Posts about VRE
I-95 in Northern Virginia is already one of the nation's most congested corridors, and forecasts predict it will only get worse. A new study by the GMU Center for Regional Analysis lays out the difficult decisions area leaders face regarding the corridor's future land use, economy, and transportation network.
At present, the I-95 corridor in Fairfax and Prince William counties is mainly a low-density suburban area. Most residents work in DC, Arlington, or Alexandria, and existing transit such as the Blue Line and VRE only serve inside-the-Beltway locations. The area's lone major employment center is Fort Belvoir, which is spread out and has limited bus service.
Traffic volume and congestion along I-95 are already very high, and major road investments are not expected to reduce congestion. Furthermore, job growth in the region has been occurring in areas like Tysons Corner and the Dulles Corridor, which are hard to reach from the I-95 corridor, especially by transit.
Development plans along the corridor envision a series of dense urban nodes around transit in places like Springfield, Huntington, and Woodbridge. But the success of those areas depends on carefully planned, and expensive, transportation investments both within the corridor and to other areas.
The situation is already problematic
The 21-mile stretch of Interstate 95 that connects the Capital Beltway and Quantico is one of the busiest highways in the eastern United States. The most heavily traveled segment of the corridor, located just south of Old Keene Mill Road, carries an average of 231,000 vehicles per day. This count includes about 30,000 vehicles per day in the corridor's reversible express lanes and about 14,000 tractor-trailers.
Traffic volumes along the corridor tripled between 1975 and 2000, but have flattened out since then. That's due to the expansion of transit and, more recently, the rerouting of through traffic around the "Mixing Bowl" interchange in Springfield.
Transit ridership in the corridor has increased dramatically over the past 15 years, with the average number of daily boardings on the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) tripling and the number of boardings at the Franconia-Springfield Metro station increasing by 48 percent. The corridor also contains more than 15 express commuter bus routes that connect it to the Pentagon, downtown Washington, and Tysons Corner. In total, about 27,000 transit riders per day make use of these rail or bus options to travel to work each day.
Surveys by transit operators show that the majority of these riders work for the federal government and routinely commute by transit four or five days every week. These transit options are becoming increasingly congested: VRE reports that its trains operate at as much as 20 percent over capacity during peak times.
Increased traffic in the corridor has been a function of commuting patterns. Since 1990, the number of people who live in Fairfax or Prince William and work in DC, Arlington, or Alexandria has remained flat, while the number who work in other locations increased by more than 100,000 people.
Nearly all existing transit in the I-95 corridor serves employment hubs located inside the Beltway, so few options exist for these commuters. Traffic has also increased due to additional commuting activity from Stafford, Fredericksburg, and points south.
Lots of growth, little land
The areas of Fairfax and Prince William around I-95 are primarily residential: the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) reports that the corridor contained 566,000 residents and 187,000 jobs in 2010. Most corridor residents live in low-density, single-family areas, and there is little undeveloped land remaining in the area. MWCOG forecasts that the corridor will add another 126,000 residents and 85,000 jobs by 2030. Where will they go?
A look at the Comprehensive Plans for the two counties provides some clarity. Each county has designated a small number of areas located directly along I-95 and/or around transit stations for mixed-use development.
Fairfax anticipates high-intensity residential and commercial development around the Huntington and Franconia-Springfield Metro stations. Meanwhile, Prince William is planning intensive growth around the Woodbridge VRE station and a potential future VRE station at Potomac Shores, north of Quantico.
But the county also wants growth at the more auto-dependent Parkway Employment Center, north of Potomac Mills, and Neabsco Mills, south of Woodbridge along Route 1. Since VRE has no immediate plans to expand service on the Fredericksburg Line, additional growth in these areas would further strain the already-crowded system.
Investment in roads and highways isn't enough
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is in the midst of completing a slate of "megaprojects" in the corridor. Two of these are already in place: the widening of I-95 between Route 123 and the Fairfax County Parkway, and the completion of the last segment of the Fairfax County Parkway, encompassing a network of new roads, interchanges, and trails around the Fort Belvoir North Area.
VDOT reports that these new facilities have slightly reduced congestion in this segment of the corridor. But these investments have not reduced congestion in adjacent areas and may have even worsened it by allowing more vehicles to enter and exit the highway.
VDOT's most ambitious project in the corridor is a $1 billion expansion of the I-95 express lanes. This project will extend the express lanes nine miles into Stafford County, add a third lane north of Prince William Parkway, and connect the express lanes with the I-495 express lanes. It will also convert the express lanes from HOV to high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes from Stafford County to Edsall Road, just inside the Beltway. The express lanes will remain as HOV-3 lanes along I-395 north of Edsall Road.
The express lanes project will unquestionably add highway capacity, but will it actually reduce congestion? A serious concern is that converting the existing HOV lanes to HOT lanes will very likely reduce carpooling activity, as people driving alone will be able to pay to use the express lanes. A reduction in carpooling translates to needing more vehicles to move the same number of people, contributing to additional congestion.
VDOT's own Environmental Assessment of the I-95 express lanes concluded that, while the project would improve the overall situation, several currently failing road segments would remain at failing levels. It further concluded that, after completion, the merge areas at the northern and southern ends of the HOT lanes would still operate at failing levels.
Clearly, even this billion-dollar project will not solve the traffic woes faced by I-95 corridor commuters. Additionally, this project is primarily aimed at moving commuters through the corridor, and does not address the need to better connect the emerging urban nodes in the two counties to each other or to the surrounding region.
So what can be done?
To their credit, both Fairfax and Prince William counties have committed to focusing future development around existing infrastructure. However, successfully clustering new development in this manner will create a complex set of challenges.
Improving transit connections to far-flung employment centers can reduce traffic. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.
The counties will need to provide transit that serves private-sector workers, particularly those with irregular hours and/or in dispersed locations. They will also have to improve access to existing and planned transit hubs from nearby neighborhoods and employment centers.
It's also necessary to attract the high-paying office jobs that planned suburban employment nodes will need, and to provide housing that matches up with those jobs' earning potential to allow for shorter commutes.
Once those jobs are in place, Fairfax and Prince William need to create new incentives to encourage carpooling, and to add capacity to the I-95 corridor's already strained and crowded transit systems. The counties will also have to work regionally to help address transportation problems that originate elsewhere but affect the corridor.
Continued congestion of highways, roads, and transit in the I-95 corridor threatens its prosperity. Public and private sector leaders at both local and regional levels will need to understand and address the above issues in order to achieve their bold visions for future development.
For years, leaders in Northern Virginia have been asking Richmond to let Northern Virginia raise its own money to spend on its own transportation priorities. They are finally getting the chance.
When the Virginia General Assembly passed a broad new transportation funding bill earlier this year, it included a section letting Northern Virginia raise and allocate hundreds of millions per year. Those new taxes began rolling in on July 1, with the beginning of Virginia fiscal year 2014.
On Wednesday night, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) officially approved its first set of projects. The authority allocated about $210 million, split roughly evenly between transit and roads.
The largest projects include the Silver Line's Innovation Center Metro station, new VRE railcars, and widenings along Route 28.
NVTA also approved a bond validation lawsuit that will preemptively ask Virginia courts to rule on NVTA's legality. That process should take 6-9 months, and NVTA will have to wait until it's over to actually start spending money. Taking the issue to court now means NVTA won't have to spend years fending off other court challenges.
The project list is below. For more details, see the project description sheets on NVTA's website.
|Transit and multimodal projects|
|Innovation Center Metro station||$41||Fairfax Co.|
|VRE Lorton station 2nd platform||$7.9||Fairfax Co.|
|WMATA Orange Line traction power upgrades for 8-car trains||$5||Regional|
|Potomac Yard Metro station environmental study||$2||Alexandria|
|Crystal City multimodal center bus bays||$1.5||Arlington|
|VRE Gainesville extension planning||$1.5||Regional|
|VRE Alexandria station pedestrian tunnel & platform improvements||$1.3||Alexandria|
|Herndon Metro station access improvements (road, bus, bike/ped)||$1.1||Fairfax Co.|
|Leesburg park and ride||$1||Loudoun|
|Loudoun County Transit buses||$0.9||Loudoun|
|Route 7 Tysons-to-Alexandria transit alternatives analysis (phase 2)||$0.8||Regional|
|Falls Church pedestrian access to transit||$0.7||Falls Church|
|Duke Street transit signal priority||$0.7||Alexandria|
|PRTC bus||$0.6||Prince William|
|Alexandria bus shelters & real-time information||$0.5||Alexandria|
|Van Buren pedestrian bridge||$0.3||Falls Church|
|Falls Church bus shelters||$0.2||Falls Church|
|Rt 28 - Linton Hall to Fitzwater Dr||$28||Prince William|
|Rt 28 - Dulles to Rt 50||$20||Fairfax Co.|
|Belmont Ridge Road north of Dulles Greenway||$20||Loudoun|
|Columbia Pike multimodal improvements (roadway, sidewalk, utilities)||$12||Arlington|
|Rt 28 - McLearen to Dulles||$11.1||Fairfax Co.|
|Rt 28 - Loudoun "hot spots"||$6.4||Loudoun|
|Chain Bridge Road widening||$5||Fairfax City|
|Boundary Channel Dr interchange||$4.3||Arlington|
|Rt 1 - Featherstone Rd to Mary's Way||$3||Prince William|
|Edwards Ferry Rd interchange||$1||Loudoun|
|Herndon Parkway intersection with Van Buren St||$0.5||Fairfax Co.|
|Herndon Parkway intersection with Sterling Rd||$0.5||Fairfax Co.|
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
In the DC region we have Metro and commuter rail trains, with light rail, streetcars, and BRT all in the works. And of course, regular buses. But one common mode we don't have is DMU trains, which bridge the gap between light rail and commuter rail.
DMU stands for Diesel Multiple Unit. DMU trains are intended to operate on routes that look like commuter rail, but at almost light rail frequency. They go over long distances, with infrequent stations, usually on or adjacent to freight tracks. But instead of coming only at rush hour, trains come all day long, as often as every 15-20 minutes.
That's a great service model for suburban corridors that need something better than rush-hour MARC or VRE service, but are too far away for light rail and don't have the density to justify the costs of Metrorail.
One big advantage of DMUs over traditional commuter trains is that DMUs can operate on-street, like light rail. That makes integrating them with downtown areas much easier, because it frees DMUs to go anywhere, rather than only to a city's main rail hub.
All MARC and VRE trains to DC must go to Union Station, because all the long distance tracks through DC go to Union Station. Not only does that constrain route planning, it's also a limit on capacity, because there are only so many platforms at Union Station. But a DMU could go anywhere.
There are not currently any plans for DMU lines in the DC region, but there could be. DMU would be a great solution for Maryland's proposed Charles County corridor or Fairfax's Route 28. Officials are looking at light rail for those corridors, but they're far out in the suburbs and wouldn't have very frequent stops, so DMU might be more appropriate.
In the long term it might also make sense to convert some of MARC and VRE's existing lines to DMU, or to supplement them with more DMU trains. That would give them more operational flexibility, and could increase service. But MARC and VRE are established as traditional commuter rail, and may be uncomfortable with anything else.
MARC and VRE also have to use tracks owned by freight companies. DMUs can be used in mixed company with freight, although that requires federal approval. But if the freight lines are already using their tracks to capacity, which is common in the DC area, then there's no room for more trains no matter what they look like.
DMU isn't Metro, and it isn't light rail. DMU trains can't do all the things those modes can do. It's not an appropriate mode where frequent stops are necessary. But for long corridors with infrequent stops and moderate capacity needs, it's ideal. We should keep in mind as we continue to advocate for new transit lines.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Maryland and Virginia will both enact major new transportation funding bills this year. Neither bill says exactly which projects will be funded, but here are the top 10 projects in Maryland and Virginia that most deserve to get some of the funds.
1. 8-car Metro trains: Metrorail is near capacity, especially in Virginia. More Metro railcars and the infrastructure they need (like power systems and yard space) would mean more 8-car trains on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.
2. Tysons grid of streets: Tysons Corner has more office space than downtown Baltimore and Richmond put together. Converting it to a functional urban place is a huge priority.
3. Purple Line: Bethesda, Silver Spring, Langley Park, College Park, New Carrollton. That's a serious string of transit-friendly pearls. The Purple Line will be one of America's best light rail lines on the day it opens.
4. Baltimore Red Line: Baltimore has a subway line and a light rail line, but they don't work together very well as a system. The Red Line will greatly improve the reach of Baltimore's rail system.
5. Silver Line Phase 2: The Silver Line extension from Reston to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County is one of the few projects that was earmarked in Virginia's bill, to the tune of $300 million.
6. Arlington streetcars: The Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars both have funding plans already, but could potentially be accelerated.
7. Route 7 transit. Leesburg Pike is the next Rosslyn-Ballston corridor waiting to happen. Virginia is just beginning to study either a light rail or BRT line along it.
8. Corridor Cities Transitway: Gaithersburg has been waiting decades for a quality transit line to build around. BRT will finally connect the many New Urbanist communities there, which are internally walkable but rely on cars for long-range connections.
9. MARC enhancements: MARC is a decent commuter rail, but it could be so much more. Some day it could be more like New York's Metro North or Philadelphia's SEPTA regional rail, with hourly trains all day long, even on weekends.
10. Alexandria BRT network: This will make nearly all of Alexandria accessible via high-quality transit.
Honorable mentions: Montgomery County BRT network, Potomac Yard Metro station, Virginia Beach light rail, Southern Maryland light rail, and VRE platform extensions.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Constantine Hannaher has made a hobby of using Legos to build models of DC-area buses and trains.
See more in Hannaher's Lego set on Flickr.
If MARC trains at Union Station became VRE trains to Virginia and vice versa, riders could reach more stations and we could use Union Station's limited tracks more efficiently. Unfortunately, there are several reasons this isn't as easy as it sounds. That doesn't mean trains can't run through, but a number of changes have to happen first, which cost money.
Previously, we talked about the biggest obstacle, high and low platforms. MARC has some high platforms and some low platforms, and wants one car type that can serve both, across all lines. But using those cars on VRE would slow down boarding considerably.
Still, is that a deal-breaker? The Brunswick Line has all low platforms today, which could accommodate VRE trains. What about just running VRE trains onto the Brunswick Line and vice versa to start with? Or just have some MARC trains go at least to Alexandria?
Unfortunately, the track layout at Union Station, insufficient space for reverse-direction trains on most lines, and limited platforms at L'Enfant and Crystal City all pose obstacles.
Union Station's tracks don't line up VRE and the Brunswick MARC
At Union Station, VRE trains coming from the south enter the station from the First Street Tunnel, at the far eastern end of the station. But the Brunswick Line's tracks come into the station at its far western end.
A Brunswick train crossing from the CSX Metropolitan Subdivision tracks on the west side of the station to the through tracks on the east side would have to cross all the tracks at Union Station, blocking trains on the other MARC, Amtrak and VRE lines.
That doesn't mean crossing over is impossible. It just makes scheduling more difficult. If in the future, for example, Acelas leave (and arrive) every 30 minutes and Regionals leave/arrive every 30 minutes, and MARC Penn trains leave and arrive every 20, there aren't many gaps for trains to cross over, and doing so can cause delays.
The Penn Line trains wouldn't face this problem, and as the highest-ridership line, that is the most logical one for through-running. But this is also the line with the most high platforms and thus the greatest incompatibility between MARC and VRE.
There isn't enough reverse-direction capacity
The Penn Line tracks do line up with the First Street tunnel; that's what Amtrak trains use to get to Virginia. Those trains could continue south to Alexandria, or even farther south. This could be a great asset for Penn Line riders, who could stay on the train to L'Enfant Plaza if they want the Metro Orange, Blue, Yellow or Green Lines, or ride to Crystal City or Alexandria if they work at jobs in Virginia.
Unfortunately, this would run into a second problem. There isn't enough track capacity south of Union Station. Right now, there are 2 tracks across the Potomac on the Long Bridge, and 3 through the L'Enfant Plaza area. CSX controls these tracks, and doesn't let VRE use all of the tracks.
Right now, VRE trains run almost entirely one-way. The trains head into DC on one track in the morning, and back out to Virginia on one track in the afternoon; in between, the trains sit at a yard near Ivy City in DC. The VRE schedule lists just one reverse-direction train, on the Manassas Line each morning and evening. Amtrak's trains go both ways all day, but there are only a few of those and mainly not at rush hours.
The bottom line is, if Virginia and Maryland wanted to have all or even some Penn Line trains continue past Union Station at least to Alexandria, there wouldn't be enough track space.
A similar problem applies to letting VRE trains continue north of Union Station. CSX has resisted letting Maryland's MTA add more MARC trains on the Brunswick and Camden Lines without also demanding Maryland invest some money into improvements along the route.
Stations are limited
Another issue with through-running is the design of the VRE stations at L'Enfant and Crystal City. These stations each have just one platform on one side of the tracks. That means trains can only serve the stations in one direction at a time.
This means the reverse peak direction trains on the Manassas Line each morning and afternoon can't stop at Crystal City or L'Enfant, because the trains running in the peak direction are using the platform track.
If Brunswick (or other MARC) trains could run south of Union Station today, they couldn't stop at L'Enfant or Crystal City, which is where most of the MARC riders would likely want to go.
Most of the other stops on the Manassas Line have the same configuration, with platforms only on one side as well. This will prove to be an obstacle for additional reverse peak direction trains, whether they're MARC or VRE.
Maryland Ave plan and Long Bridge study could fix this
There is hope on the horizon. The recent Maryland Avenue study recommended building a fourth track at L'Enfant Plaza. CSX could then let passenger trains travel in both directions at high frequency in that area. It would also transform the station from just one platform to 3, with a combination of high and low platforms for both types of trains.
The next bottleneck would be the 2-track Long Bridge across the Potomac, and there's another study going on for that. VRE's 2004 strategic plan recommended adding a 3rd track from the Long Bridge to Crystal City, where the line widens to 3 tracks, and giving the Crystal City station an island platform to serve trains in both directions.
Combined with needed improvements at Union Station, we might one day see a truly regional rail system, at least from Baltimore and maybe Frederick to Alexandria, alongside more frequent service from Fredericksburg and Manassas to DC. To make this happen, however, Maryland and Virginia will have to make it a priority. With an 8-year-old VRE plan and a 5-year-old MARC plan mostly collecting dust, riders will need to push their leaders to put resources into commuter rail.
It seems logical: MARC's trains all end at Union Station in the south. VRE's trains all end at Union Station in the north. Union Station has capacity constraints. Why not create one regional rail operator, where all trains continue through the core and out the other end?
This idea, often called through-running, comes up often. Unfortunately, several hurdles make it much more complicated and expensive than one would think at first glance. The platform heights and train systems are incompatible between MARC and VRE, the tracks at Union Station don't line up properly, and VRE does not right now have the track space.
The most technically difficult problem to resolve is platform height. MARC uses a combination of high platforms and low platforms, with their cars optimized for high platforms. VRE runs cars that can only use low platforms.
Unfortunately, just replacing all of the railcars in one of the two fleets would simply create another problem: inefficient boarding.
Why does VRE use low platforms?
VRE trains operate on two lines south of Washington that are owned by freight railroads. Because the freight railroads (CSX for the Fredericksburg Line and Norfolk Southern (NS) for the Manassas Line) own the tracks, they get to have a say about what types of platforms can be built. And that means low platforms.
Low platforms are typically placed at about the height of the top of the rail. The reason freight railroads want these types of platforms is because freight cars are wider than passenger cars, and high platforms could intrude into the dynamic envelope of a freight train.
As long as VRE operates on rail lines that are predominately freight railroad corridors, it will be stuck with using low platforms. There's not really anything wrong with that, except that in this case, it's an obstacle to through-running.
Railcar design matters
For passenger railroads using low platforms, there are 3 basic types of double-decker cars in use. Two of these offer access to the lower level with just one or two steps up from the platform, and can therefore be fairly efficient in boarding.
They're also much easier for mobility-impaired riders to board. Platforms can be designed to have a small area at the height of the floor, set back from the tracks. When necessary, a bridge plate is used for wheelchairs.
Left: A bi-level commuter coach with low-level boarding in Minneapolis. Photo by the author.
Right: An Amtrak California double-decker car. Photo by Wayan Vota.
Many cities outside of the Northeast use these cars, with the Amtrak California cars operating in Southern California and the Bay Area. The bi-levels are used in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and Miami.
VRE uses gallery cars, the third type. These cars have 2 levels, but passengers must climb 4 steps to board even just to the lower level. But the stairs are fairly wide and are not as steep as the stepwells on high-platform equipment. Gallery cars cannot use high platforms at all.
In order to speed boarding, VRE could easily move toward either the bi-level or Amtrak model. In fact, for a while, VRE was using a set of bi-levels leased from Seattle's Sound Transit.
What's wrong with using high-platform equipment on VRE?
If MARC can use high-platform equipment, why can't VRE? Well, VRE could use high-platform equipment, and in fact, they have done so in the past. But using high-platform equipment at low platform stops is inherently less efficient.
Using high-platform equipment means that conductors have to manually open each door (instead of automatic doors in the whole train) at low-platform stops. That generally means that only one or two doors aboard the train can open, as is the case with the MARC stops at places like College Park and West Baltimore.
Additionally, boarding a high-platform train from a low platform means ascending a narrow, steep staircase. That means it takes longer for passengers to board and alight.
What about MARC?
Like VRE, MARC runs 2 of its lines on tracks that are primarily used for freight. For that reason, most of the stations on the Camden Line and all of the stations on the Brunswick Line have low platforms.
But for MTA, the agency that operates the MARC commuter trains, it makes a lot of sense to have a fairly standard fleet because it can then move its cars between lines as necessary.
MARC's busiest line, the Penn Line, operates on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, and most of those stops have high platforms. This is due to the fact that Amtrak (and the previous operators) have long used single-level railcars for their services. For single-level cars, high platforms are the only way to have step-free access to trains.
On the Penn Line, south of Baltimore, only West Baltimore, Halethorpe, and some of the platforms at Union Station are still low. Halethorpe is currently undergoing conversion to high platforms, and Amtrak recently announced plans to convert most of the platforms at Union Station to high platforms.
On the Camden Line, Greenbelt and Camden stations have high platforms. The other stations all have low platforms. On the Brunswick Line, all stations have low platforms.
What does this mean for through-running?
The practical effect of this arrangement is that through-running trains from either MARC or VRE will be difficult.
The current fleet of VRE trains are not able to use high-platform stations, which means they can't operate on the Penn Line to Baltimore. VRE trains also can't operate on the Camden Line, because they would be unable to serve the terminal station in Baltimore, since it only has high platforms. And that leaves the Brunswick Line as the only viable line they could operate on.
But running VRE trains on the Brunswick Line presents some other challenges: the way tracks are laid out in DC. Tomorrow, we'll look at those issues.
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