Posts about Circulator
What makes the DC Circulator different from "a regular bus"? Is it just that it's red? The lines are a little straighter? Or is the only difference that the DC government controls it instead of WMATA? If DC officials don't have a clear vision, they might wreck the success they've built.
The Circulator is a great bus because it runs on short headways of no more than 10 minutes, on easy-to-understand routes that connect key activity centers. You don't have to look at a schedule. You can just know you wait at a stop for a little while and a bus should come. And you can probably keep in your head where the stops are.
Unfortunately, transit planners at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) are considering adding some Circulator routes with a 12-15 minute headway, Bob Thomson reported. That would be a bad call. Everyone wants the Circulator in his or her neighborhood (here's an example), but they want what the Circulator means. Water it down too much, and it stops meaning much.
In fact, according to Joe Sternlieb, the Georgetown BID director who was deeply involved in the original Circulator when he worked at the Downtown BID, the first proposals were for a bus running every 5 minutes. That changed to 10, and now the Circulator aims for a 10-minute headway but often gaps between buses can stretch much longer.
If there's a place that would support a 12-15 minute Circulator route but not a 10-minute one, DDOT would have to have a very good reason not to just make it a Metrobus route. If every neighborhood had a Circulator route, but some routes ran every 15 minutes, some even more, some not very long hours, then the brand only means it's DC's bus system and not WMATA's, like Ride On or ART. Good bus branding tells the consumer something, not about the government but about the service.
One complicating factor is that the Circulator has a cheaper fare than Metrobus. This is because DC has been willing to spend some money to keep the fares low, but not for the whole Metrobus system. That distorts transit planning, because many communities understandably want a cheap bus.
We need more routes that run frequently, not more routes that don't. The Circulator aims to connect activity centers, but it could be that the Circulator, as a brand, is not for every route in every neighborhood. Maybe we need another brand for a different type of route.
DDOT is also considering taking over "non-regional" bus routes from WMATA, which are routes that don't run in Maryland and Virginia, don't serve large numbers of Maryland and Virginia residents transferring from rail, and don't get any money from Maryland or Virginia. But some of these are low-ridership, low-frequency neighborhood routes. The Circulator wouldn't be the right brand for those either.
Not every bus has to have the same name. Let's have the Circulator keep doing what it does well, and where that can apply elsewhere, do it there also. Let's also expand and improve bus service, but without diluting what the Circulator means.
As the DC Circulator celebrates its tenth anniversary, planners are weighing options for the system's continued growth. Tuesday evening, they held a public forum at Eastern Market to talk about ways to expand the Circulator and unveiled a new bus paint scheme.
Model Circulator wearing the new "comet" paint scheme parked at Eastern Market. Photo by the author.
Having expanded from two routes to five, the Circulator's core function remains to offer a frequent, reliable, inexpensive link between DC's activity centers and its neighborhoods. Planners are considering 7 possible new routes, which were on display at the forum.
District Department of Transportation officials say the one with the greatest support is a connection between Dupont Circle and U Street, followed by a Dupont Circle-Foggy Bottom link. The proposed "Abe's to Ben's" Circulator between the Mall and U Street could serve both links. The input planners receive will inform the expansion priorities they will recommend this summer.
I see one of Circulator's roles as to fill gaps in the Metrobus network that serve to better connect DC neighborhoods. I, too, cast my top vote for a Dupont-U Street connection, preferably starting by extending the Rosslyn-Georgetown-Dupont route up 18th Street NW and across U Street to Howard University.
My second vote is for an extension of one of the routes currently ending at Union Station north into NoMa, perhaps one way on First Street NE and the other on North Capitol Street. Buses already create congestion near Union Station by using Massachusetts Avenue, E Street, and North Capitol Street as a turnaround. Having a Circulator turn around in NoMa instead helps to alleviate this, while providing bus connectivity to the heart of a rapidly developing area.
It is interesting that DDOT proposes retaking the Convention Center to Southwest route from WMATA, which incorporated it into the Metrobus network in 2011 as Route 74. A DDOT representative explained that, as part of the 70s series, the 74 is considered a "regional" rather than a "local" route, and thus it is cheaper for the District to subsidize as Maryland and Virginia also contribute to it through WMATA's funding formulas.
At the forum, DDOT also debuted a Circulator bus wearing a new exterior paint scheme. Instead of two arcs representing the route map with the names of destinations, the new design has two swooshes that a DDOT representative described as "comets."
On display inside the bus were preliminary drawings by renowned transit vehicle designer Cesar Vergara of an interior for the next generation of Circulator buses. This would make Circulators' interiors more closely resemble those of the newest members of the Metrobus fleet, products of New Flyer.
DDOT presented a map of the planned National Mall Circulator, which will connect Union Station with the Lincoln Memorial via Madison and Jefferson drives and around the Tidal Basin next spring. The agency sought input on what to include at the stops along this route, like area maps, and lists of nearby attractions, and where one or two-day passes and SmarTrip cards should be sold.
Circulator's ridership numbers have declined slightly over the past two years compared to the previous two. David Miller, a transportation planner with DDOT contractor Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, speculated on the reasons for the dip and offered these hypotheses:
- Metrobus's service quality has improved, siphoning off former Circulator riders who once perceived Metrobus as a less attractive service.
- DC residents, particularly young adults, are gravitating towards more flexible car and bike sharing systems, aided by better bicycling infrastructure, for short trips to see friends or go shopping for which they previously used Circulator.
- Circulator buses are starting to get shabby. The fleet is 10-14 years old and is just now starting to undergo repainting and reupholstery.
Despite Circulator's branding as a service that connects shopping, dining, and entertainment destinations, a solid majority of riders use it to get to and from work. The average rider is a young adult with at least a college education making less than $40,000 per year. Most riders use Circulator on all days of the week, with pluralities using it daily, and take it round trip.
DDOT will release a final update of the Transportation Development Plan Summary Report this summer, and will hold another semi-annual forum this fall. Beyond that, aside from the spring 2015 implementation of the National Mall Circulator, there is no timeline for implementing any expansions of the system. Once DDOT comes out with its recommendations based on public input, it will be up to DC citizens to convince the Mayor and Council to fund them.
See all of the discussions here.
Jim Graham, the councilmember for Ward 1, has always been a staunch supporter of bus transit. But he's much less sanguine about DC's plans to build a network of streetcars.
Graham pushed to keep bus fares down when on the WMATA Board, and he proposed the Circulator route that runs from McPherson Square to U Street, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and Woodley Park.
I asked Graham if we should have dedicated bus lanes. He said:
I was very much an advocate for creation of express bus on 16th street and on Georgia Avenue [the S9 and 79 buses]. Both of those happened while I was involved. It's good but there's still terrific bus bunching. ...
Metro/WMATA has always treated the buses like stepchildren. They're kind of assigned to the coal bin of Metro. And it's been a slow process pulling the bus transportation out of that second-class status and into first-class status. We're not there yet. And I think a dedicated lane
— because I think rapid bus makes a lot of sense.
When we compare the cost of rapid bus to light rail, and we compare the problems of light rail to the relative ease of rapid bus, I think it's a very strong case. The notion of light rail running down Harvard or light rail running down 18th Street in Adams Morgan? It's... it's quite a profound change.
Because people forget that streetcars break down. I think nobody remembers that they break down. I rode streetcars in the '50s and '60s and they broke down. And when they broke down there was such a terrific backlog of traffic and congestion as the car had to be pulled away. That's just in the nature of things. Look at the Metro trains!
Not to mention the fact that you've got the trolleys taking up an awful lot of roadway space, and that's going to create other challenges.
"H Street is perfect" for streetcars, he said, in part because it is "very broad." But there's also a debate about whether H Street should one day have dedicated lanes (Charles Allen would like to consider it, while Darrel Thompson doesn't think it would work, for example). Graham said:
I was 12 years on the Metro Board. (I don't want to say too much about that right now.) But I became convinced that if we had really good rapid bus, people would be very happy to use it. And we wouldn't have the enormous cost of capital investment that we have related to trolleys. Trolleys in some ways are sentimental and they're kind of exciting and new. But rapid bus can deliver, and we know plenty of examples where it has delivered.Nadeau wrote in an email, "I'm fully supportive of a streetcar for Georgia Avenue and excited about the conceptual drawings circulated last week. It's a great opportunity to strengthen a commercial corridor that has largely been forgotten by our current leadership."
As for the 16th Street bus lane, she said in the interview that not only does she think it's a good idea, as Graham does, but she is pushing to make it a reality (unlike, she says, her opponent):
One of the things I'm working on right now is the 16th Street [bus] lane. That was a proposal that came up in 2009, 2010 when Graham was chair of the transportation committee, and it still has not been studied and implemented. ... When that study was done, 30% of all traffic on 16th Street was the bus. And now, it's more than 50%.
Watch the whole discussion with Graham about transportation here, including conversations about car dependence, parking, and pedestrian and bicycle safety.
We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood. Thanks to Martin Moulton for organizing the space and recording and editing the videos.
The National Park Service plans to create a new Circulator route around the National Mall. NPS and the city could also improve transit options to nearby neighborhoods with a line from the Mall to Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle, and U Street.
The Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) for Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle have voted to ask NPS and the city to consider such a route, which we have nicknamed the "Abe's to Ben's" or "A to B" route.
The planned Mall Circulator route, which NPS plans to fund in part with revenue from new parking meters along the Mall and in West Potomac Park, is an excellent beginning and will improve transit accessibility to some of DC's most popular attractions.
At the same time, the route, which goes east-west along the Mall to and from Union Station, doesn't give tourists an easy path off the Mall and into the neighborhoods to support our local businesses.
More than 4 million tourists visit the Vietnam Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, two of the most popular landmarks, each year. But the area still has poor transit service, with little Metrobus service and the nearest Metro station ¾ of a mile away.
The "Abe's to Ben's" line would begin at the triangle in between 23rd Street NW and Henry Bacon Drive, by the Lincoln Memorial. The bus would then travel north along 23rd Street and provide service to the State Department, Columbia Plaza, and George Washington University's main campus before meeting up with the Blue and Orange lines at the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro station at 23rd and I Streets.
From there, it would proceed up New Hampshire Avenue and around Washington Circle to the southern entrance to the Dupont Circle station on the Red Line. It would continue around the circle to 18th Street and travel north to U Street before heading east to the U Street Metro station, the Green and Yellow lines. It could then end near the African-American Civil War Memorial (linking Park Service sites at each end) or Howard University.
This Circulator route would improve transit connections for both residents and tourists, providing a one-seat ride between the Mall, downtown, and mid-city neighborhoods. It would provide a direct connection to all 5 Metro lines, a crucial reliever of core Metro capacity and an alternative during service disruptions.
It would also restore bus service on the east side of Dupont Circle which ceased two years ago when Metro re-routed the L2 away from 18th Street. With this proposal, all of the bus pads that were installed as part of the streetscape project on 18th just a couple of years ago can serve a purpose again.
What about other routes?
DDOT's 2011 Circulator master plan envisions extending the current Rosslyn-Dupont route to the U Street and continue the National Mall route up 23rd Street and over into Georgetown by way of Pennsylvania Avenue.
There are better ways to expand service. An extension of the Mall Circulator into Georgetown would be redundant with the 31 Metrobus, but with less utility since the 31 serves the entirety of the Wisconsin Avenue corridor up to Friendship Heights.
Extending the Rosslyn-Dupont route, on the other hand, raises issues about service reliability and neglects to serve Foggy Bottom and the National Mall. The current route already must traverse congested L and M through Georgetown and the West End.
Our proposal introduces a more direct, less traffic-choked connection to the Blue and Orange lines for Dupont and mid-city residents, while implementing service in areas of Foggy Bottom that don't have good transit service.
Our proposal isn't perfect. We're not transit professionals; we're community activists looking to improve connectivity between our neighborhoods in a way that reduces automobile dependence and hopefully serves many of the city's goals.
We know, for instance, that there many not be enough demand for Circulator service on the National Mall at 11 pm on a Saturday, but there may be a lot of demand in U Street and Dupont Circle. We also would love to extend this route proposal farther east to Howard University, with its transit-dependent student population. We welcome suggestions as to how to resolve these, and other, potential dilemmas.
Tonight, February 25th, DDOT will hold its semi-annual forum on the Circulator, where members of the public can comment on future service. This is a critical opportunity to ask agency officials to consider our proposal.
Despite the long road and uncertainty that lies ahead, we feel that this idea is one worth sticking with and fighting for. It would benefit residents, workers, and tourists alike, while providing benefits for local businesses and inducing additional tax revenue for the District.
Now that the National Park Service has changed the rules of the game, it's time to examine the opportunities, and provide better transit options for everyone.
The polar vortex is back, and so are your chances to talk about DC's proposed zoning update, buses in the District and Montgomery County, housing in Arlington, and more at events around the region.
It's time for the Circulator: The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is hosting its Semi-Annual Circulator Forum this Tuesday, February 25.
The discussion will likely cover the planned National Mall route, a potential fare hike, and a 2014 update to the Circulator's longer-range plan. The forum is 6-8 pm at Eastern Market's North Hall, 225 7th Street SE. If you can't make it, you can send comments to Circe Torruellas at email@example.com or call 202-671-2847.
After the jump: speak up on King Street bike lanes and DC's zoning update, learn about bus rapid transit in Silver Spring, glean wisdom from Arlington housing officials, and take a walk to see the negative implications of a proposed highway in Montgomery County. Plus, don't forget about our happy hour in Alexandria this Thursday!
Big meeting for King Street: Alexandria's Traffic and Parking Board, which decided to defer bike lanes on King Street, will discuss the issue once again tonight at the council chambers in Alexandria City Hall. WABA says it's an important meeting and there will be a lot of "vocal and motivated" opponents. The meeting starts at 7:30 and you have to sign up by 7:45.
Final zoning update hearing: A snow day forced the DC Office of Zoning to reschedule its planned hearing on the zoning update for residents of wards 1 and 2. The meeting, which is the last of the series, will finally take place starting at 6 pm this Wednesday, February 26 at the DC Housing Finance Authority, 815 Florida Avenue NW. If you are a ward 1 or 2 resident who wishes to testify but has not signed up, please click here.
Rapid Transit open house: Montgomery County planners are working on a bus rapid transit (BRT) network to improve accessibility and mobility throughout the county. Join Communities for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth on Wednesday, February 26 from 6:30-8:30 pm for a brief presentation on how the system is an opportunity to move people and connect communities, even as population and congestion rise. A collaborative discussion and questions are welcomed.
The event (and refreshments!) are free but RSVP is recommended. The meeting will be held at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.
Join us for happy hour this Thursday: Greater Greater's monthly happy hour series heads to Old Town Alexandria this Thursday, February 27, with cosponsors CNU DC. Come share drinks, snacks, and conversation with us at the Light Horse, located at 715 King Street between Columbus and Washington streets, from 6 to 8 pm. The Light Horse is a 15-minute walk from the King Street Metro station, but there are also a number of bus and Bikeshare connections as well.
Hear neighborly advice from Alexandria: If you're not at the happy hour, also on Thursday the Montgomery County Planning Department hosts housing officials from Alexandria in part two of its Winter Speaker Series. Mildrilyn Davis and Helen McIlvaine will talk about about how Alexandria has redeveloped blocks of public housing into mixed-income communities and built affordable housing alongside new public buildings.
The APA National Capital Area Chapter is co-hosting this event, which is free to the public. It starts at 6 pm in the Montgomery County Planning Department Auditorium, 8787 Georgia Avenue.
Learn about law and planning: That's not the only forum APA-NCAC is cosponsoring on Thursday. The National Capital Planning Commission is hosting a panel discussion with area planners about how the laws of our region's many jurisdictions and levels of government shape our planning. That's 6-7:30 pm at NCPC, 401 9th Street, NW Suite 500.
Walk and talk about Midcounty Highway's future: Over the summer, the Montgomery County Planning Board received 237 comments from the public about Midcounty Highway or M-83, a proposed highway between Montgomery Village and Clarksburg, 228 of which were in opposition. This Saturday, March 1, you can join the TAME Coalition (Coalition for Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended) in Montgomery Village for walking tours, to see exactly what the proposed highway would damage or destroy.
The tours start at South Valley Park, 18850 Montgomery Village Avenue, and end at Montgomery Village Avenue. You can choose to tour either the wooded area or the non-woods area that would be affected. Registration begins at 12:30 pm, and the tours will go from 1:30-3:30 pm. You can park at South Valley Park near the ball field, next to Watkins Mill Elementary School.
This week brings your last chance to testify on DC's proposed zoning update, your first to learn about parking meters on the National Mall, and your second to discuss north-south streetcar implementation.
Speak up or be left out: Hearings this week will be your last chance to speak out on the proposed changes to DC's zoning code. The final code will have important implications for parking minimums, corner stores, accessory dwelling units, and more. Residents who wish to testify in person must do so at the meeting for the ward where they live. If you have not already signed up, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth's sign-up center for assistance. The times, dates, and locations for this week's meetings are below the jump.
Also after the jump: proposed redesigns for MLK Jr. Memorial Library and Franklin Park, an update on stopping M-83 in Montgomery County, and the second series of public meetings on the North-South DC Streetcar study.
Here's when the final DC zoning update meetings will be held. (The meeting for wards 5 and 6 already took place last Saturday.)
- Wards 1 & 2: Thursday, February 13 at 6:00 pm, DC Housing Finance Authority building, 815 Florida Avenue NW.
- Wards 3 & 4: Tuesday, February 11 at 6:00 pm, Woodrow Wilson High School Auditorium, 3950 Chesapeake Street NW.
- Wards 7 & 8: Wednesday February 12th at 6:00 pm, Department of Employment Services, 4058 Minnesota Avenue NE.
Stopping M-83: Montgomery County residents who oppose the M-83 highway can learn more about efforts to stop it this Tuesday, February 11. Join the Action Committee for Transit as they host Margaret Schoap, of the Coalition for Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended, at 7:30 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.
MLK revamp: The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is slated for renovation. The architects of the renovation proposals will present their proposals this Saturday, February 15 at 10 am in the library's Great Hall, 901 G Street NW. You can also stream the presentations live on YouTube or in a Google Hangout.
Dedicated lanes for North-South streetcar?: DDOT is hosting a series of public meetings next week to discuss the planned route for a north-south streetcar line. One big question is whether the planned route will include dedicated lanes. The meetings are:
- Tuesday, February 18 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 1100 4th Street SW.
- Wednesday, February 19 from 10 am-12 pm, MLK Library, 901 G Street NW.
- Wednesday, February 19 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Banneker Recreation Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW.
- Thursday, February 20 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Emery Recreation Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW.
Over the next two weeks, you can learn about plans for transit on I-66 and for meters on the Mall, speak up on WMATA's budget and the DC zoning update, and see a play with us in Arlington.
Come see Clybourne Park with us: Join us to go see Clybourne Park, an award-winning play about gentrification in Chicago, this Sunday, February 9. We'll have an open discussion with the show's director, the cast, and some GGW contributors after the show.
The show begins at 2:30 pm at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center, located at 125 South Old Glebe Road in Arlington. The theater is about a mile from the Ballston and Virginia Square Metro stations and accessible by Metrobus routes 10B, 23A, 23C, and 4A, or ART route 41. Purchase tickets here.
Talk about parking meters on the Mall: The National Park Service has plans to help fund a new Circulator bus route by adding parking meters to free parking on the National Mall. On February 11, NPS will hold a public meeting to discuss the parking meter proposal at the NPS National Capital Region Headquarters Cafeteria, at 1100 Ohio Drive SW beginning at 6 pm.
See the future of White Flint: Montgomery County wants to transform Rockville Pike from a suburban strip to a new downtown. Hear how the county's working with property owners, local businesses, and residents to make it happen during a lunch talk with Lindsay Hoffman, executive director of community organization Friends of White Flint.
The event is this Wednesday, February 5 from 12:30 to 1:30 pm at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW. The talk is free, but you need to register.
Last chance to speak out on DC's zoning update: The last round of public hearings on a rewrite of DC's 50-year-old zoning code begin this Saturday, February 8 and continue throughout the week. Interested in testifying? Attend the meeting for your ward and speak your mind. The hearings are first come, first served, so be sure to sign up early. The Coalition for Smarter Growth has a guide for signing up here.
The ward-by-ward schedule is below:
- Wards 1 & 2: Thursday, February 13 at 6:00 pm, DC Housing Finance Authority building, 815 Florida Avenue NW.
- Wards 3 & 4: Tuesday, February 11 at 6:00 pm, Wilson High School Auditorium, 3950 Chesapeake Street NW.
- Wards 5 & 6: Saturday, February 8 at 9:00 am, Dunbar High School Auditorium, 101 N Street NW.
- Wards 7 & 8: Wednesday February 12th at 6:00 pm, Dept. of Employment Services, 4058 Minnesota Avenue NE.
The schedule of remaining hearings is below. All meetings begin at 6 pm with an information session, followed by the hearing at 6:30 pm:
- Monday, February 3: Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, 2616 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in DC, two blocks from Anacostia (Green Line).
- Tuesday, February 4: Montgomery County Executive Office Building, 101 Monroe Street in Rockville, two blocks from Rockville (Red Line).
- Wednesday, February 5: Arlington Central Library, 1015 North Quincy Street in Arlington, three blocks from Virginia Square (Orange Line).
- Thursday, February 6: Metro headquarters, 600 5th Street NW in DC, two blocks from Gallery Place-Chinatown (Red, Green, and Yellow lines).
Improve transit options on I-66: The Virginia Department of Transportation is exploring options to improve transit on I-66 in Fairfax and Prince William counties. They will be holding a public meeting to talk about the results of their recent environmental impact study and share ideas and suggestions for transit improvements. The second and final meeting is
tomorrow, February 4 Wednesday, February 5 at 6:30 pm. It will be held at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, at 10800 Vandor Lane in Manassas.
The long years of having no public bus, or only an expensive $27 Tourmobile, to get around the National Mall may soon come to an end. The National Park Service is now planning to fund a Circulator bus route in part through adding parking meters on the Mall.
The meters will be the multi-space kind and will go along the roads under NPS control and which allow parking. They will charge $2 an hour, likely including weekends and holidays, according to news reports.
Today, all of that parking is free. In many areas, like Constitution Avenue, workers in nearby buildings show up early and grab the spaces all day. That might be a good deal for those people, but it doesn't help anyone reach the Mall and isn't the best use of the spaces.
This has been in the works for years. For a long time, the Tourmobile was the only option to get around the Mall. NPS had a long-standing exclusive contract which prohibited any other transportation service.
That meant that when DC first launched the Circulator bus, it couldn't use the internal roads on the Mall. Nor would NPS allow any signs on the Mall pointing visitors to the buses.
In 2011, the Park Service terminated its contract with Tourmobile, and began talking with DC officials to create a Circulator route. DC wasn't ready to launch it back in 2011, but this year they are, and NPS is now getting ready to add the meters.
There is a public meeting at 6 pm on February 11 to discuss the plan.
While much of Tysons Corner is slated to become a new urban center, parts of the area will remain disconnected office parks for the foreseeable future. By planning for future demand and leveraging rising property values, Fairfax County can encourage more investment in the area and provide new public amenities, like improved transit.
Last week, President Obama announced that the federal government may try to reduce its support for mortgage company Freddie Mac, headquartered in Tysons Corner. If Freddie Mac eventually downsized or consolidated its operations, they might sell their 37.8-acre campus on Jones Branch Drive, far from Tysons' core or the Silver Line.
This may not happen for years, if not decades. By then, it may not be as desirable a location, especially when the Silver Line opens and Tysons begins the transition to a more urban, walkable place. But a land sale could be an opportunity to bring one of its largest office parks in line with the larger vision.
Freddie Mac's campus contains just 800,000 square feet of Class A office space. When built in 2002, it had a very desirable location: direct access to the Dulles Toll Road and adjacent to the Westpark transit center, served by 6 Fairfax Connector routes. It's also close to the new Jones Branch Drive exit on the new 495 Express lanes.
Map of Tysons with Freddie Mac and Jones Branch Drive from the Tysons Comprehensive Plan Amendment and edited by the author.
By 2025, much of the land around the four future Tysons metro stations will be substantially developed. The street grid will still be discontinuous, and each of the station areas may act as a discreet hub, similar to Reston Town Center. But the area will have enough density to justify its own internal transit needs, perhaps even exceeding the capacity of bus service.
Meanwhile, the office parks of North Tysons, where Freddie Mac is located, may have filled in with some residential development. But it still won't have direct access to transit, nor is it covered by the design guidelines of the Tysons Comprehensive Plan, which guides the redevelopment of Tysons. Freddie Mac's property will be very valuable, but the current zoning and allowable density prevents major redevelopment from occurring.
In order to take advantage of this site's potential, two things need to happen. First, Fairfax County should rezone the property for higher density and mixed-use development to fit with the larger vision for Tysons Corner. Second, the county should start planning for high-quality transit service to North Tysons that can not only support future redevelopment, but be financed by it as well.
Street section of light rail on Jones Bridge Drive. Image from the Tysons Comprehensive Plan Amendment.
The Tysons Comprehensive Plan refers to a light rail circulator that would serve parts of Tysons Corner that are far from the Silver Line. The estimated cost of a 2.5-mile light rail line along Jones Bridge Drive between the future McLean and Spring Hill Metro stations (via a future bridge over Scotts Run) is about $60 million.
This assumes that Jones Bridge's existing right-of-way could accommodate a new rail line. Let's take a worst-case scenario and say the county would need an additional $40 million in right-of-way. For approximately 200,000 square feet of land, that comes out to a very conservative $8.8 million per acre.
With a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 3.0, Freddie Mac's 37.8 acres could easily support 5 million square feet of development. (To compare, the property's current FAR is about .5, and the maximum FAR allowed in downtown DC is 10.) If the county rezoned the property, they could also levy a special tax as was done for rezoned properties associated with the Silver Line, or to cover school and public safety improvements.
At the current assessed price per square foot, a fully built-out development on this property would have assessed value of $2.1 billion, generating $23.1 million in taxes to Fairfax County and $2.1 million in special taxes each year. The county could initiate a bond using the special tax as backing that could pay for all capital costs associated with the light rail.
Is this all pie in the sky? Of course, as is the case with all long-term planning, everything over the course of 20 or 30 years is an assumption based on reasonable estimates created from a past history. If Tysons' critics are right, it may struggle to get development activity going, and vacancy rates could be high enough to undermine the marketability of such a land transfer. If that were the case, the above scenario would not be necessary.
So far, that's not the case. Land sales in Tysons have garnered a lot of private interest, especially for large corporate campuses. If those trends continue, Freddie Mac could sell their property to a developer in the future, and the county as well as taxpayers could really benefit. It would also be a step towards creating a new type of infrastructure in Tysons, giving more options to commuters, workers, shoppers, and residents.
What the sprawl history of Tysons has taught us is that if you don't plan for the future, you are destined to end up with a disconnected mess. Instead of leaving the Freddie Mac property to deteriorate or hoping for a new corporate tenant, Fairfax County needs to plan their next steps and leverage future changes to the benefit of Tysons and the county.
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