The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Stewart Schwartz

Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which he built into the leading smart growth organization in the Washington, DC region, addressing the interconnected issues of land use, transportation, urban design, housing, and energy. A retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve service, he earned a BA and JD from the University of Virginia and an MA from Georgetown University. 


How can Virginia balance traffic flow with a sense of place on Route 1?

A study of Virginia's Route 1 finds that people want "to create destinations, ... not a throughway." They also want better pedestrian and bicycle safety, and really want transit, but they also want to see traffic flow faster. What's the best way to balance these?

Route 1 today. Image from the study.

If this major public investment can succeed in creating walkable, livable transit communities along the corridor, the state and localities need to find ways to keep vehicle speeds down and not force people to cross long distances. They can start by designing roads to create a sense of place instead of inhibit it.

In fact, building better places could also speed up traffic flow, by making it possible for more people to get to local shopping without driving, or by taking other roads in a street grid instead of all piling onto Route 1 itself.

How fast and wide should Route 1 be?

The study assumes that the speed limit would remain 45 mph and lanes would be 12 feet wide. A road built for speed will create a less comfortable environment at center median transit stations. It will increase the distances pedestrians have to cross. And it will reduce the sense of connectivity between transit-oriented neighborhoods on either side of the road. Perhaps the speed will impact transit ridership as well.

There's a history here. A few years back, VDOT proposed reducing posted speeds to 35 mph, but faced a huge public outcry and the local supervisors made VDOT drop the proposal.

Bicycles struggle to find a place

The study also looked at ways to accommodate bicycles. Options included on-road bike lanes or an on-road cycletrack (among others), but the 45-mph road and wide lanes essentially forced the study team to select an off-road, 10-foot shared-use path for both bikes and pedestrians. This will almost certainly spark concerns about the impact on pedestrian safety, on the efficiency of bike travel, and the risks to bicyclists and pedestrians crossing intersections.

1997 British study on the relationship between vehicle speed and pedestrian fatalities shows that higher speeds mean more pedestrian fatalities.

Graph via WashCycle.

State and local officials should authorize the consultants to study an alternative with a 35 mph posted speed, 11-foot lanes, and on-road cycle tracks, to evaluate if this approach will not only smooth out and maintain good traffic flow, but will improve safety for all users, while enhancing the walkable, transit-oriented centers that the community seeks.

Will housing remain affordable if transit improves?

Until recently, the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax and Prince William hasn't seen the same level of investment as other parts of the two counties. It hasn't moved beyond aging strip malls, an unsafe pedestrian environment, deteriorated streams, and plenty of traffic.

This is also an area with an important supply of affordable housing, and many are concerned that the promise of new transit investment will increase land values and eliminate existing market-rate affordable housing.

Given that Fairfax County's commercial revitalization corridors are also the location of most of the county's affordable housing, the county needs a proactive approach when planning major new transit investments in these corridors. That must preserve affordable housing in good condition and include new affordable units in new development projects.

Unfortunately, the county has severely cut back its housing trust fund, and its inclusionary zoning policies for affordable units don't apply to buildings over four stories. The study should consider how new transit will affect property values and the current supply of affordable units. The county needs to commit to a robust housing strategy for the Route 1 corridor like the one Arlington adopted for Columbia Pike.

Potential development at Beacon Hill with BRT or LRT.

Change is indeed coming to the Route 1 corridor. The demand to live closer to the core of the region and expansion at Fort Belvoir are already driving new investment, including the recently-completed Beacon of Groveton, the Penn Daw development, and upgraded strip shopping centers.

Long-time residents are hungry to see more change come sooner. Many at the meeting pressed to move the transit project forward as soon as possible. That's a challenge given the lead times required to plan, fund and build major new transportation projects. Fairfax and the state should make this transit corridor a top priority. They also must support investment in Metro's core capacity so that the rail system can handle the new riders.

The study team should complete the traffic analysis by the end of April; the economic, land use and funding analysis will follow by the end of May; and they will recommend an alternative by July. The next public meeting is in June. In the meantime, take their survey and make comments on this form.


Bus rapid transit, light rail, and a longer Yellow Line are choices for Route 1

Better transit could one day come to Virginia's Route 1 between the Beltway and Woodbridge. A transit study looked at transit options and narrowed down the choices to curbside or median Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), light rail, or a hybrid of BRT and extending Metro's Yellow Line.

Transit alternatives for Route 1. Map from the study.

The study presents a wealth of data and a thorough analysis, but raises key questions, including what speed limit is appropriate for a more transit-oriented Route 1. A new high-capacity transit system would transform the corridor, but there would be challenges to ensure a safe pedestrian and bicycle environment and preserve affordable housing.

Transit alternatives

The study considered 8 transit options before eliminating streetcar, enhanced bus, express bus, local bus, a Yellow Line extension all the way to Woodbridge, and monorail. The 4 alternatives that remain for further study are:

  • Curbside Bus Rapid Transit (including a stretch in mixed traffic from Pohick Road to Woodbridge)
  • Median Bus Rapid Transit (with a shorter mixed traffic section in Prince William County to Woodbridge)
  • Median Light Rail Transit
  • A Metrorail-BRT Hybrid, extending the Yellow Line to Hybla Valley and then switching to BRT.
The evaluation considered ridership, estimated capital, operations and maintenance costs, cost per rider, and land use. All alternatives terminate at Huntington Metro, both to simplify the analysis and because Alexandria has raised concerns about extending transit up Route 1 into the city.

Ridership and preliminary costs. Chart from the study.

The study looked at 3 land use scenarios:

  • A baseline forecast for 2035 from the regional Council of Governments model;
  • 25% more growth based on what a BRT or LRT line would likely generate;
  • 169% more which is necessary to support Metrorail service.
Conceptual illustrations for one development node, Beacon Hill, show how much development would correspond with each level of transit.

The Beacon Hill area now.

Scenario 1: 2035 COG projection.

Scenario 2: Growth with BRT or LRT.

Scenario 3: Metro-supporting density.

For the road itself, the study rejects widening Route 1 to four lanes in each direction, as well as converting existing lanes to transit-only. That leaves a recommendation for three general lanes in each direction as well as transit in a separate right-of-way.

What transit do you think should go in this corridor? In part 2, we'll talk about how to create a sense of place and what this plan means for housing affordability.

You can also give the study team comments through a survey, but because the questions are limited, either add explanatory comments or make more extended comments on their share-your-ideas form.


Shocking rhetoric from John Townsend and AAA

This week's Washington City Paper cover story quoted AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend calling Greater Greater Washington editor David Alpert "retarded" and a "ninny," and comparing Greater Greater Washington to the Ku Klux Klan.

Many other reporters, people on Twitter, and residents generally have clearly stated in response what should of course go without saying, that such personal attacks are beyond the pale.

Some may get the sense that there is personal animosity between Townsend and the team here at Greater Greater Washington. At least on our end, nothing could be further from the truth. We simply disagree with many of his policy positions and his incendiary rhetoric.

Spirited argument is important in public policy, but it should not cross into insults. When it does, that has a chilling effect on open discourse. Fostering an inclusive conversation about the shape of our region is the purpose of this site, but discourse must be civil to be truly open. That's why our comment policy here on Greater Greater Washington prohibits invective like this. In our articles, we try hard to avoid crossing this line, and are disappointed when we or others do, intentionally or inadvertently.

The "war on cars" frame unnecessarily pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians instead of working together for positive solutions. The City Paper article, by Aaron Wiener, does a good job of debunking that, and is worth reading for much more than the insults it quotes.

When pressed, Townsend told Wiener he wants to back away from the "war on cars."

"I regret the rhetoric sometimes," he says. "Because I think that when you use that type of language, it shuts down communication with people who disagree."
We hope Townsend, his colleagues, and their superiors also regret the things he said about David and Greater Greater Washington. We look forward to the day when AAA ceases using antagonistic language and begins working toward safety, mobility, and harmony among all road users.

In the meantime, residents do have a choice when purchasing towing, insurance, and travel discounts. Better World Club is one company that offers many of the same benefits as AAA, but without the disdain.


Follow the money in Virginia's transportation bill

Virginia's complex transportation funding bill, HB2313, is headed to Governor McDonnell for his signature and potential amendments. The bill is a prime example of political sausage, seeking to satisfy Republican and Democrat, urban and rural, transit and road constituencies.

Photo by jimmywayne on Flickr.

It also represents poor public policy by undermining the "user pays" principle, failing to reform VDOT spending, allocating far too little to transit in an urbanizing state, and off-loading responsibility for local roads to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Some political observers argue that the only way Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads could win rural legislators' support for new revenues would be to place the burden on themselves. And they have, by increasing local sales taxes, recordation fees and transient occupancy (hotel) tax, and with a higher state sales tax, which derives heavily from the two regions.

Virginia's smart growth and conservation community expressed concerns with the bill on Saturday.

While Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads will able to raise (tax themselves), keep, and allocate new transportation revenue, VDOT escapes responsibility for meeting the needs of the two most economically important parts of the Commonwealth. The bill frees VDOT to take more of the statewide sales tax revenues for highway construction outside the two regions.

Now that the bill has passed, and presuming the Governor signs it, it will be incumbent upon legislators, local elected officials and the public to watch-dog how the money is spent, starting with the next update of the state's 6-year transportation plan, due in June. Setting the right priorities with the local money from and for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads will be equally important.

Who voted for and against?

The 25 to 15 vote in the Senate included 17 Democrats and 8 Republicans voting yes, and 3 Democrats and 12 Republicans voting no. Northern Virginia yes votes were Senators George Barker, Charles Colgan Sr., Barbara Favola, Mark Herring, Janett Howell, Dave Marsden, Toddy Puller and Richard Saslaw, all Democrats. No votes were Democratic Senators Adam Ebbin and Chap Peterson, and Republican Senators Richard Black and Jill Holtzman Vogel.

The 60 to 40 vote in the House included 25 Democrats and 35 Republicans voting yes, and 4 Democrats and 36 Republicans voting no. Northern Virginia yes votes were Democratic Delegates Robert Brink, David Bulova, Eileen Filler-Corn, Charniele Herring, Patrick Hope, Mark Keam, Kaye Kory, Robert Krupicka, Alfonso Lopez, Kenneth Plum, James Scott, Mark Sickles, Luke Torian and Vivian Watts; and Republican Delegates David Albo, Mark Dudenhefer, Thomas Greason, James LeMunyon, Joseph May, Randall Minchew, and Thomas Rust.

Northern Virginia no votes came from Democratic Delegate Scott Surovell and Republicans Richard Anderson, Barbara Comstock, Timothy Hugo, Scott Lingamfelter, Robert Marshall, Jackson Miller, and David Ramadan.

The complete bill history can be found here.

Follow the money

The best source for tracking the new taxes and the funding allocations is the HB2313 Transportation Conference Report, but even this requires interpretation.

While the bill no longer eliminates all taxes on gasoline, it still reduces what road users will pay in daily operating costs. It eliminates the 17.5¢ retail gas tax and shifts to a wholesale sales tax on gas. This reduces user fees in 2014 by nearly one-third, and by 20% in 2018 assuming the receipts increase because of a rise in gas prices.

The bill makes up for reducing gas taxes primarily by increasing the sales tax on new car purchases, charging a $100 fee on alternative fuel vehicles like hybrids, and tapping statewide sales taxes on goods and services (but not food).

Day-to-day vehicle user costs will decline, and all taxpayers will pay more even if they drive little or not at all. Meanwhile, transit fares are likely to continue to climb in the absence of adequate state support for transit maintenance and operating costs.

VDOT is free to continue wasting money on unnecessary highway projects

The statewide portion of the bill is truly a highway bill: it directs $538 million (annually by 2018) to the highway maintenance accounts, but this will effectively free up an equal amount in highway construction funds, allowing the current administration to continue a pattern of funding rural highways with little traffic demand.

Just last week, VDOT announced it would allocate another $869 million in federal Garvee bonds to Route 460 and the Coalfields Expressway, two of the most wasteful, unnecessary projects in the history of Virginia. Four questionable projects—Route 460 ($1.4 billion), Coalfields Expressway ($2.8 billion), Charlottesville Bypass ($240 million), and the Outer Beltway in Northern Virginia (estimated $1 billion)—total a potential $5.5 billion in misallocated spending.

Many expect that Secretary Connnaughton intends to divert a substantial portion of the new statewide money to the controversial and sprawl-inducing Outer Beltway, rather than to the critical commuter corridor needs of the metro regions.

Just 21% of the statewide funds go to transit and passenger rail in 2018, although passenger rail advocates are rightly pleased that $44 million in 2014 and $56 million per year by 2018 will go to current Amtrak services for which Virginia is now responsible, and for capital investment in the passenger rail network. An existing funding source supports upgrades for freight rail.

The $84 million for public transit isn't a lot of money when it must be shared among transit agencies across the state. The bill allocates a separate $300 million to Dulles Rail, but like some of the road money it's coming from the existing state sales tax at the expense of General Fund needs like education and health care.

The bill fails to address the empty secondary and urban road capital accounts, unless the administration commits to use some of the freed-up road money in the Transportation Trust Fund for this purpose. Instead, the bill implicitly off-loads the cost of local roads to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads through the local sales tax increases in those two regions. Shifting this responsibility allows VDOT to spend more money on rural highways.

Part of the future depends on a bill in Congress

Part of the bill also depends on the federal Marketplace Equity Act, a bill in Congress which would let states charge sales tax on Internet purchases. If that does not pass by January 2015, the sales tax on gas will rise another 1.7 percentage points to make up for the expected revenue from the MEA. This would bring gas taxes back to a level comparable to where they are today, if not a little higher at current per-gallon prices.

The Washington Post also reports that Senator Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) secured another provision that would kick in if the MEA does not pass. In that case, the amount of general fund revenue directed to transportation would drop from $200 million a year to $60 million a year.

More taxes rise in NoVa and Hampton Roads

The bill would raise between $300 and $350 million per year in and for Northern Virginia by 2018. It does so by increasing the sales tax in northern Virginia by 0.7 percentage points on top of the statewide 0.3 point increase, for a new total of 6%.

There's also a 0.25% recordation tax on recorded deeds and a 3% transient occupancy (hotel) tax. The bill retains the existing local 2.1% tax on fuel. 70% of the funds will go to "regional" projects and 30% to local projects in the locality where the money is raised. The funds can go to roads or transit, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority will decide how to allocate the money.

For Hampton Roads, the bill would raise $219 million in 2018, using a local sales tax increase of 0.7 percentage points and a 2.1% local tax on fuel. However, the legislation directs these funds only for roads, despite the great need for transit and widespread support for light rail in the region.

Following the success of "The Tide" light rail in Norfolk, 62% of voters in Virginia Beach's referendum last November supported extending light rail to the beach. The Navy has also expressed its strong support for extending light rail to Norfolk Naval Station.

In a final example of VDOT off-loading costs onto the two metro regions, the bill failed to allocate state funds to Hampton Roads' Midtown/Downtown Tunnel project which local officials want. Instead, the authors of the bill say that localities should use the new regional funding sources if they want to buy down the costs of the tolls, even as VDOT diverts $1.12 billion of state and federal funds to the unnecessary Route 460 over the objections of many in the region.


Floor debates begin on flawed McDonnell transportation bills

Governor McDonnell's transportation funding bills (HB2313 and SB 1355) are on the floor of the Virginia House and Senate today and tomorrow. The McDonnell Administration is facing objections on many fronts, but the Republican majority quickly pushed the bills through committee.

Photo by MSVG on Flickr.

Votes to pass the bills must take place before "cross-over" on midnight Tuesday in order for them to survive and cross over to the other chamber.

Many legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, will seek amendments on the floor, but observers believe that the Governor and leadership want to push the bills into a closed-door conference committee where the Republican majority will control crafting the final bill. That means the best opportunity for major amendments is now.

If you are concerned about these bills, you can get the latest from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, contact your elected officials, and monitor @csgstewart and @betterDCregion for a Twitter play-by-play.

Without critical amendments, the bill that ultimately emerges from the conference committee is unlikely to be a good deal for Northern Virginia or other metropolitan areas of the state. The McDonnell administration has squandered much of the $3 billion in borrowed funds the legislature authorized in 2011. The governor spent it on highway projects in rural areas, while neglecting funding for Dulles Rail, Tysons Corner, and Hampton Roads' top priorities—their bridge-tunnel crossings.

Prominent among the McDonnell Administration's wasteful projects have been Route 460, the Coalfields Expressway, Charlottesville Bypass and the Outer Beltway. If Virginia continues to pursue these projects it could waste a combined $5.5 billion, but if the legislature makes review and reevaluation of these projects a condition of new funding, there's still a chance to redeploy the funds to real transportation needs.

Eliminating all taxes on gasoline, the centerpiece of McDonnell's bill, could make traffic in our metro areas worse, reducing transit use and increasing driving. It cuts the sensible tie between transportation use and funding, forcing Virginians who drive less to subsidize those who drive more, hurting seniors and low-income people, carpoolers, transit users, those who live closer to their jobs.

Switching to the sales tax could also make Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads further subsidize long-distance driving throughout the state. It would also divert state general funds essential for education, health care, public safety and conservation.

Without amendments to ensure the Virginia Department of Transportation sets better priorities, there is no guarantee in these bills to meet the needs of the metro areas or the state's growing transit needs. There is no guarantee these bills will restore funding for local roads; for the past 2 years, VDOT has zeroed out funding for secondary roads in localities despite record transportation spending.

Fortunately, nearly all of the Democrats and a number of Republicans believe that eliminating all taxes on gasoline is a bad idea. Opposition to the idea also extends from the smart growth community to the Wall Street Journal.

On January 15, a Wall Street Journal editorial argued that McDonnell's scheme "violates the user-pays principle" of sound public finance:

[It] would mean that a Virginia resident who may not even own a car has to pay more for road repairs when he buys a cell phone, computer or Big Mac. Motorists who benefit most from the roads would pay almost nothing directly to use them... [F]unding transportation through a sales tax "makes roads free," at least in terms of direct payments, and thus will lead to more driving and more gridlock—the opposite of what McDonnell says he wants to achieve.
Let's hope the legislature rejects the Governor's proposal to eliminate the gas tax. We hope the legislature will vote for the following amendments:
  • Include mandatory reevaluation of VDOT's megaprojects. We could save much of the $5.5 billion to use to address our real transportation needs.
  • Reform the Public Private Transportation Act to ensure greater public oversight.
  • Keep the gas tax. It is an appropriate user fee tying payments to use of Virginia's roads, and it ensures out of state drivers also contribute. Apply the sales tax to gas at the wholesale level and/or index the gas tax to inflation.
  • Withdraw any increase in the statewide sales tax. A statewide increase will mean the state (VDOT) will just siphon the money from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
  • Allow a local sales tax for transportation in Northern Virginia that Northern Virginia controls and the same for Hampton Roads. Let our two most congested regions decide what to fix and build.
  • Require 25% of the new funding to go to transit, both urban and rural.
  • Require 15% of the new funding to go to local roads. VDOT has zeroed out money for local roads in order to build unnecessary highways in lightly trafficked areas. If we don't specify this, then we still won't get local street funds including pedestrian and bicycle facilities.
  • Keep the $15 vehicle registration fee for intercity passenger rail and public transit funding.
Without these amendments, the legislature should reject the Governor's bills and new funding for the state transportation agencies.

Here's a more detailed breakdown of where we find nearly $5.5 billion in waste:

  • Route 460: This $1.4 billion proposed new highway between Suffolk and Petersburg costs over $1.1 billion of taxpayer funds, plus tolls. The current Route 460 carries just 11,000 trips per day.
  • Coalfields Expressway: A $2.8 billion new highway is in the least-trafficked area of the state.
  • Charlottesville Bypass: This $243 million project doesn't solve congestion and saves minimal travel time for commuters.
  • North-South Corridor: This estimated $1 billion piece of an Outer Beltway around DC doesn't address commuter needs and would add development and traffic in areas without infrastructure.


Move forward and be smart about Montgomery BRT

Rockville Pike is the best place to first launch a "gold standard" Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line, says a recent report. The report is less certain about other potential routes, but that shouldn't stop the county from investing in top-quality BRT on key corridors, and being smart about how to phase in BRT and other bus improvements elsewhere.

Rockville Pike, the best spot for BRT. Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Our region must invest in the next generation of transit to provide alternatives to sitting in traffic, to grow more sustainably, and to remain economically competitive. The demand to live in walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods has never been greater and will continue to grow. These are the motivations behind Montgomery County's bold proposal for a network of BRT lines.

Linked with investment in the Purple Line, improvements to Metro service, and walkable, transit-oriented communities, the "RTV Network" proposed by the county's Transit Task Force will be critically important as the county absorbs at least another 200,000 residents in the next two decades.

Yes, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP)'s report, which Ben Ross wrote about Friday, takes a much more cautious approach for implementing BRT than did the Transit Task Force. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't move forward.

Instead, it pushes the county to be smart about BRT. It's best to methodically phase in each new transit route, adjusting each one as necessary to work in the neighborhoods it passes through while seeking to maximize high-quality, frequent service.

Start with gold-standard BRT on Rockville Pike

Some areas and corridors in the county have the potential right now for high quality BRT, and the county needs to move forward before it's too late—before congestion drives away jobs and investment. As the ITDP report notes, the rapidly urbanizing Rockville Pike has the most immediate potential for what they have defined as "gold" standard BRT—with its own dedicated right-of-way, very frequent service, rapid boarding, and real-time information, among other features.

The county and the City of Rockville have recognized that the best way to absorb growth, to protect suburban neighborhoods and the Agricultural Reserve, to manage traffic, and to meet the demand for transit-neighborhoods is to reinvent Rockville Pike as a mixed-use, walkable transit corridor tied both to the Red Line Metro Stations and a new BRT line.

"Gold standard BRT" in this corridor, combined with new local street networks, is essential to make the new residential and commercial development succeed and to maximize transportation performance and livability. Montgomery County has the opportunity here to build what could be the nation's best new BRT line.

The ITDP report underestimates BRT's potential

The ITDP report took a unreasonably cautious approach toward BRT, recommending the county narrow down its BRT to just the Rockville Pike corridor. Much of this turns on the definitions: the task force advocated for "gold standard" BRT on all routes, and ITDP suggests gold standard is not appropriate for many of these. However, not every route has to truly meet the gold standard to make a substantial difference.

ITDP relies on current bus ridership numbers in Montgomery County, comparing them to other countries with far higher numbers of bus riders. But frequent, dedicated-lane service can indeed attract new riders and connect the county's growing urban neighborhoods. Comparing Montgomery County to a metropolis of 7 million like Bogotá, as the ITDP report does, and comparing its multiple "gold" standard BRT routes to Montgomery County's current, traditional bus ridership, simply isn't apt.

Montgomery County is growing quickly, and something needs to be done. The Maryland Department of Planning estimates that the county will add over 200,000 new residents and 130,000 jobs between now and 2040. That will make it the only Maryland jurisdiction with more than a million people.

The county faces the challenge of how to grow without repeating past mistakes of simply building and widening more roads, which inevitably leads to more spread-out development and even more traffic.

These population projections might even be conservative, and may also assume far too many workers commuting long distances into the county. Study after study shows that more and more Americans want to live in walkable, transit-accessible communities and closer to jobs.

Transit ridership continues to increase, and it's becoming clear that the younger generation will be much less tied to their cars and much more likely to take public transportation than before. Recognizing this, WMATA is expecting Metro ridership to double between 2001 and 2025.

So let's be smart about implementing much-needed new transit in Montgomery. Fund Metro's rehabilitation and service improvements, build the light rail Purple Line to connect the high-demand transit market between Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and phase-in BRT routes. Start with the "gold" standard BRT for Rockville Pike. Then implement some of the Task Force's Phase 1 routes that have the best potential, tailoring the design and service to the particular conditions and potential of each of those corridors.

How could BRT realistically work elsewhere in the county?

The Transit Task Force report included the following routes as part of its Phase 1 proposal:

  • Rockville Pike (MD-355) from Montgomery Village Avenue to the Bethesda Metro Station: 12.1 miles
  • Viers Mille Road (MD-586) from Rockville Metro and the county office buildings to Wheaton Metro and Georgia Ave: 6.7 miles
  • Colesville Road (US-29) from Burtonsville/MD-198 to Silver Spring Metro: 10.7 miles
  • Georgia Avenue (MD-97) from Olney to Viers Mill Road: 9.8 miles
  • ICC (MD-200) from I-270 to Colesville Road: 22.9 miles
  • Randolph Road from Rockville Pike to FDA Boulevard: 12.5 miles

Proposed BRT phase 1.

Viers Mill Road is served today by the Metrobus Q line, which has the highest ridership of any WMATA line in Maryland. Approximately 10,000 riders took the Q on the average weekday in 2009. With slightly lower ridership than Viers Mill Road, the Georgia Avenue corridor also has some of the highest ridership levels in Maryland, according to WMATA.

WMATA's report also notes that the Q line route suffers from overcrowding and "frequent delays caused by traffic and other factors." Traffic, lack of dedicated lanes, lack of bus priority at traffic signals, substandard bus stops, and other hurdles discourage "choice" riders (those who have the option of driving) from taking the bus. This is where BRT can make a real difference, even if it's not 100 percent "gold" standard.

The Task Force recognized the importance of physically separating the transit vehicles from general traffic to the maximum extent possible. But the Task Force also noted that there are several different ways to do this and that any one route could potentially have multiple configurations, such as the preferred center running dedicated lanes, reversible lanes depending on the commute flows, curbside lanes, or, as a last resort, running in mixed traffic on occasion.

Even non-"gold standard" BRT can attract choice riders while significantly improving service for transit-dependent riders. Modern BRT vehicles, signal priority, quick boarding, and robust route and arrival information and on-board wireless can provide faster and better service.

The alternative to BRT would be the fruitless, business-as-usual approach of widening roads and intersections just for cars, disrupting neighborhoods with controversial and wasteful new arterials like M-83, and still sitting in traffic without a viable option. BRT offers that viable option with the advantage of adding more vehicles and more frequent service year after year.

Frequent, high capacity bus and BRT service between Montgomery County's growing mixed-use residential and employment centers and interconnecting the Purple Line and Red Line will allow Montgomery County to grow in an environmentally sustainable way, vastly expand transportation options, and compete for the next generation of workers and high-tech businesses.

Neighboring Fairfax County has reached this same conclusion. They are building the Silver Line, and planning for the Columbia Pike Streetcar and other dedicated lane bus or rail transit corridors like Route 1. Montgomery County should move forward with a bold transit vision while being smart about the implementation and committing to funding all three legs of the "three-legged transit stool:" Metro, the Purple Line and the BRT network.


Highway would fuel sprawl, pave over history at Manassas

In July 1861, the Union and Confederacy met at Manassas (Bull Run) in the first great clash of armies in the Civil War. On August 28-30, 1862, the armies clashed in the Second Battle of Manassas. Exactly 150 years later, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is proposing a highway through the historic landscape of Manassas, with particularly harmful impact on the landscape of that second battle.

Photo by on Flickr.

A Washington Post article this week characterized the controversial Tri-County Parkway as a "done deal," citing a draft agreement between the National Park Service (NPS) and VDOT.

But the draft agreement and the Tri-County Parkway are a bad deal for the historic landscape at Manassas and for area commuters. VDOT and NPS failed to study a lower-impact alternative that would protect the battlefield and focus resources on the area's most pressing transportation needs.

Slated to run through the Manassas Battlefield Historic District, the new Tri-County Parkway would open up rural land to development, multiplying the already-major traffic woes on major commuter routes like I-66 and Route 50.

More harm to a historic land

Controversy over unwanted development in the area is hardly new. Manassas has been the scene of some of the nation's biggest preservation fights. Many longtime area residents will remember the 1994 fight to stop Disney's theme park just west of the Battlefield, which drew national attention.

Fewer may recall the fight in the late 1980s when local residents stopped developer John 'Til' Hazel from building a new shopping mall on then-unprotected battlefield land. Federal taxpayers paid an astounding $134 million to buy the Battlefield land and keep Hazel from building the mall.

VDOT now proposes to run a highway past that same land acquired at such financial cost in the 1980s and contested at such personal cost 150 years ago.

According to documents related to the 2006 expansion of the historic district surrounding the Battlefield, "The battlefield retains integrity of location, setting, feeling, and association with the historic events that occurred on the property during the Civil War. With reference to the man-made resources, such as the dwellings, military embattlements, and the Unfinished Railroad, Manassas Battlefield has integrity of design, workmanship, and material."

Map of proposed Outer Beltway routes. The current Tri-County Parkway plan follows the western alignment.

The Tri-County Parkway would cut directly through that historic district, taking up 20-35 acres of land, running past the August 28, 1862 position of the right flank of Confederate troops led by Stonewall Jackson and the left flank of the Union General Pope's troops. It would also cut off the August 29 approach path of General Longstreet, which led to the largest massed counterattack of the entire Civil War. Longstreet's approach path across Pageland Lane would be replaced by a 4-6 lane highway and major intersection.

This battle at Manassas enabled General Lee to march into Maryland, led to the Battle of Antietam, and played an important role in the series of battles that led President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps the Post misquoted Manassas Battlefield Park Superintendent Ed Clark when he reportedly questioned the historical value of the western edge of the battlefield. From our reading of history and the 2006 expansion of the historic district, the historic district and its rural landscape are indeed important to the setting of the Second Battle of Manassas and the critical strategic positioning of the Confederate army that led to their victory in that clash. The land in the historic district merits permanent preservation.

VDOT's own letter to reviewing agencies confirms the damage the new highway would likely bring. The letter states that the Parkway will "convert a portion of relatively intact rural landscape" into a highway, "introducing into this setting an increase in traffic-generated noise and visual elements that will alter and potentially obscure significant battlefield viewsheds. These direct and indirect effects will result in a diminishment of the integrity of setting, feeling and association of [Manassas National Battlefield Park] and the [Manassas Battlefield Historic District] [the adjacent land not formally in the park]."

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, Piedmont Environmental Council and Southern Environmental Law Center carefully reviewed the draft agreement between VDOT and the NPS, and submitted strongly critical joint comments.

In our view, VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration were obligated by law but failed to study prudent and feasible alternatives that could avoid harm to a historic resource like Manassas Battlefield. The composite low-impact alternative that we have repeatedly offered during both the Tri-County Parkway and Manassas Battlefield Bypass studies would not only preserve the historic landscapes of the battlefield, but also meet the National Park Service's goal of closing the roads through the Battlefield.

A misallocation of resources

By focusing on north-south highway movement in this particular area, the Tri-County Parkway also represents a misallocation of scarce transportation dollars. Expert review of the Tri-County Parkway study and our review of the most recent traffic counts based on VDOT's numbers show that the vast majority of traffic in the area of the new highway is moving east-west on I-66 and Route 50 to reach jobs. We also show that much less costly local road upgrades including roundabouts will address local trips, moving them efficiently around the Battlefield.

VDOT needs to husband every last dollar to invest in road and transit improvements in those corridors, including Virginia Railway Express, dedicated express bus and HOV lanes, parallel local roads, and fixing intersection bottlenecks. For those trying to reach Dulles Airport, the expanded I-66 and upgraded Route 28 offer the fastest route to the terminal and will continue to do so. The Tri-County Parkway and connecting routes west of the airport would be about three miles longer than these existing routes.

The development link

It's not surprising that advocacy for new highways follows speculative acquisition of land for development. Til Hazel's original purchase of battlefield land for a shopping mall strategically secured a site next to the future interchange with the 234 Bypass, the former name of the Tri-County Parkway corridor. VDOT constructed a section of the 234 Bypass from southwest of the City of Manassas up to I-66 based on a 1988 approval with the hope by proponents like Til Hazel that it would be extended northward past the Battlefield. Land records show that today others are hoping for a windfall, including an entity named "Route 234 LLC" farther north along Pageland Lane, reflecting an expectation of the extension of the Route 234 Bypass.

Loudoun County recently approved the southward extension and expansion of "Northstar Boulevard" and "Belmont Ridge Road," denying that these were connected to the Tri-County Parkway even as they plotted these roads on the same exact route as the Tri-County Parkway. The highway also corresponds with the 1997 proposed route for the Western Transportation Corridor and forms part of an Outer Beltway.

According to the Post, VDOT Secretary Connaughton says he might change the name of the highway to "234 Extension," the name it had back in 1988. Intentional or not, the many names for the road corridor can get confusing, and make it difficult for the public to track and evaluate the proposals.

Just a week after the Loudoun Board's decision on Northstar and Belmont Ridge roads, another Board matter proposed authorizing eminent domain proceedings to acquire land from two developers along the Northstar Boulevard/Tri-County Parkway corridor.

Secretary Connaughton told the Post that the Tri-County Parkway "could be financed in the future traditionally or through public-private partnership," which could involve proffer trade-offs with developers or private builders who collect tolls. This certainly indicates the continued close tie between development and new highways.

Simply put, the Parkway and connecting roads are about opening rural land in Prince William County's Rural Crescent and Loudoun County's lower density Transition Zone to much more development. This development would mean thousands more cars commuting on Route 50 and I-66.

In addition, Dulles Airport boosters have campaigned to create a freight warehousing and distribution center around Dulles Airport and want the highway in order to draw thousands of trucks into Loudoun County and western Prince William County. This proposed economic development strategy and related truck traffic would seem to undermine the quality of life for area residents, including those who were attracted to work in Virginia's knowledge economy.

A better way

Preservation of the historic district around Manassas National Battlefield and the associated rural lands would ensure less traffic from this area in the future. Conserving our scarce transportation dollars to invest in commuting options for the Route 50 and I-66 corridors and funneling growth to the right places would better address the priority needs of commuters.

Adopting a lower impact alternative and winning legally-binding commitments to close the roads through the Battlefield would preserve the Battlefield for future generations. But conceding to VDOT's highway and the draft agreement would destroy our history and waste our tax dollars.

If you're interested in learning more about the Tri-County Parkway and the Outer Beltway, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth's Outer Beltway Resource Center. Convinced the new highway is a bad idea? Sign the Coalition's petition to Governor Bob McDonnell asking for the real transportation choices northern Virginians deserve.


McDonnell's roadblocks threaten Silver Line's phase 2

Virginia Governor McDonnell says he fully supports the timely completion of Phase 2 of the Silver Line. Yet his administration's political roadblocks are the biggest threat to the project.

Dulles rail construction. Photo by wfyurasko on Flickr.

In a Washington Post op-ed this weekend, McDonnell wrote, "Unfortunately, the project has been marked by many controversies, ranging from escalated costs, the prospect of soaring tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, legal and labor issues, and the overall accountability, membership and transparency of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA)."

The governor is blowing out of proportion MWAA's governance, legal, and labor issues in a way that unfairly sows doubt about the transit line. Today's interim report by the USDOT's Inspector General found real transparency, spending, and accountability problems at MWAA, but does not find that the agency mismanaged the Silver Line project.

The high tolls are a direct result of the state's failure to invest its own money in this critical transportation project, placing the burden fully and unfairly on northern Virginians. Instead of making the case to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors for the importance of moving forward, McDonnell's administration is making it easier for them to vote no, endangering the whole project.

The Governor just threatened again, via a budget amendment, to withhold the state's meager $150 million contribution to Phase 2 if his new appointees to MWAA were not seated immediately instead of on July 1st. Fortunately, the Virginia House of Delegates voted yesterday to kill the amendment, stopping this latest threat.

One of the main points of disagreement between the McDonnell administration and MWAA has been Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). These have been successful on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Dulles Rail Phase 1 projects.

PLAs are not just about regulating union labor and wage rates for workers. They also require unions to help secure an adequate supply of skilled trades for these massive projects, and to ensure effective coordination among the dozens of trades and subcontractors, both union and non-union, for smoothly functioning, safe, and timely construction. The preference for PLAs in the bidding process seems a reasonable solution. We should move forward with these provisions.

The governor says he is greatly concerned that Virginia doesn't have a majority of seats on the MWAA governing board, which controls Dulles and Reagan National Airports, as well as the Dulles Toll Road and the Silver Line project. But this regional agency has effectively served our region for a long time, completing major and complex expansions of both airports.

It is true, however, MWAA could be much more transparent and accountable, as the IG report notes. The Coalition for Smarter Growth was among the first to raise this issue in 2006 when the Kaine administration proposed handing control of the project over to MWAA. Pressure from the governor, our federal and state legislators, and local elected officials has resulted in key reforms at MWAA. These reforms should continue, but so should the Silver Line.

The attacks on MWAA may have more to do with securing state control of future toll road revenues, for use on road projects like the Northern Virginia Outer Beltway and other rural highways, than about fixing the governance of MWAA.

We can't know that for sure, but it's very plausible given the administration's power grab at the Virginia Port Authority. After reorganizing the port authority's board to ensure control from Richmond, the administration pressed new board members to approve diverting $250 million to Route 460, a rural highway between Hampton Roads and Petersburg that Hampton Roads leaders say is not their top priority. A similar effort by the governor to secure a controlling majority on MWAA in order to do the same thing would not work to the best long-term interests of Northern Virginians.

McDonnell says that he could not even contemplate funding another $300 million for Dulles rail without raiding other projects throughout the state. But is he setting the right priorities? What money might actually be available?

The governor is proposing to spend over $750 million on the Route 460 project. Another $244 million is being earmarked to the controversial Charlottesville western bypass, a road that appears to be ineffective and a waste of money. Millions are going to the Coalfields Expressway to support mountaintop removal in an area with little traffic.

Even accounting for these projects, there may be another $400 million available in the $1.5 billion Public-Private Transportation Act fund. Setting different priorities would free up hundreds of millions more.

It's hard to respond to the governor's argument that Northern Virginia is getting its fair share of the state's funding without seeing the full picture. A clearer accounting of complicated funding flows would be helpful for both the public and legislators. Certainly, making significant investments in addressing the transportation needs of Northern Virginia should be a priority given the importance of the region to the state's economy.

Perhaps symbolic of the administration's priorities, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation David Tyerar made two recent trips from Richmond to Leesburg to appear before the Loudoun Board of Supervisors. He didn't go to make the case for Dulles Rail. Rather, he spoke to promote the Outer Beltway.

The governor and secretary revived planning for the Outer Beltway, added it as a new Corridor of Statewide Significance, and are exploring the route for yet another public-private partnership. Yet this highway would do little to help massively congested corridors like I-66, Route 50, and Route 7. The contrast between the obstacles put before Dulles Rail by the McDonnell administration and their full-court press for the Outer Beltway couldn't be starker.

If the Silver Line's phase 2 fails, it will be on Governor McDonnell's watch. He should lead the way to compromises that will allow the project to move forward, and focus more of the state's transportation resources on this economically critical project.


Small transport projects can be best and build a better region

To hear some people talk, the only way to "solve" traffic issues in the Washington region is to go big or go home. But smaller local projects could have a much bigger impact on making the region a better place to live, and an easier place to navigate.

Photo by neoporcupine on Flickr.

Individuals like Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton or organizations like the 2030 Group prey on the frustrations of Washington area drivers by proposing gargantuan projects like the Outer Beltway and multiple additional Potomac River crossings.

They promise that these projects from the 1950's can solve, in one fell swoop, traffic problems that have developed because of our reliance on specific forms of development and transportation in the years since World War II.

Leave aside for the moment whether, in this era of limited public funding, the money even exists for these projects. You still run into a simple problem with these "solutions"—a focus on highway capacity expansion hasn't been effective at solving our traffic problems.

Fortunately, we don't think the situation is hopeless. It just requires a different way of thinking about the problem to get at those different results.

While we're not going to go into every possibility in this particular post, we do want to focus on the idea that smaller, localized projects taken as a whole can be better than the larger, flashier projects. Smaller projects can offer more travel options, improved livability, and better regional transportation performance for a fraction of the cost of a megaproject.

Focusing on simple projects like making it easier to walk or bike to school in a given locality, adding housing close to jobs and in commercial shopping corridors, connecting local streets, or incentivizing development at an underutilized Metro station can have a ripple effect on transportation in our region.

This is not to say that there is never a time or place for major infrastructure projects. But we can sometimes can get much better dividends by instituting common sense, smart growth solutions that give people real choices on neighborhood scale and transportation options. And we can often use our existing infrastructure instead of an over-reliance on creating something new.

To help demonstrate that, we're starting an occasional series on localized projects and themes that, when looked at as a whole, could provide real options in transportation and living arrangements. This piece-by-piece approach can improve the performance of our transportation system in the Washington region at the same time it strengthens our communities.

Our first posts will focus on smart growth in the Rockville Pike corridor in Montgomery County, creating Safe Routes to School in Fairfax County, and citizen involvement in Gaithersburg.

In the coming weeks we hope to present similar pieces from different areas throughout the DC area to highlight a range of solutions that together will offer regional benefits. Do you have some ideas of your own for your particular part or sector of the metropolitan region? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Let us hear your suggestion by submitting it as a post and we may include it as part of this series.


The zombie outer beltway returns

Zombies are notoriously hard to get rid of. They keep coming back. The same is true of a 1950s concept for an outer beltway that has been revived by Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton.

Proposed alignments. Image by VDOT.

In response, the Coalition for Smarter Growth has launched a petition campaign arguing that the outer beltway would waste scarce taxpayer resources, intrude upon Manassas National Battlefield, and induce more traffic congestion than it solves.

If we don't act now to call for different solutions, Secretary Connaughton will force the outer beltway through with minimal public involvement or analysis of alternatives, as he did recently for another questionable highway near Charlottesville.

A little history: The zombie outer beltway has had many names and a colorful past. In the late 1980s it was the Washington Bypass, a controversial and costly proposal for a complete outer loop highway through Maryland and Virginia. That proposal was eventually dropped.

In the late 1990s two individual segments of the original loop plan were pursued, the InterCounty Connector (ICC) in Maryland, and the Western Transportation Corridor (WTC) in Virginia. The proposed WTC would have run between I-95 in Stafford and Route 7 in Leesburg.

In 2001 highway proponents pushed for a new northern Potomac River bridge between Virginia and Montgomery County that would be part of a proposed road called the Techway. Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) halted that effort after concluding the new bridge would harm communities on both sides of the river.

In 2002 voters in Northern Virginia rejected a proposal for a dedicated transportation sales tax in a public referendum, in part because the tax would have funded multiple segments of the outer beltway.

Finally, in 2005 and again in 2011, VDOT has proposed what they call the Tri-County Parkway, a new highway to run between I-66 in Prince William and Route 50 in Loudoun. Their preferred alignment for the Tri-County Parkway runs along the western boundary of Manassas National Battlefield. It is the same alignment studied in 1997 as the Western Transportation Corridor.

It is this highway that Secretary Connaughton has made a top priority, by designating it as a new Corridor of Statewide Significance. It is this highway that the Coalition for Smarter Growth opposes today.

Instead of building yet another wasteful highway that induces more traffic and more sprawl, VDOT should focus our tax dollars on more important transportation needs. They should also avoid harming the historic Manassas Battlefield, which would be impacted by the Tri-County Parkway.

The Coalition has performed an exhaustive study of the parkway / outer beltway, and found that the major traffic problems in its vicinity are on radial east-west commuter routes, not on north-south roads. The parkway won't relieve any congestion because it doesn't serve travel paths that are congested.

This table, based on information from VDOT traffic counts, compares traffic volumes on roads in the vicinity of the Tri-County Parkway. It clearly demonstrates that radial corridors have dramatically higher volumes than any north-south routes.

Only Route 28, which connects to the strong job centers on the east side of Dulles Airport, carries significant north-south traffic. Among north-south roads west of the airport and in the vicinity of the proposed Tri-County Parkway, Route 659 carries just 9,100 vehicles per day (VPD) from Prince William to Loudoun, and Route 15 carries just 15,000. In contrast, I-66 carries up to 63,000 VPD in Prince William, and Route 50 carries up to 40,000 VPD between Loudoun and Route 28.

In 2005 the Coalition for Smarter Growth commissioned a national traffic modeling expert, Norm Marshall of Smart Mobility, Inc., to analyze VDOT's Tri-County Parkway study. He demonstrated significant flaws in that study, finding that the new highway would induce new development and traffic, but not reduce congestion. Marshall recommended a more efficient set of solutions focusing on land use, conservation, transit, and demand management.

A more recent review of the Loudoun County Transportation plan by Lucy Gibson of Smart Mobility found that transportation engineers were overestimating north-south traffic compared to east-west traffic volumes.

Overall it is clear that the push for the new outer beltway is driven at least in part by those seeking to spark more development in western Prince William and Loudoun Counties, rather than focusing our scarce transportation funds on existing congestion problems. The Tri-County Parkway is an unnecessary and costly diversion from more rational transportation planning. We urge you to sign the petition against it.

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