Ronald Kirby, top D.C. region transportation planner, slain in Alexandria home


The home on Elm Street in Alexandria where Ronald Kirby was shot to death on Monday. (Matt Zapotosky/The Washington Post)

A man who helped shape the region’s transportation policy for a quarter-century was fatally shot inside his Alexandria home Monday in a stunning incident that has police — and his many friends in politics and the media — searching for an explanation.

Officials said Tuesday that Ronald Kirby, 69, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, died of multiple gunshot wounds to the torso and that the medical examiner had deemed the case a homicide.

Alexandria Police Chief Earl L. Cook said the slaying should not be taken as “cause for tremendous alarm” among residents of Kirby’s neighborhood, but he would not say whether Kirby might have been specifically targeted.

“We don’t know that at this point,” Cook said. “It’s too early to eliminate any possibility.”

News of Kirby’s death sent shock waves through political and media circles, in which Kirby was known as a personable policy wonk who could translate impenetrable transportation jargon into plain English — with a trademark Aussie accent.

“He was really a brilliant man,” said Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic. “He brought a very informed voice of reason to some very contentious regional transportation debates. He was just a prince of a guy.”

Kirby had worked for the Council of Governments for more than 25 years and was director of transportation planning for COG’s National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. He was often quoted in news reports, and he was known among transportation experts and public officials as someone who could bring a regional viewpoint to transportation debates.

At home

When not at work, Kirby, the father of two adult children, enjoyed playing tennis and going to dance classes with his wife, said Robert Griffiths, a longtime COG colleague. Griffiths said Kirby also liked living in Alexandria, where he could walk to the waterfront, shops and restaurants, and he took pride in being part of a one-car family. Kirby often took buses or Metrorail instead of his wife’s Mini Cooper.

Originally from Adelaide, Australia, Kirby told Washingtonian Magazine in 2004 that he came to love the Washington area’s “rich culture” after his “meat-and-potatoes” upbringing by a father who worked as a butcher, electrician and movie-theater projectionist.

He told the magazine that his two adult children were adopted from the Philippines.

On Friday, he had talked with another colleague about his belief that his beloved Washington Redskins were making a comeback, Griffiths said. Griffiths also said that he and Kirby had talked recently about whether they wanted to retire and that Kirby said he wasn’t ready.

“He really enjoyed what he was doing day in and day out,” Griffiths said. “He said he couldn’t see himself sitting at home reading books. It was the intellectual engagement with our board and with elected officials that he really enjoyed.”

Cook and other Alexandria police officials said that a relative found Kirby — unconscious and obviously wounded — about 12:30 p.m. Monday. Kirby was last seen alive “after sunrise” Monday, Cook said, declining to discuss the circumstances in detail.

Ashley Hildebrandt, an Alexandria police spokeswoman, said there were no obvious signs of forced entry at the house, and Cook would not say whether anything was stolen.

Kirby’s home at Elm Street and Johnston Place remained cordoned off with yellow police tape Tuesday, and two Alexandria police cruisers were stationed outside.

Neighbors said the first indication of trouble was when police showed up Monday, Veterans Day. They said they knew Kirby as a kind and gentle man who would often chat with them at block parties.

A ‘shock’

The incident reverberated far beyond the quiet neighborhood streets. Among those who spoke fondly of Kirby after his death were D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) and Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D), who called Kirby “a transportation guru.”

Kathy Porter, a former mayor of Takoma Park who served on the Transportation Planning Board for 15 years, until 2007, said Kirby “probably knows more about transportation issues in the region than anybody.”

Officials credited Kirby with helping establish a program to monitor regional traffic day to day as well as during big events and emergencies. David F. Snyder, vice mayor of Falls Church, said Kirby was particularly good at working with all sides in the debate over whether the region’s gridlock can best be relieved through building more roads or expanding public transit.

“There are few people who are irreplaceable, but he comes as close to it as anyone,” Snyder said.

At the COG office where Kirby worked, employees grappled with a mixture of shock and grief Tuesday. Gerald Miller, director of program coordination in the transportation department, said Kirby had just handed in his final edits Friday on a decade-long project to coordinate regional transit goals. Stuart Freudberg, senior director of environment, public safety and health for COG, said he sat for three hours when he learned about Kirby’s death.

COG’s executive director, Chuck Bean, said the organization was “devastated by the loss.”

“It’s shock today, grief tomorrow, honor the next day,” Bean said, speaking to reporters who went to the office Tuesday. “And then we will muster the resolve and we will find the determination to propel forward Ron’s vision for our region.”

Lori Aratani, Leah Binkovitz, Alice Crites, Mike DeBonis, Dana Hedgpeth, Jennifer Jenkins, Robert McCartney and Robert Thomson contributed to this report.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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