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Transit


How much of a workout would you get walking from one Metro stop to the next? This map shows you.

How realistic would it be for you to walk rather than take the Metro? This map of the DC Metro system includes number of miles between stations, how long it'd take to walk that distance, and the number of calories you'd burn if you did:


A zoomed in look at Wells + Associates' map. Here, you can see the short distances between some stations and the longer ones between others. Images from Wells + Associates.

The map, created by Wells + Associates, with data from Google Maps, tells commuters just how realistic it might be to leave a station and walk rather than take a train.

Between each station, there are three numbers: the first one, which is blue, says how many minutes it'd take to walk; the middle one, which is purple, says the distance between them in miles; and the third one, which is green, says how many calories you'd burn if you made the walk.

If you're using Metro in downtown DC or in Arlington, where many stations are less than two miles apart,making the final leg your commute by foot or bike may just save you time, reduce stress, and burn off a few calories before you settle down at your desk.

In other places, like on the far east end of the Green Line where the Suitland and Branch Avenue stations are 2.8 miles and a 55 minute walk apart, and on the west end of the Silver Line, where the distance between the Spring Hill and Wiehle-Reston East stations is a whopping 6.9 miles apart, that isn't exactly a realistic choice.

In cases like these, if driving isn't an option, biking or waiting might be the only feasible option.

Would you be less likely to wait out that final 8, 10, or 20 minutes for the next train if you knew your destination was just a few blocks away?

Transit


Why is there no Metro line on Columbia Pike?

Along the Metro tracks just south of Pentagon station, there are two dead-end tunnels that branch off in the direction of Columbia Pike. They were built so Metro could expand westward in the future, so why has the line never received serious consideration?


These Metro corridors got heavy consideration in the 1960s. Graphic by the author.

Columbia Pike, which runs southwest from the Pentagon to Annandale, passes through several residential and commercial areas, including Bailey's Crossroads at the intersection with Leesburg Pike. When Metro was in its initial planning stages in the 1960s, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the National Capital Transportation Agency studied routes on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and Columbia Pike was among the routes the agencies considered.

The NVTC envisioned a Columbia Pike Metro line running to Americana Fairfax at the Beltway via Little River Turnpike, which is where Columbia Pike ends in Annandale. The NCTA considered a route along Columbia Pike that was as an alternative to what would become the Orange Line. It ran from the Pentagon to the Barcroft neighborhood, where it turned north at Four Mile Run until it joined I-66 and continued west.

Ultimately, a number of factors led to this corridor being dropped from consideration, the largest being its price tag. To avoid tunneling and to minimize cost, Metro planners prioritized using existing rights-of-way, such as highway medians and railroads, for its potential routes.

This, combined with the desire to ensure Metro connectivity to north Arlington and Springfield, led to the Virginia getting Metro corridors along I-66 and the RF&P railroad (what would become the Orange and Blue lines, respectively).


Metro tunnels outside of the Pentagon. Graphic by the author.

The Columbia Pike line would have needed to be entirely in a tunnel all the way to Annandale, and its projected ridership was simply not sufficient to justify such a high cost. The cost also resulted in pressure from Maryland to prevent Virginia from having three lines, worried that the Columbia Pike line would reduce money available for the rest of the system.

There were some outspoken proponents of a Columbia Pike line, most notably the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Frederick Babson. Babson had campaigned on getting the Columbia Pike line built, and as such was very vocal at planning meetings.

In 1967, largely to placate Babson, WMATA did some informal studies on the Columbia Pike line as an alternative to the north Arlington line. These studies did not change the Board's decision, and to this day remain the last studies done on a Columbia Pike Metro line.

Likely as a consolation, the Columbia Pike line remained on WMATA's planning maps as part of several aspirational dotted lines for "future extensions." The corridor described by the NVTC appears on this 1967 proposed network with a modification to serve Lincolnia, but by the time the official Adopted Regional System was determined, the line was truncated there.


The Columbia Pike line on the 1968 Adopted Regional System. Image from DDOT.

In 1968, WMATA Board director Jay Ricks noted that the Columbia Pike line was ruled out with the understanding that it would have top priority for any future extensions, and that the line would be reinstated if the state of Virginia made more money available.

The Silver Line opened in 2014, so this obviously didn't happen. A Columbia Pike line has not seen any serious consideration since 1967. The Columbia Pike Transit Initiative did not include rapid transit as a possible alternative, and though WMATA has recently studied many theoretical routes as part of its long-term vision, a line along Columbia Pike is not one of them.

Is a Columbia Pike line possible in the future?

Though some residents along Columbia Pike were opposed to a Metro line because they didn't want the level of development and growth that occurred in north Arlington, such development has occurred regardless. There is much more residential density along Columbia Pike than there used to be, and job centers like the Mark Center have popped up along the corridor. The Skyline Center at Bailey's Crossroads was even built largely in anticipation of a Metro line.

Would this increase in potential ridership be enough to justify constructing the line today?


Bailey's Crossroads skyline. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Unfortunately, the cost of an underground Metro line remains a substantial hurdle. The proposed tunneled segments of the Silver Line in Tysons and Dulles Airport were rejected due to their high cost. Given that Arlington County had difficulty justifying the cost of the Columbia Pike streetcar line, proposing an entirely tunneled Metro line may be a near-impossible task.

However, the most significant barrier to a Columbia Pike Metro line is capacity. How this line would integrate into the Metro system was never seriously considered. Simply building off of the stub tunnels at Pentagon would create the same capacity issue that planners are working to solve at Rosslyn, where there's a huge bottleneck, and like most proposed Metro extensions, a new downtown core line would need to come before any regional expansion because all possible routes the line could take after Pentagon are at capacity.


Metro's current capacity constraints. Graphic by Matt Johnson.

Metro's current long-term vision for future service downtown includes a loop line via Georgetown and Union Station with a supplementary station at Rosslyn and the Pentagon. The addition of the second Pentagon station could allow for a Columbia Pike line to exist, integrating into the downtown loop. I've created a hypothetical example of how this might work below, utilizing the alignment from 1967.


How a Columbia Pike line could integrate into the future Metro system. Graphic by the author.

The growth of the Columbia Pike corridor has made it a desirable line for many residents in the area, but its high cost and operational difficulties mean that we won't see such a line for many years, at least until Metro's downtown core capacity issues are resolved first.

Transit


The service cuts Metro is floating are draconian, harmful, and could further damage Metro's reputation

Closing 20 Metro stations except during rush hour? Cut bus service around the region? Raise fares? WMATA is facing a budget crisis, and some of the solutions on the table look grim. Even these ideas don't get serious consideration, our contributors say putting them on the table is a door we should leave closed.


Metro should be very careful about what it says is on the chopping block. Photo by Michael Coghlan on Flickr.

On Thursday, WMATA's staff will give a presentation to the Board of Directors on potential ways to close a $275 million budget gap. Or, put another way, staff will warn the board that without more money, some drastic measures may be inevitable.

The draft presentation that came out on Tuesday lists options like closing 20 stations during off-peak hours (nine of them on the east end of the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines, along with three on the west end of the Silver Line) and shutting down a number of bus lines, including the brand new Potomac Yard Metroway.


Under one possible proposal, stations with red dots could only get service during rush hour. Image from WMATA.

The first thing to remember is that this isn't an official proposal; it's a cry for help. It's WMATA saying that it needs more money to operate the entire rail system, and if that money doesn't come in, these are possible options for cutting costs to a level commensurate with current funding.

"These sorts of things are usually setting the doom an gloom in hopes that the jurisdictions up their contribution or become more amenable to higher fares," said Steven Yates.

WMATA has certainly done that before, like in 2011 and in 2015. Payton Chung also pointed out that Chicago's CTA spent much of the mid-2000s preparing and releasing two budgets per year: "a 'doomsday' budget that assumed no emergency funding, and included savage service cuts, and a business-as-usual budget that could be implemented if additional operating subsidy were granted."


Do you know the story of the Metro who cried wolf? Photo by sid on Flickr.

But even if this is just a play in the game to get more funding, it's a move that has real consequences in and of itself.

"I don't know how well that plays anymore given the very short leash that Metro is on," said Travis Maiers. "I get the sense patience has run thin and everyone is tired of Metro crying wolf and/or begging for more money, coupled that the system never seems to visibly improve. "

Justin Lini, an ANC Commissioner in DC's Kenilworth neighborhood, where the Metro stop would be one of the ones affected, said that even floating this idea sends a message to an entire portion of the region that's already disadvantaged:

I'm a big supporter of Metro—I chose a job, bought a house and basically planned my life around the system. I've worked with their staff on issues big and small. I publicly laud them when they do something right, even small victories.

But then WMATA publishes a document that says "We'll just have to stop providing service to the black folks east of the Anacostia." How am I supposed to support them when they're using all of east of the river as a bargaining chip? At best this is a tone deaf distraction, but I can guarantee you most people east of the river aren't going to see it that way.

Travis continued:
No one wants to stand up and vouch for Metro, and frankly, it's very difficult to do that even if you want to. In many ways Metro is its own worst enemy, with the subpar service it provides, the constant breakdowns, and its poor accountability and maintenance record. And I feel this kind of proposal only makes it more difficult in persuading people to contribute more money.

Either way, what a lousy situation we are in. WMATA acknowledges that poor service is hurting ridership, so what does it propose? Make service even worse and charge more for it! Even if it's bluster, it's a sad state of affairs.

Mike Grinnell was particularly concerned about Metroway BRT:
Potomac Yard's Metroway route is an important investment in the region's first BRT line. Alexandria and Arlington have over $40 million and years of planning and construction invested in the project. It seems very short-sighted to cut the program only two years after it came on line as the large apartment buildings start to fill with potential riders. Service cuts will only sour the region's opinion of this affordable option.

That said, it does receive by far the largest subsidy listed on slide 36. It should make for an interesting discussion.

Canaan Merchant agreed with Mike, and pointed toward what giving these possibilities serious consideration would say about our outlook on public infrastructure:
That and the Silver Line are two sad examples of the way we've gotten about transit projects in this country. If they are not an instant success then they're deemed failures. It's not like we built either to just stick around for a year or two and then take out if they "didn't work".

It's not how we planned those projects and it never was a goal to treat them like that and now we have one group saying its better to abandon it now despite all the other plans that has gone into all of this work.

And it unfortunately provides one answer to the question of "what should we build first, transit or density?" because apparently if we build the transit first we might just end up threatening to take it away faster than you can get a building permit for an apartment building nearby.

"Considering how many mixed-use developments will be coming online in Tysons, Reston, and in Loudoun over the next 5+ years," said Kristy Cartier, "Not giving the Silver Line a chance is extremely short-sighted."

Do you agree? Is WMATA crying wolf, and if it is, are the townspeople going to come save it or leave it alone because of all those other times?

Transit


There’s no place like… the Ballston Metro station

I love the Ballston Metro station. And that makes sense, given that I'm an unabashed Metro fanatic and Ballston has been my home station since I moved to the region in 1997. It's a shining example of just how great a neighborhood can become when we build good transit and then use it to anchor retail, commerce, and housing.


Image by the author.

With 11,520 average daily boardings in 2015, Ballston-MU (the station's official name as of 1995) was ranked as the 17th-busiest of WMATA's 91 stations, and the fifth-busiest in Virginia (behind Pentagon, Rosslyn, Pentagon City, and Crystal City). Ballston's status as a major bus transfer station no doubt plays a factor in this high ridership: 13 Metrobus routes and seven Arlington Transit (ART) routes connect Ballston to the rest of the county, as well as to Alexandria, Fairfax, and even Georgetown and K Street via route 38B.

As detailed by Zachary Schrag in his seminal book The Great Society Subway, the portion of the Metro that now constitutes the Orange Line between Rosslyn and Ballston was originally supposed to run entirely in the median of I-66 (as it does from Ballston westward to Vienna), in order to speed commuters from Fairfax County into DC.

However, Arlington officials were able to convince Metro's planners to reroute the Orange Line about a half mile south of I-66, in a subway to be built beneath the declining commercial corridors along Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive. By concentrating development around the new Metro stations in these areas, Arlington would be able to massively grow its population and job market in the coming decades without increasing automobile traffic.


Ballston in the 1970s, with station entrance circled in red. Note the bus bays located on the current site of Ballston Metro Center, as well as the still-existing IHOP. Photo courtesy Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development, with addition by the author.

As the western end of this new "Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor," Ballston was envisioned as the shopping and retail hub of the county. The station was to be located just a few blocks from Parkington Shopping Center (now the redeveloping Ballston Common Mall), and would eventually be connected to the mall by a series of skybridges. The entrance is also just a few blocks from Marymount University's "Blue Goose" building, which also recently underwent redevelopment.

The station was originally designated as "Glebe Road" in planning documents, but it was renamed to Ballston before it opened. Glebe Road is a major north-south arterial in Arlington that is served by numerous buses connecting to Ballston, and the station lies just east of Glebe's intersection with Fairfax Drive.

The Orange Line used to end at Ballston, even though that wasn't ideal

Ballston station opened on December 1, 1979, as the western terminus of the new Orange Line. The opening coincided with the completion of the Court House, Clarendon, and Virginia Square stations west of Rosslyn. From its opening until the western extension to Vienna opened in June 1986, Ballston was the western terminus of the Orange Line.

Interestingly, Ballston was one of the only terminal stations in the history of the Metro system to have side platforms. This would present several difficulties from an operational standpoint, as terminal stations are almost always built with island platforms so that trains can berth at either track, and customers do not have to wait on the mezzanine to see which platform their train will service.

(The Orange Line had technically commenced operations a year earlier when the extension to New Carrollton opened, but the extension to Ballston was the first time that it operated as a completely separate service from the Blue Line. See our evolution of Metrorail animation for an explanation of this discrepancy.)


Commuters at Ballston station shortly after it opened in 1979. Photo courtesy of DC Public Library, Star Collection.

When the station first opened, the Ballston area still mainly consisted of auto body shops and empty lots. The nearest major attraction, the 1950s-era Parkington Shopping Center, had fallen into decline and would not be renovated and reopened as Ballston Common until 1986.

Development from the 1980s onward

Ridership at Ballston declined steeply after the Orange Line was extended westward to Vienna in 1986, falling from 11,300 to 8,100 daily boardings over the course of a year. However, passenger volumes gradually increased over the coming decades as the area welcomed new development and an influx of residents, and the station was transformed into the focal point of a wonderfully walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood.


Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Plans for the "Ballston Metro Center" complex were unveiled in 1985, and the project was completed in 1989. The building is directly adjacent to the Metro entrance (protected from the elements by one of Metro's first escalator canopies), and contains 300,000 square feet of office and retail space, as well as a Hilton hotel and 320 condominiums. New pedestrian bridges provided direct connections to Ballston Common Mall and the headquarters of the National Science Foundation.


Ballston Metro Center entrance from the station escalator. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Ballston was renamed to Ballston-MU in December 1995, to recognize the nearby Marymount University facilities on Fairfax Drive. Silver Line service to Ballston began on July 26, 2014, when that line began operating between Wiehle-Reston East and Largo Town Center.

Future plans for the station include a second entrance at North Fairfax Drive and Vermont Street, in order to better serve new development near the intersection of N. Fairfax and Glebe Road. The station will also see increased service from several ART bus routes under the recommendations put forward in Arlington's new Transit Development Plan, in order to foster connections between numerous local routes serving the County.


The Ballston neighborhood today. Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

Today, Ballston station continues to drive development in the surrounding neighborhood, with almost a dozen transit-oriented development projects in the pipeline. It remains the busiest Metro station west of Rosslyn, and ridership should only continue to rise with the addition of new TOD and bolstered bus service. Ballston-MU shows the power that rapid transit can have when its transformative development potential is fully realized, and I'm proud to call it my home station.

Do you live or work near Ballston? How has Metro changed your neighborhood for the better?

Transit


On Thursday, the WMATA board heard about why Metro keeps catching on fire. Then on Friday, Metro caught on fire.

At the height of Friday afternoon rush, an insulator caught fire at Metro Center, kicking off a meltdown on the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines. A smaller but similar incident hit the Red Line Sunday evening as well. The day before, the WMATA board received a briefing on the power system that both issues were related to and how problems with it continue to plague the system.


Photo by John Grant.

Friday's fire right around 5 pm at Metro Center on the Orange/Silver/Blue lines caused trains to halt service for around 40 minutes and then single-track until the system closed, delaying thousands and adding an hour or more to some commutes. Sunday's issue happened at a time where delays were an inconvenience for fewer people, but it was certainly a problem nonetheless.

Issues can crop up at various points in any power system, which makes routine maintenance so important. Substations that receive power from the supplier (Dominion and PEPCO, primarily) have cables that run to the third rail, which runs alongside the tracks that trains run on and which supplies power to the trains. Trains use this power, which is then fed back through the rails through the "negative return" back to the substation.

The likely culprit in both incidents is what's called stray electrical current, which can happen when a power circuit is created through a path that isn't the one intended. Instead of making a circuit from the power substation through cabling to the train then back out through the rails, an alternate circuit path could be created across insulators or through the stud bolts that help secure the tracks.

This unexpected path can create arcing, smoke, and fires, which cause harm to the equipment and are dangerous for passengers. Dirt, dust, and other contaminants, all of which aren't exactly uncommon in Metro tunnels, can increase the severity of stray currents.

When these mixtures stick to the third rail insulators, the insulator's function starts to break down. Instead of preventing the current from "escaping" the third rail through the trackbed, the debris lets the current travel to unintended portions of the system not meant for it. These stray paths can case bolts to heat up and glow, smoke, or spark, or cause the insulators to arc or even catch fire if they've broken down far enough. These side-effects are just a few reasons why proper maintenance of a power system and making sure insulators, supply and return cables, transformers and other components is important.

The stray current and other power issues aren't new to Metro; a current issue across an insulator led to an explosion at Federal Center in May, and arcing insulators are almost a common occurrence, especially on the Red Line.

Metro's General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, requested an American Public Transportation Association (APTA) peer-review of portions of its third-rail power system back in June, and the report was made available after WMATA's September 22nd board meetings. The peer review request was part of Metro's safety department's larger holistic review of the power system to try and help pinpoint and solve its various power issues once and for all.

The APTA review provided a list of observations about Metro's third rail system that could potentially cause issues. One of the primary ones (which isn't a new idea, or even new to Metro) is that the reviewers found "insulators seemed to be excessively contaminated" both in the rail yard they visited as well as on open track. This contamination, a combination including brake dust from train brake pads, oils, and various other types of dust and debris, can stick to the insulators that hold up the third rail which provides power to the trains.


A cracked insulator, which the APTA peer review noted. Image from WMATA.

APTA gave Metro two recommendations for the contamination. One, Metro should analyze what the deposits on the third rail insulators are to figure out where they come from, and determine how to cut down on how much is generated. Second, they suggest Metro develop and maintain an insulator cleaning program. A tunnel cleaning program did exist at Metro up through the early 90's, but was terminated.

APTA reviewers also found that Metro staff are "constantly in a catch-up mode" when it comes to the power system, so they don't have much time for preventative maintenance that might also help cut down on smoke/fire incidents.

Metro's Board of Directors has heard about many of these issues before

The lack of an active cleaning program was one issue the NTSB found that contributed to the January 2015 smoke incident that killed one passenger and injured dozens others. Metro's deputy general manager in May of 2015 told the Board that the agency was to reinstate this program, and wanted to become "so proactive that these incidents don't happen."

Smoke and fire incidents, many caused by stray or imbalanced current, continue to occur in the system—more have happened in 2016 than had up to this point and last year.

Metro is certainly more active now than it has been in the past regarding tunnel cleaning (said to be part of SafeTrack and partially restarted after the L'Enfant incident) and insulator replacement from ceramic to fiberglass within underground station limits is complete (but still needs to be done for above-ground stations and in tunnels), and many power cables and equipment have been replaced in the meantime as well.

But becoming a proactive organization requires hard analysis to detect issues and get to the root causes before they become larger problems, not simply when an outside organization finds them or when somebody gets hurt. It's a long road to walk down, but with the proper management it's an achievable goal and results in a safer and more reliable transit system for riders to use.

Transit


Let's stand by the Silver Line

Sharon Bulova chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

In light of the safety and maintenance issues that Metro is now addressing with SafeTrack, some members of the media have said that instead of building the Silver Line, WMATA should have fixed the rest of the system. As one of the leaders that helped make the Silver Line happen, I'd like to respond.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

Expansion and maintenance are not mutually exclusive when you do them both responsibly, and it is important to note that WMATA did not build or pay for the Silver Line extension. The Silver Line was financed outside of the WMATA budget, and funding to build the extension could not have been used instead for Metro maintenance.

Financing for construction of the Silver Line comes from multiple sources, including special tax districts in Fairfax County paid by commercial and industrial landowners along the Dulles corridor, motorists using the Dulles Toll Road, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the federal government, Loudoun County and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Silver Line took decades of planning and spanned numerous elected officials and leaders. The project almost died a few times, and the 2014 grand opening was a tremendous feat.
This extension of Metro has served as a major underpinning of economic growth and redevelopment in Tysons, spurring over 100 million square feet of new approved development within a half-mile of the new stations. In terms of growth in the commercial tax base, Tysons increased by a rate of 3.1% in FY 2016 and 10.8% in FY 2017.

By 2050, Fairfax County plans to attract 100,000 residents and 200,000 jobs to Tysons. Riders using the Silver Line from Phase I (Tysons/Reston) and Phase II (Dulles Airport and beyond) will have access to a one-seat ride to downtown DC and a safe and convenient connection to the rest of the region. This increase in connectivity and access to Metro is why ensuring the safety and reliability of the systen is critical to our region's success.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

Past WMATA leaders failed to make safety the top priority and neglected to do major maintenance as well. That led to tragedy and, eventually, the SafeTrack maintenance plan we see today. SafeTrack is impacting all Metro riders this year, but the heavy dose of maintenance medicine will shore up the entire system.

Paul Wiedefeld is focused on getting Metro back on its feet and transforming WMATA's culture into one that is safety-first. I believe this generation will be known for repairing, revitalizing, reinvesting, and reinvigorating the infrastructure that past generations built. While SafeTrack is placing a temporary burden on commuters, it's necessary and in many cases is being completed ahead of schedule. I believe this bodes well for WMATA's future.

I will be working with my regional counterparts through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Greater Washington Board of Trade to identify dedicated funding for WMATA. We must prepare for the future and we must do so safely, responsibly, and consistently. Our regional economy depends on Metro's success.

Transit


The West Falls Church station got far less use after the Silver Line opened

When the Silver Line opened in July of 2014, the West Falls Church Metro station took a huge ridership hit. But overall, the Silver Line meant more people riding Metro.


Graph by the author. Click for a larger version.

The chart above is based on the ridership data released by Metro in March. The stations noted here are West Falls Church and the five new Silver Line stations, with data coming from AM peak entries during typical weekdays.

In the span of two months, from a peak in June 2014 to a low in August 2014, West Falls Church station saw its average ridership drop by almost 70% with the opening of the Silver Line! While this appears to be bad news for West Falls Church and Metro, that isn't the case if you look at all six stations.

It looks like when the Silver Line opened, West Falls Church riders immediately switched to stations closer to their homes. That, or rather than driving to West Falls Church, they started driving to Wiehle, the only new station with parking (it could be a combination of both, of course).

Changes to bus routes in the corridor probably had a lot to do with the drop in entries at West Falls. When the Silver Line opened, 62 bus routes got modifications. 11 were eliminated altogether, and major feeder routes operated by Fairfax Connector, Loundon County, and Washington Flyer moved their terminus from West Falls to Wiehle Avenue.

Overall, the Silver Line and the bus service changes that accompanied it attracted new riders to Metro. This is evidenced in the the uptick in the grand total entries among these six stations. It's likely that a lot of new riders are commuters from Fairfax and Loudoun County, where Metro was previously unaccessible.

A goal of public transit is to offer people better access to transportation. The opening of the Silver Line made travel for existing Metro customers easier by putting stations closer to their homes, and also attracted new riders by offering an alternative to driving and carpooling.

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