s bike was stolen three times. “I decided one day that I really wanted to live in the country,” she says.
During her freshman year at Brooklyn College, the brother of a high school friend and his new wife set off on a cross-country quest to find the “perfect” place to live. When they reached Harrisonburg, Virginia, a town of fewer than 20,000 in the Shenandoah Valley, they went no farther. Over spring break, Sandy and her friend went to visit.
“I was in awe of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the farms. Even in upstate New York you don’t have that feeling of being surrounded by the mountains. I thought I died and went to heaven,” she says. “I made a goal that within a year, I wanted to live there.”
Modell was an ace field hockey player in Brooklyn and Harrisonburg’s Madison College (soon to become James Madison University) had an award-winning field hockey team. She applied and, second semester of her sophomore year, started life in Harrisonburg. She boarded on a dairy farm.
Modell first found work grading papers in the women’s athletic program office. Next she tried a job in food service, but two hours spent cutting lettuce and tomatoes convinced her that was not what she wanted to do with the rest of her college life. Then she read an ad for drivers in a bus system being created by the City of Harrisonburg.
Transition from Private to Public
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, private bus companies around the country were going bankrupt. “Public transit doesn’t turn a profit,” Modell says. “There’s no money in it. People don’t understand that.”
The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 started a flow of federal money for localities to assume transit functions as private companies got out of the business.
But Harrisonburg didn’t have a real bus system. They’d had 10 private cab companies acting like a bus system, moving people who depended on transit. The new Harrisonburg Public Transportation Department was starting up with just four Checker cabs and a few vans and mini-buses.
Part-timers need not apply
Modell thought driving part-time would be a great college job, but Reggie Smith, head of the department then (and still today) was clear that he wanted only full-time drivers.
“I said what about when someone calls in sick or takes vacation? Won’t you need part-time drivers then?” Modell says. “No, he was just going with full-time.
“A lot of things have transpired in my life, sort of an alignment of the stars,” she adds. “About a month later I got a call from him, ‘can I come work part-time’? And thank God I did because if he never called me, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
Modell stayed with the transit system after college. If it wasn’t what she had envisioned — she really liked recreation and thought it would make a great career — still, it fulfilled her goal of working in public service.
The department consisted of Smith, Modell, some drivers and dispatchers. Sandy learned dispatching, scheduling, route design, even some maintenance and how to be a road supervisor. She organized door-to-door paratransit service. Then one day Reggie Smith asked if she could write a grant. “I said, I don’t know if I can write a grant, but I’m a good writer so give me the material and I’ll write it,” she says. “So I wrote a grant and suddenly we had money for buses.”
With new buses and steady system growth, Modell ultimately folded the college bus system (“I couched it that they were responsible for education and we were responsible for transportation”) and the school bus system into the city transit department. Modell worked up to Transit Administrator, second in command to Reggie Smith.
Time for change
“One reason I left Harrisonburg,” says Modell, “was I didn’t think Reggie was ever going to leave. I had this passion for public transportation and for working with employees. I’m a Leo; I felt the need to lead an organization.
“I was there for 10 years and loved every minute of it. I miss the tranquility of the Shenandoah Valley. But being originally from Brooklyn, I also felt a need for more diversity.”
In October 1983, Modell read a Washington Post ad for a transit coordinator for a start-up bus system in Alexandria, a city of 105,000 residents. She did not apply.
“I had come up here in a Checker cab for a Virginia Transit Association conference in ’82. My recollection was, the cab had jump seats and I had eight people in it, like a tiny bus,” she says. “We were meeting at the Seaport Inn for dinner, so I was going down King Street and we were stuck in traffic. We just sat and sat. I turned to everybody and said ‘Who the heck would want to live here?’”
Despite knowing that building a new transit system would be an exciting challenge, Alexandria
traffic kept her looking elsewhere.
In December 1983, the Post ad ran again. “By then I had forgotten how bad the traffic was up here. I said, you know, I should apply because aside from some traffic, Alexandria was sort of a pretty place. Very historic. I liked the Seaport Inn, and King Street was pretty cool.”
She got the job.
With Urban Transit Act money available, in 1967 the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was created to develop transportation in the Capital region. WMATA initially focused solely on rapid rail service but, in 1972, President Nixon signed legislation authorizing WMATA’s purchase of four privately owned bus companies to form Metrobus.
DC Metrorail opened in 1976, consisting of just one line with five stations in the District, but soon expanded. It reached Alexandria in 1983. Although bus routes had always run throughout the metro area without regard to state boundaries, when the rail system came in, local jurisdictions balked at supporting parallel multi-state routes.
Alexandria’s Mayor Charles Beatley advocated for a local system with smaller buses that could penetrate more neighborhoods and respond faster to community problems. For example, because Metrobus covers such a huge area, it could take weeks to repair minor damage at a single bus stop.
“At DASH, that (damage) gets fixed tomorrow,” says Modell, “and our buses were going to be new and clean. The problem with Metro at that time was, because the focus was so much on rail, the buses basically went to Hell in a handbasket.”
Chairman of the Board of the new Alexandria Transit Company was William Hurd, who would serve for 23 years. Hurd also was a member of the Alexandria Transportation Planning Board, the Alexandria Planning Commission, and the Northern Virginia Regional Planning Commission, and he chaired the Alexandria School Board through desegregation.
“Mr. Hurd was an amazing, consummate transportation professional,” says Modell. “I was 28 years old, and he made a big impression on me in terms of how transit should run, the quality of service, back-to-basics, no-nonsense approach. He guided me through Alexandria politics and how to get support for what you want to do. We agreed that one of the most important things you can have in an organization is the people who work for you.”
Driving Alexandria Safely Home
The fledgling bus system needed a name. After much consultation, the top choices were MAX (Metropolitan Area Express), CATS (City of Alexandria Transit System — we could put paw prints on the bus stops…!), and DASH.
MAX was leading “because it was masculine,” Modell says. “I said, why do we need a bus system with a masculine name? I thought DASH would be a great name—DASH here, DASH there. Little by little, I garnered support for DASH. So then we had a name, but we didn’t know what it stood for. In my 10th year, I got tired of explaining what DASH did not stand for, so we held an internal contest to come up with a full name. An employee won with Driving Alexandria Safely Home.”
DASH first moved into a renovated CSX property down the street from current headquarters. It was not a good fit. “At the time,” says Modell, “it was thought that all we’d ever need was a building for 30 buses. Six months after we moved in, we had 33.
“We were there for 20 years. By the time we moved out, we had 65 buses. There was no room to grow; we had people working on top of each other. It wasn’t a quality place. We’ll have been here (in the new building) seven years in October, but it took 15 years to get the support and funding to get it built.”
DASH moved into its new $35 million, 160,000 square foot, LEED certified DASH Maintenance, Operations, and Administration Facility in November 2009. It was named in honor of William Hurd, who died in October 2008.
Breaking a smile
DASH’s new home includes space to garage 85+ buses and trolleys, a quiet room for drivers who have a split shift, and a fitness room. “The City was, like, why do you need that?” says Modell. “I said our people are high risk, health-wise, and it’s a sedentary job. To encourage people to exercise, it’s nice to have an area where they can exercise.” DASH employees have experienced tangible health benefits, like lost weight, and lower blood pressure and blood sugar.
“One of my mantras is,” Sandy says, “if you treat your employees like kings and queens, they will go out and treat the customers like kings and queens. If your employees aren’t happy, that’s probably not going to happen.
“When you get on a DASH bus, it will be clean, well-maintained, on time, and the driver’s going to be friendly. You know, you can’t teach friendly. We try to hire people who have that talent already. Then we train them to bring it to a higher level,” she adds. “Our drivers have to want to break a smile.”
Women in a man’s industry
When Sandy Modell was promoted in 1989 to general manager of DASH, she was the third woman in the country in that position. She found it hard to have a voice in meetings because everyone was bigger, taller, and louder.
“I wanted to make transit friendlier to women,” she says. “There are a lot of requirements to become a bus driver, which is good, but one that kept women out was that they had to have experience driving a bus. I thought about it and said, why? Maybe we say ‘experience preferred’. What if a woman drove a Frito-Lay truck, or a moving truck? What if they have no experience, but their customer service is very high? Maybe we teach them.
“I changed the requirement to transit experience preferred, not required, and we trained a number of women who were just friendly, with good customer service, and could communicate well. We have one woman here who drives the trolley. She didn’t have transit bus experience, and she’s one of our top trolley people. I feel like I made a difference here in the city, and with DASH, in opening doors for women.”
In 2010, the Alexandria Commission for Women honored Modell with its Leadership in Business and Career Development Award.
Sticking with DASH
Modell has been recruited by Metro and other systems around the country. “I decided soon after I got to Alexandria, I didn’t want to leave,” she says, “I had this wonderful, wonderful group of employees almost from the very beginning, a wonderful board of directors, an amazing chairman in Mr. Hurd—anybody in my industry would have been so jealous that I got to work with Mr. Hurd—and a city government that is so supportive of what we do here.
“We grew in fits and starts, we didn’t have a grand plan —DASH was going to be 30 buses and that was it. The problem was that DASH was catching on, DASH fever. People would ride it and go, ‘Oh my God, this is great!’ Ridership outgrew the buses we had.
“So I’ve had a great life. I didn’t see any need to leave that in order to go to a bigger system, so I just grew this system.”
From DASH to Dogs
When Sandy moved to Alexandria, she brought along a Redbone Coonhound named Bones. One day, she met a woman with a dog that looked like a Redbone, but the woman said no, it’s a Vizsla. Sandy had never heard of a Vizsla so, this being pre-Internet days, she got a library book.
“The Vizsla is called a Velcro dog because they want to be with you everywhere,” she says. “If they could lie on your head, they would. Great personalities, very clean, they don’t smell. I thought when Bones passed, I would find me a Vizsla.”
But when Bones died at 16 ½ years, Modell decided she hadn’t been dog-free for so long that she would wait a year before getting another. “I wanted to be spontaneous,” she says, “free of animals.”
That lasted five weeks.
She answered an ad in the Post for a two-year-old Vizsla owned by a weekend hunter an hour and a half away on the Eastern Shore. He said the dog was gun shy, no good for hunting, and had lived in an outdoor kennel for a year and a half.
“It was Sunday afternoon,” says Modell, “I told him I really would like to see her but I had stuff to do. I’d call later in the week and maybe come next weekend. He said a farmer in Iowa wanted him to fly her out there sight unseen. I said, well, I just couldn’t come. Then, as he was about to hang up I said, by the way, what’s her name?
He said ‘Brooklyn.’ I said, I’ll see you in an hour and a half.”
Brooklyn was a mess. The hunter had never had a Vizsla and didn’t know they must be carefully acclimated to loud noises, like gunfire. He’d made her gun shy. “She was skinny and dirty, and did smell,” says Modell. “I couldn’t see leaving her there.
“I brought her home, took off the leash, and she proceeded to jump on everything — the couch, the dining room table, jump on this, jump on that, run madly through the house, leaping, leaping. I sat back on a recliner and thought, what did I just do? Suddenly she leapt on my lap, put her head down on my chest, and gave a big sigh, like I’m so happy to be here.”
Modell had never trained an adult dog with behavior issues. Her long-time vet recommended a local trainer holding group classes. Right off, Brooklyn and a white French poodle lashed out at each other. The trainer said Brooklyn needed a choke chain. “When she starts to act up, you jerk on it and she’ll stop.” Sandy did this a couple of times, she says, “and Brooklyn just looked up at me like ‘what are you doing, I thought we were friends.’”
The choke chain progressed to a prong collar, a standard in dog training at the time. What Modell was learning went against her every instinct, and she was deeply distressed when she read an ad in the Post for Camp Gone to the Dogs in Vermont. “I looked at Brooklyn and said, we need to go to camp.
“So Brooklyn and I go off to Vermont. I bring the prong collar and the choke chain with me because that’s what they’re going to use, right? I pull up at the school and there are trainers in a field with dogs. They all have half aprons from Home Depot, filled with treats. Every time a dog does something right, it gets a treat. I thought, that makes sense.”
Positive Response Training
Within an hour and a half of arriving, the prong collar and choke chain were in the trash. “I found the world of positive response training, I loved it, and I trained Brooklyn. She competed in obedience and agility, and she won ribbons. She was one of the best dogs I ever had, but I would never have discovered she could be such a great dog using those old methods because there was no relationship building.”
Sandy went back to camp the next year (and every year since). Within two years she was training other people’s dogs. She went to PRT and clicker training workshops and, through the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, became a certified professional positive reinforcement dog trainer.
In addition to private clients, Modell wanted to teach group classes and found that, unlike Fairfax, Alexandria’s recreation department didn’t offer them. She met a trainer who was developing a program to take to the City, but soon that woman decided to move to Florida and asked if Sandy knew anyone who would talk to the City about doing group classes?
“Well, I could do that,” says Modell. “She gave me her curriculum, but it was all the old-fashioned stuff so I threw it in the trash. My classes were to start in September 2002, this was June. I needed to put together a curriculum. I went up to camp and it turned out that one of the best-known, internationally renowned instructors gave a course that week, sort of a master train the trainer. At the end, she handed me her curriculum for Family Dog One. That year I used it exact, but each year, of course, I’ve molded it into my own program.”
That September, she taught class outside at Chinquapin. The next session was scheduled for November in the cold, so she told the recreation department she needed a building. They said dogs were not allowed in City buildings, no exceptions. It took some finagling that involved the city attorney, but Modell got her classes indoors and finally settled into the old Duron Paint building in Arlandria. “It’s been a great building,” she says, “but it’s not my building.”
A New Chapter
Wholistic Hound, Sandy Modell’s canine academy and learning center, will open in the fall at 18 Roth Street. The academy will provide training, not daycare, and Modell envisions it becoming the gateway to dog central in Alexandria. “Arlington’s dog row is along Four Mile Run,” she says. “Now people will be able to stay right here in Alexandria and take agility classes and nose work and manners classes.
“Alexandria has over 40,000 dogs in the city and many owners don’t know how to enjoy being with their dog in a way where the dog is trained to be calmer. Dogs are so wound up, alone all day in their crates. They’re not calm animals. We want to teach people how to train their dogs to be calmer, more relaxed, more focused on them.
“Dogs react to noises and people and dogs that they don’t know. Particularly rescue dogs aren’t used to seeing all these dogs. They may have been on a farm or running loose on a rural road. They may have never seen another dog, then they come to Alexandria, and this is Dogville.”
Working in concert with nearby daycares like Dogtopia and Frolick Dogs, she says, “I want to help daycare attendants and dog walkers learn dog body language, interactions, communication, so that when they go into a home, they can lower the risk of getting bitten, and also make it a higher-quality time for the dog.
“And we are going to do a lot with children. I already work with families with young children, and expectant parents. Their whole life is changing, and their dog’s life is changing. There’s a lot of work to be done, which I don’t think families realize.
“I want to have a training workshop for police officers dealing with domestic issues, and partner with the City to make our dog parks safer. There’s ways to do that. I’ve worked with the Vola Lawson shelter and get a lot of referrals from Animal Welfare Leagues of Alexandria and Arlington. And the rescue groups—I want to be known to all of them as the main person to call in Alexandria when they have a dog that needs training.
“Wholistic Hound is about the whole dog and the whole family. Consistency is key to how dogs learn. The whole idea is for the dog to understand that everybody in the family is involved in the relationship.”
Sandy tried to locate the academy in Del Ray where she has lived for years, but now thinks its location a block from DASH headquarters is better. “I have many clients in Del Ray and they will come to this facility, it’s not that far. It’s not far from Rosemont, it’s not far from Old Town, it has access to 95 and 395 — and it’s got great parking.”
“I want Wholistic Hound to offer a variety of services and programs, partnerships within the community with residents, working with local government and nonprofits, working with children, kids in canine camps in the summer, kids come to camp with their dogs — wouldn’t that be great. There’s so many things Wholistic Hound can offer in a way that’s never been done in Alexandria.
“Positive training took a long time to take hold in the industry, but it’s state-of-the-art now. I have a cadre of professional dog trainers and training consultants who want to see this succeed because every training center that opens that offers positive training might move people who are still using old-fashioned methods to cross over to more humane and fun ways to train a dog.”
On leaving DASH
“It’s not like I’m moving across the country,” she says, “I’ll still be here in the city, a stone’s throw away if DASH needs me for anything.
“We set the bar for transit in Alexandria and in this region, and it wouldn’t hurt for everybody to be a little more like DASH in terms of quality of service, in terms of employee relations, in terms of having a culture internally that is so positive that it then spreads to the customer.
“Everything I do here at DASH resonates from my positive reinforcement training. In a lot of ways I’m taking that whole philosophy, the culture that I’ve built here, and just moving it across the street. I believe that the culture here is so strong that, even though I’m going to be gone, the culture will continue.
“One day I might serve like Mr. Hurd, be chairwoman of the board. I have a wealth of transit knowledge and I would love to continue to give back to the community.”
“I believe in fate. When I got the job with the City,” says Modell, “on my way out of the interview I asked one of the panel members why the job had been advertised again. She said the original applications had been lost.
“And that’s enough right there, but there’s more. They shortlisted three people. I was one of them, but they did not know me at all. They knew the other two and had, in fact, worked closely with one of them. They offered her the job first, but so much time had gone by because of the lost applications that now she was moving to Chicago. So they called the second one, but he had accepted a job in New Hampshire. Then they called me.
“There wasn’t any way that I could have not taken this job. I was meant to be here. I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you in my corner office at DASH, running the best bus system in the world, talking about my future as owner of the most amazing dog training academy in the world, if both of those careers hadn’t been basically fated to me. If it wasn’t for Brooklyn, I wouldn’t be going there.”
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Alexandria, VA 22314
18 Roth Street
Alexandria, VA 22314