Greater Greater Washington

PG building edge cities, neglecting Metro stations

Prince George's County leaders are very proud that Konterra Town Center is moving forward. It's a huge development at I-95 and the future Intercounty Connector in Laurel. It's even bigger and just as auto-dependent as their other totally transit-inaccessible edge city, National Harbor, which, after building itself far from transit, started complaining about the lack of transit.


Cheverly station. Photo by Genista on Flickr.

The county is working hard at making the same mistake with Konterra, which will generate a huge amount of traffic on the ICC, 95, and the Beltway. Konterra is "New Urbanism," but New Urbanism in a highway-only area generates as much traffic as old sprawl. Meanwhile, Prince George's County contains the first and second lowest ridership stations in the Metro system (Morgan Boulevard and Cheverly) among its 15 underutilized stations. Many PG County Metro stations have large, sparsely developed land around them, whether low-density housing, huge park-and-ride lots, industrial warehouses, or all of the above. And the eastern ends of the Orange and Blue Lines are the parts of the Metro system with the greatest excess capacity.

It may be a bit politically easier to build a huge development in the middle of nowhere. And I can understand the appeal of building a shiny new city without hewing to existing constraints or NIMBY neighbors. But it's a recipe for a traffic disaster. The article quotes Dennis Cook, of the West Laurel Civic Association, who worries that Konterra isn't planning the right numbers of jobs and residences to minimize the amount of new commuter traffic.

Maryland officials, with pressure from the developers, are pushing for a Green Line extension to BWI which would go through Konterra. That would be enormously expensive, and we already have a train to BWI: MARC. Instead of spending billions on the Green Line, Maryland should beef up MARC to transit-level service, perhaps adding extra passing tracks so more trains can coexist with Amtrak. Plus, MARC already goes through already-settled areas (like Laurel) which could benefit from development.

If Prince George's had no place to build, a New Urban community would be better than more classic sprawl. But they have plenty of good places inside the Beltway and next to Metro stations.

Update: Ryan Avent argues Prince George's has few appealing options, given their poor financial position, and better regional planning and financing could create a better outcome for everyone.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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Upgrading MARC to weekend and off hours would be great! It's a simpler fix than extending the Green Line to BWI or trying to implement a light rail--which I love BTW. Rather than wait for a decade to build a new line, just work with what we have.

Oh sorry--there I go making sense again. I just don't fit in with the DC political braintrust.

by Even Evan on Aug 21, 2008 9:50 am • linkreport

One thing they could do to improve service to BWI would be to extend the light rail to the MARC/Amtrak station and eventually to a station on the Camden line, in addition to improving service on MARC (namely the Camden and Penn lines in this case, although improving service on the Brunswick line is also a good idea, it just doesn't really help service to BWI). As for Konterra, the eastern edge of the land they have is near a MARC station, they could 1) make better use of that land and 2) provide regular service to/from the MARC station and/or the Greenbelt Metro station.

by Mario on Aug 21, 2008 10:38 am • linkreport

First, Maryland has been looking at ways to upgrade MARC. The problem with that so far is that they don't own the tracks. Amtrak can't run more trains. They currently staff the Penn Line that runs on their Northeast Corridor tracks. They don't have enough staff to staff more MARC trains. They also don't have more time on the schedule that can accomodate more MARC trains. As for the Brunswick and Camden lines, those rails are both owned by CSX. CSX refuses to give MARC any more time, period. They are concerned about more passenger trains making the freight train schedule untenable. In order for MARC to be upgraded to something more than commuter rail, the state will have to build redundant rails that they own and control all along the routes. That just might cost enough to make heavy rail seem reasonable from a cost standpoint. I personally would like to see a completed Purple Line long before any Green Line extension but that's just me.

I have mixed feelings about Konterra. I give them credit for using a New Urbanist development style. People will live there. It's not going to be just a mall turned inside out. It will reduce auto trips in that people can live in walking distance to jobs and retail. It is not ideal that it's not going to be hooked up to any existing transit. It's sort of a wash on that one.

As far as development on Metros, check out PG Plaza. The county is sort of using that one as their test case. They have redeveloped a couple of parking lots into shops, supermarkets, condos, and a movie theater. It's a start. It's admittedly a slow start. The county is working out plans for the Greenbelt Metro. They are working to see how the multiyear drama regarding the DC United stadium works out. If the team does not get the stadium in Poplar Point, they will talk to PG Co. about sites on PG County Metros. An urban stadium without surface parking that is transit dependent would make an excellent anchor for any new TOD.

So, the picture is not as bleak as it first seems. However, it's far from ideal.

by Cavan on Aug 21, 2008 10:42 am • linkreport

I for one dont think the Green line should be extended to BWI. However what about a new line going to BWI;

New line run from New Carrolton to BWI that runs through central PG County

New Line from DC that runs to BWI on completely new Tracks through central PG County up route 1 then 201 then over to Glendale, Bowie, Ft. Meade and to BWI from the east

Turn the Purple line into heavyrail and having it follow the Greenline north and continue to Columbia instead of New Carrolton or Have Purple Line follow current route to Riverdale and then north through central PG County to BWI

Each of the current lines excluding the Yellow Line are already long as hell why do we need to make them longer instead of just making new lines

by kk on Aug 21, 2008 12:30 pm • linkreport

>New Urbanism in a highway-only area generates as much traffic as old sprawl.

That's not necessarily true. To get there you have to drive, sure, but once there you don't need to drive from internal destination to internal destination.

Urbanism well-connected to transit is much more desirable, I agree, but it's not a zero sum game. Urbanism disconnected from transit is still definitely better than normal sprawl.

by BeyondDC on Aug 21, 2008 12:38 pm • linkreport

"Turn the Purple line into heavyrail and having it follow the Greenline north and continue... "

While I admire your ability to dream, I think it's best to leave the Purple Line out of this one. It's its own project with its own planning and engineering. It is ready to go for federal funding in the fall. Let's not mix up a very real and practical and immediate project with something for the farther future. The NIMBY's are already throwing out "alternatives" to try to delay and obfuscate and hopefully cancel this highly useful and currently in demand project that will connect currently existing transit centers and towns. Please don't give them any ideas.

The Purple Line will improve the infrastructure in northern PG Co. and provide more tools for TOD. It is separate from David's ideas about National Harbor and Konterra.

by Cavan on Aug 21, 2008 1:08 pm • linkreport

Konterra is next to the Muirkirk MARC station. It's not walking distance from most of the development, but close enough to run shuttles. This may not be a politically correct thing to say, but Prince George's County will benefit from a development that is far, far away from anything else in Prince George's County.

Where it is happening, though, Prince George's is doing a decent job with TOD - Greenbelt Station in Greenbelt, University Town Center and the Metro Shops (which is poorly laid out, but it'll have to do) at Prince George's Plaza, East Campus at College Park, not to mention the town center going up at Branch Avenue. I heard they're also starting something at Cheverly (I think it's Cheverly).

by dan reed on Aug 21, 2008 1:27 pm • linkreport

Konterra is the only reason that the Green line extension is being considered. The Gould family is powerful and well connected. They bought a piece of land that was kinda worthless without the ICC. No one except the Goulds wanted the ICC and yet here it is. And guess who made a lot of money when the deal went through.

Now they're trying to do the same thing with the Green line. If you want to connect Fort Meade and BWI with Metro - debatable - why not use the rail line that already runs next to both? That would be the Penn line which the Orange line uses. If you use the Green Line, somewhere you're going to have to cross over and that will be pricey.

by VC on Aug 21, 2008 4:02 pm • linkreport

If this Gould family is willing to pay to extend the Green line to Konterra then I say 'go for it'. (Of course, I would guess they'd be looking for the state to pay for most of the cost)

by Mario on Aug 21, 2008 6:30 pm • linkreport

First, I strongly agree with BeyondDC that new urbanism can work there. Density around highways makes almost as much sense as density around transit. Secondly, the Muirkirk station on the MARC is less than a mile away from downtown Konterra's site. This is roughly the sam distance as PG Plaza and West Hyattsville stations are from the new development in downtown Hyattsville. No one is complaining about that development.

Next, Metro needs to run to all three airports. The Camden Line on MARC is a joke. The DC and Baltimore Metros ought to be covering that entire route on separate tracks. Cutting the Green line over in the median of 32 (there's plenty of room) would not be that expensive, plus then you could put stops at NSA and the South Gate at Fort Meade, which are also desperately needed. MARC is not going to be a full transit system. There's only one stop in the District, and the park-and-ride style stations on the Camden Line don't spur an ounce of TOD anywhere in Prince George's County.

As for the rest of the county, they were among the last Metro stations to go up. TOD doesn't happen overnight in existing development. Remember Silver Spring had the Red Line long before it became the urban explosion that it is now. The Green Line wasn't completed until 1999. The Blue was finished in 2004. Before all those stations came about, the Orange Line was just a dump collecting all the ridership in PG County (which is why New Carrollton is among the highest riderships for a station).

PG is happening, but it's hard to see since they got their train stations long after everyone else in the region.

by Dave Murphy on Aug 21, 2008 10:32 pm • linkreport

Why should Metro run to all three airports? Why airports? Why Metro? Why wouldn't some sort of express rail make more sense? Do you know how long it would take to get to BWI from DC on Metro? How much would cutting over on 32 cost? Why is that better than just following the Penn line? Why NSA. Do you think NSA will allow TOD around it? Would not a Penn line more easily allow access to Fort Meade?

by VC on Aug 21, 2008 10:59 pm • linkreport

VC-

-Metro should run to all three airports because airports are transit hubs, and Metro is the primary transit function of the DC metro area. I would propose an express metro line that stops only at major transfers between the two airports.

-Time would depend on the number of stops placed along the line. I have not seen any studies that speculate.

-I do not know how much it would cost to cut over 32, but I do know that the median is wide enough to support at least a two-tracked rail right of way.

-Camden line has more/larger/denser population centers than the Penn line along the ROW between DC and Odenton.

-There is nowhere to build TOD around the NSA, however that site houses tens of thousands of jobs and is not currently served by any transit. There are also a couple thousand servicemen that live within the NSA campus.

-The Penn Line could be rerouted to allow access to the North Gate at Fort Meade. Although, if the Metro were to follow my proposed route, it would run alongside the Penn Line for that stretch.

I suppose it's time I did a post on Imagine,DC on this topic.

by Dave Murphy on Aug 22, 2008 5:01 pm • linkreport

yes, express lines are long overdue. I guess we don't have them because the tracks are shared? Is that right?

by Bianchi on Aug 22, 2008 6:04 pm • linkreport

Dave,

I guess I just don't see it.

Metro to BWI seems like the wrong tool. Metro is great for close in urban travel, but pushing it 20 miles to the airport doesn't make sense. What does make sense is making modifications to MARC so that it can serve NSA and Fort Meade and better serve BWI (a stop in the station instead of a bus ride away). There is no way that adding Metro over a 21 mile route is cheaper than enhancing MARC. If you don't have money to make MARC work (on weekends and greater frequency) then you don't have the money to expand Metro.

If you were going to expand Metro, I don's see the wisdom in going from Greenbelt (21 miles) instead of New Carrollton (18 miles). Beltsville and Laurel versus Glen Dale and Bowie - sounds like a wash.

I guess what I would say is expand Metro to Beltsville and Glen Dale. Enhance MARC to run more frequently and on weekends and later at night and reduce fares if needed. All that would cost less and give you more than Metro to BWI from Greenbelt. If all you have is a hammer than everything looks like a nail.

by VC on Aug 22, 2008 9:26 pm • linkreport

VC-

We're pushing the Silver Line 17 miles from East Falls Church to Dulles Airport, and then even a few miles past that for a couple extra stations. I don't see why BWI, a hub for several major airlines, shouldn't be considered for the same service. For MARC to directly serve NSA and Fort Meade, it would require lots of new tracks veering sharply off of the current alignment.

The difference between Beltsville/Laurel and Glenn Dale/Bowie is steep. The Beltsville/Laurel corridor is much more dense and much more economically important to the region than Bowie. Bowie and Glenn Dale are bedroom communities. Bowie versus Laurel is no contest, as Laurel is far more dense than Bowie, particularly the current MARC lines. The Route 1 corridor between the Beltway and MD 32 could easily support TOD considering it's current density and the ample industrial areas ripe for redevelopment. The Glenn Dale-Bowie corridor has McMansion sprawl, and it is constricted by the Patuxent River Park.

We can't make MARC work because it shares tracks with AMTRAK and CSX. If we're going to build new tracks, why not just build Metro tracks that would offer seamless service with the rest of the DC region? Why not connect the DC Metro directly with the Baltimore Light Rail at an Airport that serves both cities?

I certainly wouldn't shy away from an enhanced MARC system that was fully integrated with Metro, however I don't find that to be the optimal solution. If Maryland were to invest in the infrastructure to create new tracks, I think it would be wise to build them for Metro, which is definitely the preferred method of transit over MARC.

by Dave Murphy on Aug 23, 2008 2:25 am • linkreport

Konterra is not full-fledged new urbanism. The CNU Charter is the most concise and authoritative definition of new urbanism, and the plan of Konterra does not meet that definition. It is in fact a hybrid of new urbanism and conventional suburban design.

The overall plan of Konterra shows a collection of pods, mostly single-use, isolated and divided from each other by limited access highways. The majority of residential land, including all or nearly all single family homes, will not be within walking distance of mixed use.

If the Villages of Wellington subdivision is indicative of Konterra's single family pods, the design is 100% conventional suburban in character. The subdivision is isolated with few external connections; the street pattern is entirely composed of cul de sacs; housing is front loaded suburban models; civic space is nonexistent.

The commercial areas are nothing but standard office parks, with buildings surrounded by extensive surface parking, large setbacks and buffers, and completely automobile-oriented design and street geometry.

The town center is based on new urban design principles, but it is just a fraction of the entire Konterra development. The town center itself -- 488 acres of medium and high density mixed uses -- is relatively isolated, with just 5 or 6 street connections to the outside world. It is surrounded and walled off by surface parking, buffers, highways and high speed arterials, and drainage ponds.

The central blocks of the town center (which are the sole justification for associating the new urbanism label with Konterra) could turn out to be anything from mediocre to very good, depending on the execution of streetscapes, frontages, building facades, tenant selection, programming and other factors. The DC region has examples of new urbanism done well and done poorly, so the lessons are there to be learned.

I call Konterra a "smorgasbord hybrid." That is, there's little bit of everything -- a pod of new urbanism, pods of cul de sac subdivisions, pods of office parks, and so on. For all of the above reasons, Konterra will not be listed on the Town Paper's list of TND neighborhoods, which is a links list of more than 400 developments worldwide.

On the question of traffic generation, BeyondDC is correct. A few new urban developments that lack transit have been studied and measured. VMT is reduced about 20-25% compared to standard suburban development. Furthermore, new urban developments can be "transit ready": built with the density necessary to support transit and walking proximity to planned transit stops. In this way, a suburban new urban development can become a "seed crystal" for more urban patterns, and can help to catalyze suburban retrofits over the long term.

However, a clear and broadly-shared vision, and a determined local government, is necessary to achieve that.

by Laurence Aurbach on Aug 23, 2008 9:17 am • linkreport

Dave,

You enhance MARC to BWI rather than Metro because you can do a similar level of serve for far cheaper.

The line to Dulles is different, as there isn't any other rail nearby. Also, that line will bring Tysons Corner into the system, and the proposed Green Line extension doesn't have a similar concentration to serve.

The efficacy of that kind of service (metro) drops fast as you move that far out. A commuter rail option is far more reasonable and would be cheaper to implement. Adding Metro instead means more expensive stations, different power supplies (DC third rail is more suited for short runs between stations, not long hauls), and the incremental benefit isn't that much greater than improved MARC service.

by Alex B. on Aug 23, 2008 11:53 am • linkreport

Why not just build both; it may take 15,20 or 25 years but it would be better for all.

Have one line go north to Columbia following greenbelt route and another to BWI following orange line route and maybe have the silver line go to both airports while upgrading, New Carrolton, Landover and Cheverly stations by adding a third track which would be alot easier since there is a little more space than on the greenline.

Why does metro need to go damn well near to baltimore anyway. If you cant find a way to get to an airport that is 30 miles from DC why are you going there and not another airport.The airport was purchased and meant for Balitmore not DC area, Maybe Maryland should try upgrading the Baltimore Subway and send that to the airport or buying some land for Marc to get there own rightofwayand build where they want to without depending on CSX and Amtrak

If metro goes to BWI why not go all the way to baltimore or connect to Baltimores metro with a new line an upgrade the maryland portions of both systems; since where all throwing out ideas when is the orange line going to anapolis, greenline southern md, redline fredrick county

We can build all the to BWI but we cant get stuff built in Mont.& PG County something is wrong. If were going to build it why build in areas where there is transit and not in areas where there is no or almost no tranist. Laurel and Konterra have tranist it may not be good but they have it while other areas have none.

Why should they state pay for transit for a developer picking a spot where there is really only tranist on weekdays and some buses operating on weekends here and there (konterra) to build a damn city; instead of picking a better location. Do they have an idea of how people will get around Konterra whenever the hell its done or do they want like 3 or 5 metro stations there.

Even if we do go to BWI if wont be fast getting there we will probably throw in about 10-15 stations here and then just because of the distance.

We always talk about developing areas if we followed the Penn Line there are lots more areas open to develop than on route 1. Most of the land on route 1 has something already on it while the land around the Penn Line is nothing but open space for most of the line and more options to build whatever.

by kk on Aug 23, 2008 12:37 pm • linkreport

"We always talk about developing areas if we followed the Penn Line there are lots more areas open to develop than on route 1. Most of the land on route 1 has something already on it while the land around the Penn Line is nothing but open space for most of the line and more options to build whatever."

Ah, but let's consider what is built on Route 1: With few exceptions, it's pretty much all suburban-style commercial corridor. That's falling out of favor. It's much better in the long run to redevelop land that has already been built on so that we can use it more effectively, rather than using new land simply because it's easier to do.

In other urban areas there's a big push to redevelop brownfields and greyfields (abandoned industrial plants and malls). There's absolutely no reason we can't apply the same type of principle around DC.

by Adam on Aug 23, 2008 5:03 pm • linkreport

@Adam

Okay I get your point , however we would still end up buying out the current land owners at a much higher price than the land is worth simply because of they know your planing to build a huge development there or getting a court order to get there land for the public good and how many people would actually want to live on or near a former industrial plant if it had anything to do with chemicals

by kk on Aug 23, 2008 7:46 pm • linkreport

What Alex said, plus I'm not such a big fan of the Silver Line. If I were expanding Metro, it might make the top ten possible expansions (De-coupling the Orange and Blue line is #1), but it would be near the bottom of the list.

by VC on Aug 24, 2008 6:45 pm • linkreport

I agree with Adam's above post. The Route 1 corridor is ripe for REdevelopment, vice tearing up virgin land.

The Baltimore and Washington corridors are growing together, and without a full compliment of transit, it will continue to be sprawly, cumbersome growth that might possibly serve as a barrier between the two corridors. It makes sense to connect the DC Metro with the Baltimore system, and perhaps there should be more push southward by the Baltimore system, but DC Metro will have to push further northward eventually.

@kk- I think a light rail going from Silver Spring station to Columbia would be a more concise route than sending the Green Line up there. Baltimore has a proposed light rail extension that would serve Columbia also.

by Dave Murphy on Aug 24, 2008 7:13 pm • linkreport

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