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Lipstick can help the Tysons pig, a little

Fairfax County is considering dressing up the Silver Line's mammoth concrete pylons with murals. The idea could help animate the otherwise bleak, gray structures.

Mock up of a possible Silver Line mural. Image from the Tysons Partnership.

Ideally the Silver Line would've been underground through Tysons Corner. But federal rules that have since changed prevented that, forcing the Metro line above ground, onto a huge elevated structure.

That wasn't the end of the world, but it did condemn Tysons to some unnecessary ugly.

So why not dress it up? Murals can unquestionably make big gray structures more colorful and interesting. They're easy to implement, don't cost very much, and help a little. There's not much down side.

Murals are, however, still just lipstick on a pig. They don't solve the underlying deadening effect of bare walls. For example the Discovery building mural on Colesville Road in Silver Spring is surely better than bare concrete, but shops & cafes would've been better still.

And Tysons' murals won't be as effective as the one in Silver Spring. Colesville Road is basically urban, basically walkable. The block with the mural is the weakest link on an otherwise lively urban street.

But in Tysons, the Silver Line runs down the middle of Leesburg Pike, one of the most pedestrian-hostile highways in the region. If murals are added to the Silver Line, they may become the best and most interesting part of the streetscape, as opposed to the worst.

So by all means, Fairfax County should absolutely do this. Murals are a great tool to cover any large blank structure. But what Tysons really needs is walkable streets with lively sidewalks.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Breakfast links: Is the bar tender here?

Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.
This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Termites: the new face of gentrification?: Angry neighbors in Woodley Park argued with zoo keepers at a public meeting last night, saying that the African Termite mound at the zoo's new insect exhibit is taller than what existing zoning allows.

Silver line encounters another setback: Officials have discovered that the Silver Line does not meet the current Virginia fire code and construction will have to start over from scratch. A MWAA spokesperson says the estimated opening is now the year 2525, "if man is still alive."

A religious need for speed?: One motorist sect seeks a religious exemption from traffic laws. The Supreme Court will hear a case that followers of the Futurist Manifesto, who must "sing the beauty of danger" and exalt the "roaring motor-car which seems to run on machine-gun fire," are unfairly burdened.

If this bus is rockin' then it's probably full of passengers: The DC Commission on Human Rights has officially ruled in favor of recommending changing the name of WMATA's H8 bus line to something more friendly like L0V.

Streetcar opponents agree: Skeptics of the Columbia Pike streetcar had asked for a new study comparing the return on investment of streetcars versus enhanced bus on Columbia Pike. When the study, tailored to their specific requests, showed huge benefits to streetcars, at least two skeptics admitted they were wrong.

Takoma Park residents discover station: Some in Takoma Park were surprised to find out that adjacent to the Takoma Green, a park mostly made up of asphalt with some trees around the edge, there is also a Metrorail station. One surprised resident said, "Now I can tell my neighbors they can take the train when I see them walking on the sidewalk while I'm driving to my job near Union Station."

What rhymes with "No Parking"?: A new developer has joined the ongoing debate on the controversial parking lane on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, submitting a plan to redevelop the road into a 35-yard hopscotch course. Proponents who want to see the lane kept for parking are, naturally, hopping mad.

DC to hold election: The District of Columbia will select nominees for mayor, DC Council, and federal races today, over 7 months before the general election and 9 months before any new winners would take office. If Mayor Gray does not win renomination, the DC government may achieve absolutely nothing of note for ¾ of a year while staff have no idea who will run their agency come 2015.

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Lack of coordination blunts Dulles bus improvements

When the Silver Line's first phase opens sometime this year, there will be three new or altered bus routes connecting its temporary terminus at Wiehle Avenue to Dulles Airport. While they all serve a similar purpose, they'll have different branding and uncoordinated schedules.

Graphic by the author.

Current service

Currently, the airport has a few bus options. Metrobus runs the 5A express from L'Enfant and Rosslyn to the airport. Fairfax Connector operates their 981 from the airport to Reston and Tysons Corner. And the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) runs the Washington Flyer express service between the airport and West Falls Church on the Orange Line.

Right now, each of these services serves a different market. The 5A connects airport workers and budget-minded travelers with downtown. The 981 serves to connect Fairfax County residents to other bus lines, Reston, and Tysons. The Washington Flyer is oriented more toward travelers, and gets them swiftly to the Orange Line for a steep $10.

But with the Silver Line's opening just a few months away, each of these operators is revising its plans. The first phase of the new line will end at Wiehle Avenue in Reston, just 6.5 miles short of the airport.

The new plan

Once the Silver Line is open, the Fairfax Connector 981 will operate only between the airport and Wiehle Avenue, making a few local stops in Reston. The fare will be $1.80. The 981 will come every 20 minutes Monday through Saturday, and every 40 minutes on Sundays.

The Washington Flyer will operate similarly. It will run between Dulles and Wiehle Avenue as an express, not making local stops. The fare will be $5.00 and must be paid with cash or credit only, since SmarTrip isn't accepted. The bus will run every 15 minutes during peak hours, and every 20 minutes at other times.

The 5A will be unchanged. It will continue to run between the airport and downtown DC, with stops at Herndon and Rosslyn. The fare will likely go up to $7.00 with Metro's proposed fare increase. The 5A will run every 30 to 40 minutes.


What this means is that a transit rider at Dulles has several options to get into the city. But the options will have separate branding, will use different stops at the airport, and will cost different amounts to ride. That's not efficient, and it's not particularly helpful to the user.

Potentially, up to 7 buses per hour will be leaving the airport headed toward Wiehle Avenue. That's a bus every 8.5 minutes!

This is the perfect example of a place where coordination is best for transit users. If Metrobus, Fairfax Connector, and MWAA pooled their resources, the agencies could easily offer a commonly-branded bus service connecting Dulles and Wiehle Avenue.

And an ideal service would take SmarTrip and offer transfer discounts to other bus services and Metrorail. Buses could even carry a unique paint scheme to brand them as an airport connection. MWAA is buying new buses to replace the coaches currently operated on the Flyer route, and this would have been a perfect opportunity to have a fleet of airport-oriented buses.

But the lack of coordination between these agencies means that a passenger waiting for a Fairfax Connector bus that takes SmarTrip may watch one or two Washington Flyer buses go by. That's frustrating to riders, and inefficient for agencies.


The Silver Line could mean a big expansion for Reston Town Center

As the Silver Line arrives in Reston, Fairfax County is working on an update to the area's master plan, looking at ways to accommodate new growth while encouraging transit use.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

A planned community that began construction in the 1960's, Reston's urban vision has evolved over each successive phase. The original concept was for a suburban community that retained some walkability and had a mix of housing types. Starting in the 1990's, Reston Town Center sought to give the area a more urban character, if one with lots of parking, and became a de facto downtown for the area.

Fairfax County began working on a new master plan in 2009 as a way to plan for expected growth from the Silver Line, which will have two stops in Reston, at Wiehle Avenue and Reston Parkway. The plan represents a new phase for Reston that doesn't assume that everyone will want to get around by car.

The plan would address Reston's transportation challenges by making it easier to walk, bike, and use transit around the area's two future Metro stations, while minimizing the need to drive. It also calls for "aggressive transportation demand management programs to reduce vehicle trips."

Notably, the plan doesn't call for more and bigger roads to accommodate this growth, though it does recommend widening a short section of Reston Parkway to 6 lanes. Instead, county planners want to connect streets with a grid to disperse traffic, reducing the need for big, wide roads and providing an opportunity to build complete streets from the ground up.

Extending Reston Town Center to the north and south

Part of Reston's popularity is the easy access to the Dulles Toll Road, but the road also bisects the community. There are only a few crossings, and all of them are designed primarily for cars. The plan calls for 5 more crossings for all transportation modes, which could facilitate better movement between Reston's two halves.

It could also let the urban fabric of Reston Town Center continue further south towards the Metro stations, which will sit in the median of the Dulles Toll Road, and across the highway to the other side. Today, the areas next to the Toll Road consist of a strip of spread-out office parks about a 1/2-mile wide, which serve as a buffer to the residential neighborhoods beyond.

How Reston Town Center could grow to the north and south. (The image is rotated; north is to the right.) Image from Fairfax County.

The plan proposes redeveloping these office parks into urban neighborhoods similar to Reston Town Center. But there isn't a lot of room to build around the future Metro stations. In order for this to be successful, the county needs to zone for enough density and commit to good urban design so there are enough people and activity to encourage the use of alternatives to driving.

It may also be a challenge to convince multiple landowners and commercial tenants of office space to change their property to fit into this vision or give some up land for a new street. The CIA's Open Source Center sits directly between Reston Town Center and the future Reston Parkway Metro station, and the agency may resist changes that would make that campus more open and closer to development.

INOVA's proposal for redeveloping land north of Reston Town Center.

But while there is a space crunch between Reston Town Center and the Dulles Toll Road, there is a lot more room to grow to the north, as well as more committed landowners. This area consists of strip malls and a large, suburban-style medical center, which are ripe for redevelopment and sprawl repair. INOVA Hospital has expressed interest in redeveloping the medical facility as an extension of Reston Town Center and submitted this plan to Fairfax County.

This area is at least 3/4-mile from the nearest Metro station, but good development with a commitment to a complete streets policy could greatly extend the walkable range of the Metro station. There is also a call for a new urban park, community center, and library to help anchor this area and provide new open space for residents.

Parking maximums and the end of free parking

The report is pretty adamant that parking will be treated differently than it has before. There will be fewer subsidies that artificially lower the cost of parking, and the expectation is that most parking will be paid for by the users themselves. The plan also calls for the implementation of parking maximums in areas and a reduction or elimination of surface lots.

When it opens later this year, Wiehle Avenue will be the terminus of the Silver Line until Phase 2 is up and running. At that time, some of the parking being built now for transit riders could eventually be turned over to nearby developments, reducing the need to build new parking.

This plan is just the beginning

This is an ambitious plan, especially when you consider that the county is trying to do many of the same things in Tysons Corner as well. But Reston has the advantage of an existing, well-defined urban center and it has fewer traffic problems than in Tysons. This may make stakeholders more willing to devote resources to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit.

However, this plan is still a draft and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors needs to approve it. Once that happens, the real work of actually implementing the plan begins.

Funding concerns are always an issue, and there will be lots of discussion on what strategies are best. Another concern is about being able to coordinate with a wide variety of landowners; the report mentions this problem, but doesn't offer potential solutions. But Reston already has a long history of working within established plans over the past 50 years, suggesting it will pull through.


Virginia General Assembly rolls up its sleeves

Virginia's 2014 General Assembly is officially in session. As usual, there are plenty of proposed bills that could affect urban areas. Here are some of the key ones to follow.

Virginia flag image from

Bills that look promising:

  • SB97, requiring car drivers to leave three feet of clearance when passing a bicyclist.
  • HB761, allowing local governments to hire transit fare inspectors and to collect fines from fare violators. This will be necessary for any future streetcars that use a proof of payment fare structure.
  • HB626, changing the formula used to distribute transportation funds around the state, eliminating a provision that took $500 million off the top and allocated it to highways.
  • SB320, sponsored by Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington), allowing jurisdictions in Northern Virginia to implement plastic bag fees.
  • HB212, prohibiting drivers from holding pets while driving.
  • HB482, making failing to wear a seatbelt a primary offense, allowing police to stop and ticket people for that alone.
Bills that look troubling:
  • HB2, limiting transportation funding going to the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads construction districts to only projects that reduce highway congestion. Safety projects, maintenance projects, many transit and bike/ped projects, and just about everything else would be excluded.
  • HB40, HB41, HB425, HB635, and several others that all seek to reduce Northern Virginia's authority to build its own transportation projects, especially transit.
  • HB426, requiring VDOT to widen I-66 in Arlington.
  • HB281, restricting Northern Virginia from partnering with DC or Maryland on transportation projects, unless the costs are born exactly equally.
  • HB160, giving courts authority to reduce charges currently defined as "reckless driving" to merely "speeding."
  • HB792, requiring Northern Virginia communities to rewrite their zoning ordinances to restrict the number of housing units smaller than 500 square feet.
  • HB908, defining Uber as a "contract passenger carrier" rather than a taxicab, effectively removing any ability of localities to regulate it.
Other bills of interest:
  • HB870, providing a tax credit to companies that build their own infrastructure, including new roads.
  • SB505, a huge bill enacting a broad range of incentives for the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel.
  • HB560, allowing VDOT to grant Right of Way (ROW) permits to certain types of private companies, instead of only to public utilities.
  • HB691, creating a "Prince William Metrorail Improvement District," to begin the process to extend Metro into Prince William County.
  • SB156, requiring that either toll rates for E-ZPass users and non-E-ZPass users be set the same, or requiring the operator of a toll road to pay the annual fee for all E-ZPass users living within 50 miles of a toll road. This bill comes from Senator John Miller of the Hampton Roads area, where they are debating controversial proposals to let private operators collect tolls in exchange for rebuilding tunnels. But if the law passes it would also include much of Northern Virginia.
  • SB1, from Adam Ebbin again, that would repeal a higher tax on hybrid-electric cars. The tax was originally imposed to make up for such cars contributing less to the gas tax. Ebbin questions whether taxing more efficient vehicles is the best way to solve that issue.
  • HB122, defining three-wheeled mini cars that kind of look like hardcore golf carts with bigger engines as "autocycles" and regulating them in various ways. It's not a coincidence that this bill comes from Edward T. Scott, delegate from the very district that's home to the first autocycle manufacturing plant in the US.
  • HB475, legalizing pedestrians stepping into the roadway to solicit charitable contributions.
  • HB255, requiring red light cameras to have yellow light phases lasting at least three seconds.
It's going to be an exciting year, with numerous bills to root both for and against. There are also a lot of bills about the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and how Virginia will allocate the money from last year's transportation funding deal. We'll talk about those next week.


How would Metro's loop work with an Arlington express line?

Last week, we discussed Metro's proposed new downtown loop line in terms of the Blue and Yellow lines. Metro also plans to feed the loop with a new "express" line along I-66 in Arlington.

While Metro's plans are still in the early stages, at the moment, they seem to be focusing on a new line that would follow I-66 between East Falls Church and Rosslyn, bypassing the crowded Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

All graphics by the author.

Metro's 2040 projections indicate the need for a new line in Northern Virginia. They estimate that by 2040, there will be significant crowding aboard inbound Silver Line trains before they even get to Tysons, but sharing track with the Orange Line constrains its capacity. They also estimate that by 2040, passengers in the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor will find it difficult to board trains, with crowding conditions beyond what is considered acceptable today.

The new express corridor would run alongside the Orange Line in the median of I-66 from the junction with the Dulles Airport Access Road until the Orange Line splits off to follow Fairfax Drive. The new line would stay in the median of I-66 to bypass the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

The new line would allow up to 26 trains per hour (TPH) to run on the Silver Line as well as on the Orange Line, for a total of 52 TPH passing through East Falls Church. It would feed the proposed downtown Metro loop, along with the Blue and Yellow Lines.

The map above shows one way the new line could operate. Under this scenario, the Silver Line would have a companion, which I'm dubbing the Gold Line for the purposes of this discussion.

The downtown loop would have a capacity of 26 TPH in each direction. The Blue and Yellow lines would use 13 TPH of that capacity in each direction, leaving 13 TPH available on the inner loop and 13 TPH available on the outer loop. For this reason, half of the trains on what I'm calling the North Arlington Express line would need to run counterclockwise and half would need to run clockwise, at least to use the loop to its full capacity.

To avoid confusion, it is likely that Metro would use two different colors for the express line. In the scenario outlined in the map above, half of the trains coming from Dulles would be colored Silver, while the other half would be Gold. Each would alternate, going around the loop in the opposite direction.

Of course, it would also be possible to "transform" the lines as I described with regard to the Blue and Yellow lines on the loop in the last post. That way, riders would be used to taking the same color in the morning as the evening. But I did not illustrate that in a map, because with four lines on the loop, it becomes increasingly complex to show the transforms.

Running trains from the North Arlington Express onto the loop would maximize the capacity of the Dulles/Tysons line, the Orange Line, and the loop line at 26 TPH each.

Metro is not wedded to running the line down I-66. As planning continues, WMATA will do studies to determine the best location for the new line. It could be along I-66, or it could follow another corridor, but the concept is the same. By separating the Silver and Orange lines, WMATA can increase capacity to match the expected demand in northern Virginia.


How might the new Metro loop work?

Last week, WMATA planners released a proposal for a new Metro loop downtown to help relieve capacity issues on the other lines. How might this new line operate? Details are scarce, but we can talk about some possibilities.

Map from WMATA.

The proposal is to build a new Metro line that would loop through downtown DC. Starting at Rosslyn, the tracks would tunnel under the Potomac to Georgetown. They would then follow M Street and New Jersey Avenue to Union Station. The tracks would turn south along 2nd Street to cross Capitol Hill, and then parallel the Green Line under I Street. The loop would complete itself by joining to the existing Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac River.

Metro's proposal indicates that the loop line will be fed by the current Blue and Yellow lines, which would enter at the Pentagon station, and a new "express" line in northern Arlington, which would enter near Rosslyn.

Why build a loop?

Metro's team of planners looked at a variety of solutions to the core capacity issues, including new lines. The alternative they settled on was this loop. Why did they pick a loop?

Essentially, a loop solves most of Metro's problems relatively cheaply. The primary issue facing Metro over the next few decades is core capacity, espcially in terms of train throughput. The Blue/Orange subway through downtown is at capacity, and no more trains can be added.

Untangling the Gordian knot at Rosslyn is the most complicated part of this. What is most clear is that Metro needs a new Potomac crossing near Rosslyn to increase capacity on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines.

But Metro also needs more capacity around the southern side of downtown DC. Because the Green and Yellow Lines share the 7th Street subway, which is operating very close to capacity, each line can only be increased at the expense of the other line. In other words, WMATA can't add Green trains without subtracting Yellow trains. So Metro also needs a new subway for the Yellow Line.

However, Metro's studies found little need for a new subways outside of downtown based on the expected travel patterns in and density of those areas in 2040.

Essentially, Metro sees the need to build an east-west subway across the north side of downtown and a north-south subway across the east side of downtown. But they don't see a need for the east-west subway to continue east or the north-south subway to continue north.

For that reason, Metro thinks it makes the most sense to just connect the east-west and north-south subways at Union Station and operate them as a loop.

Operating patterns

It's not exactly clear how the new subway loop would work, and since this project is decades away from completion much could change. But there are a few likely ways it could operate.

For now, let's only consider the Blue and Yellow Lines. We will discuss the proposed North Arlington Express line in a later post.

Operating an inner and outer loop is one of the obvious choices. In this scenario, one of the lines would run clockwise around the inner loop, while the other line runs counterclockwise around the outer loop.

Scenario 1. All maps by the author unless noted.

So Yellow Line trains coming from Huntington would cross the Potomac north of the Pentagon, as they do today. Then they would continue east to Capitol Hill before turning north toward Union Station and going around the loop to return to Huntington via Arlington Cemetery. Blue Line trains would do the reverse.

One of the advantages of operating the Yellow and Blue lines as a loop through downtown is that the loop can actually carry more capacity. If the Blue and Yellow didn't need to share tracks with the Orange and Green lines, each could run at a frequency of 13 trains per hour (TPH) in each direction. And that means that the outer loop would have 13 TPH, as would the inner loop. Since Metro's track capacity is 26 TPH, there's actually room to add two more lines to the loop.

One of the disadvantages, though, is that riders who have a short one-seat ride in the morning have a long one-seat ride in the afternoon. Someone who commutes from Franconia to Georgetown has a pretty direct trip in the morning. But in the afternoon, they either have to face a long ride on the Blue Line via Union Station and Potomac Park or take a two-seat ride by riding the Yellow Line to Pentagon and changing.

"Transforming" loop trains would resolve that problem, though it would be more complicated and difficult to show on the map.

Scenario 2.

In this scenario, a Blue Line train leaving Franconia would run as far as Pentagon and then continue toward Arlington Cemetery. At some point on its journey, the train would magically transform into a Yellow Line train bound for Huntington. Yellow Line trains would operate similarly, becoming Blue Line trains during their journeys.

This way, a person who commutes from Franconia to Georgetown would have a short, one-seat ride on the Blue Line in both directions. The same would be the case for Yellow Line riders.

For anyone waiting for trains at a station on the loop, trains on the outer loop would always be bound for Franconia, but would have come from Huntington. On the inner loop, trains would be bound for Huntington, but would have come from Franconia.

To avoid confusion, trains bound for the loop would just be signed with their color and a destination of "Downtown." The change of color and destination on the loop wouldn't matter for the passengers on board, since the train would continue around the loop. This is, incidentally, what Chicago L trains do as they arrive at the Loop: they change their headsigns from "Loop" to whichever destination they're headed back to.

Alternatively, trains don't have to "loop" all the way around the loop. Instead, the Blue and Yellow lines could just be interlined on the new tracks.

Scenario 3.

In this scenario, Blue Line trains would operate onto the new tracks for a certain distance. On the map above, I've shown trains going as far as 4th & Eye, but they could stop at any point along the line (Union Station, for example). Then trains turn back around and run over the same tracks back to Franconia. Yellow Line trains would operate similarly.

Anywhere the two lines overlap would max out the capacity of the new line, just as the other lines in the core are currently topped out at 26 TPH. The reason this is true for the interlined scenario but not for the loop scenarios is because in the loop scenarios, trains run around the loop once. In the interlined scenario trains run over the tracks twice, once inbound and once again outbound.

North Arlington Express trains

As noted above, the new loop would also carry trains from the North Arlington Express line. We haven't discussed those trains yet, but we're going to cover how they might work with the loop in another post soon.

Metro's vision for the future is still decades away, so we have no idea what the final product will look like exactly. It might look like one of the operating patterns shown here, but then again, lots can change in 25 years. But Metro's core is approaching capacity, and expansion is desperately needed. Metro's new vision will set the stage for building the system's next generation.

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