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Pedestrians


Walkers were left out in the cold after the blizzard

If you try to walk around in many parts of our region, particularly in the suburbs, it's easy to get the feeling that you're an afterthought, at best. Governments' actions in the recent "Snowzilla" blizzard show even more clearly how being "multimodal" is more lip service than reality.


Photo by Fionnuala Quinn.

In Fairfax County, sidewalks in neighborhoods and along major arterial roads were impassable a week or more after the storm. Schools in Fairfax, Arlington and other jurisdictions closed for seven consecutive weekdays, putting many parents in a bind. Children lacked safe routes to school and safe places to wait for buses.

This was no simple issue of having to prioritize; as Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova told residents, the Virginia Department of Transportation, which plows all of Fairfax's public roads, was not going to clear the sidewalks, and the county had no plan to either.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

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Transit


Walking and transit score high in Virginia's transportation rankings

Scores that evaluate transportation projects in Virginia recently came out, and many of the highest belong to projects focused on walking and transit. That's because they provide the most bang for taxpayers' bucks.


West Broad Street and Oak Street in downtown Falls Church. Image from Google Maps.

In Northern Virginia, projects that focused on improving walking conditions and transit service came out on top in statewide rankings for cost-effectiveness. These included:

  • Sidewalk work in downtown Falls Church between Park Avenue and Broad Street (#2 statewide)
  • More marketing of transit and carpooling in the I-66/Silver Line corridor (#3)
  • Improving crossings at several intersections on Broad Street in downtown Falls Church, including at Oak Street (pictured above) (#8)
Passed in 2014, a state law commonly known as HB2 requires Virginia's Department of Transportation to use an objective and quantitative system to score transportation projects. The idea is to make planning more transparent, but high score doesn't guarantee funding nor does a low score preclude it.

In the most recent rankings, 287 transportation projects from across the state received two different scores, one based on the total projected benefit and one based on the benefit divided by the total funding request.

Each of the projects above would cost between $500,000 and $1 million, while most other projects would cost many times that amount. For total project benefits, the addition of High-Occupancy/Toll lanes to I-66 outside the Beltway has the highest score, but it requires a $600 million public investment.

Here's more detail about the law

Virginia law requires that "congestion relief" be the primary metric in scoring projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Scores also account for a project's environmental impacts, how it fits with local land use plans, and what it might do for economic development.

Three agencies developed the evaluation system: Virginia Department of Transportation, the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, the and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The agencies have posted a wealth of data on the HB2 website. You can search for projects in various ways, including by jurisdiction. Data points such as whether or not a project has bicycle facilities, and how it is coordinated with nearby development projects, are posted in an easily navigable format.

What do you think of the analyses? Is there a project in your area that scores higher or lower than you would have expected?

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Roads


Reston wants urban street grids around future Metro stations

Fairfax County wants to make it easier to walk, bike, and drive in Reston, especially to current and planned Silver Line stations. A new street grid and three ways to cross the Dulles Toll Road are part of the plan to make that happen.


Image from Fairfax County

The county's Department of Transportation recently kicked off the Reston Network Analysis, which is focused on finalizing the grid of streets necessary to support the coming development around three new Metro stations in Reston.

Ideas for near the stations include new bike lanes, adjusted traffic signals, and re-striped roads, as well as realigned or wider roads. It's also possible that Fairfax will build new roads in these areas.


Proposed bike facilities in Reston. Image from Fairfax County.

One of the Reston-wide improvements is the Soapstone Drive Overpass , which will provide another connection across the Dulles Toll Road and a new way to get to the Wiehle-Reston East station.

There will also be a Town Center Parkway Underpass to provide an additional connection across the Dulles Toll Road to help relieve Fairfax County Parkway and Reston Parkway. It will also provide a direct connection from the transit-oriented developments to the north and south of the Reston Town Center station.

A November presentation also mentioned a South Lakes Drive Overpass. The connection would be similar to the Soapstone over pass, allowing for pedestrian, bikes, single-occupancy-vehicles and busses to cross the Dulles Toll Road without using Wiehle Avenue or Hunter Mill Road.


The Reston Transportation Study Area. Image from Fairfax County.

The study will also look at ways to improve four specific areas: Reston Parkway from Lawyers Road to Baron Cameron Avenue; Fairfax County Parkway at Spring Street; Fairfax County Parkway at Sunrise Valley Drive; and Rock Hill Bridge, which connects Loudoun County and Fairfax County over the Dulles Toll Road.

These areas are under consideration because they are important parts of Reston's transportation network and are currently over capacity or will be after the redevelopment around the Metro stations occurs. The study will also look at how to make it easier to bike and walk in these areas.

The Hunter Mill Supervisor has appointed the Reston Network Analysis Advisory Group to help staff develop and test ways to make the street grids better.

In 2015, the Fairfax Department of Transportation presented a report that summarized existing conditions by looking at traffic counts from mid-2015. Among the key findings in the report:

  1. During evening commutes, the intersection of Wiehle and Sunset Hills rates an "F" for level of service
  2. The planned grid of streets will make pedestrian access and mobility near transit stations better
  3. The report also published baseline vehicle volume levels near current and future Silver Line stations
For future trips that come from more density around the coming Metro stations, the goal is to cut vehicle trips within a quarter mile of the stations by 45%.

Members of the public can learn about and comment on the project at a meeting on Monday, February 1 from 7-9 pm at Lake Anne Elementary School, which is at 11510 North Shore Drive in Reston. You can also contact project manager Kristin Calkins at Kristin.Calkins@fairfaxcounty.gov.

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Pedestrians


Pedestrian deaths tripled in Fairfax County. Bad road design didn't help.

Eleven people on foot died in crashes in Fairfax County in 2015. That continues a rising trend since 2012, when the number was just four. What's going on?

NBC4 reporter Adam Tuss talked to some people about what's going on. A leading hypothesis in the story is that more people are walking around. That seems likely, but one element is missing: how poorly Fairfax's roads are designed for walking.

A number of people in the story talk about newcomers. One driver says, "I definitely worry about people who aren't from here," who try to cross when they don't have the light or not at a crosswalk. The subtext sure sounded like, "... people aren't familiar with the way we haven't designed roads for pedestrians in Fairfax County."

Just look at this intersection where Tuss is standing, the corner of Gallows Road and Route 29. It's about 0.6 miles from the Dunn Loring Metro station. And it's huge.


Image from Tuss' report.

That Target is part of the Mosaic District, which was designed to be walkable and transit-oriented. The interior is beautiful, but to get there from Metro requires walking along a not-very-hospitable sidewalk on 6- to 8-lane wide Gallows, and then crossing this monstrosity, 9 lanes on both Gallows and 29.

VDOT widened both roads in 2011 in a project billed to "increase safety, reduce congestion and enhance bicycle and pedestrian access," but which prioritized car throughput over other considerations. (This recent article from Joe Cortright effectively summarizes the mindset that would let VDOT think this would "increase safety.")

At least there are sidewalks, though, and you can legally walk directly along the road. That's not always true elsewhere in the county, like at Tysons Corner. Some sides of many intersections there were never designed for people to cross on foot. Only a lot of people are, now that Metro goes there.


Tysons Corner. Photo by Ken Archer.

Lucy Caldwell of Fairfax Police told Tuss, "We have situations that have occurred near Metro [stations], where people sometimes don't want to take that extra few minutes, and they cross where they shouldn't be crossing." If someone has to walk a few minutes farther to cross a road, most of all near a Metro station, you haven't designed it right.

To its credit, Fairfax officials are trying to gradually fix these spots, but there's a long way to go.

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Roads


For I-66, outside-the-beltway lawmakers say "toss the facts, widen baby widen"

A group of Virginia state legislators from outside the beltway are urging Governor McAuliffe to widen I-66 inside the beltway, rather than go forward with VDOT's transit and tolls proposal. But years of data say the multimodal proposal would be more effective.


I-66. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

What's happening with I-66

Over the course of 2015, the Virginia Department of Transportation settled on a plan to change how I-66 inside the beltway operates.

Instead of the current configuration where the entire highway is HOV-only in the peak direction during rush hour, the peak direction would become HOT, meaning single-occupant cars could travel on it if they pay a toll, while HOV cars remain free.

In exchange for letting single-occupant cars onto a highway they're currently not allowed to use, toll revenue would go to improving transit.

Then, after a few years of operating like that, VDOT would study how traffic changed, and either widen I-66 or opt not to.

That plan had been gaining steam all through 2015, as VDOT did the planning to take it from rough concept to fully fleshed out project.

Some just want a wider highway

Then the Virginia General Assembly began its 2016 session, and a prominent bill proposes to kill the project, replacing it with a straight-up widening of I-66. The bill's author, western Fairfax / eastern Loudoun delegate Jim LeMunyon, consistently advocates for bigger highways, and has a history of trying to cut transit and bike/ped funding.

Governor McAuliffe, who supports the transit and tolls plan, says he won't veto the bill if it reaches his desk on the back of support from Northern Virginia's delegates.

That prompted a group of seven other lawmakers, all from the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, to urge VDOT to drop the transit and tolls plan, and support widening only.

No lawmakers from inside the beltway, where this plan would actually take place, signed on to the letter.

Analysis says the transit and tolls plan is better

VDOT's transit and tolls plan has been in the works for 13 years. Studies in 2003, 2009, and 2012 built towards the 2015 proposal, all of which determined a widening-only approach wouldn't work very well.

Most recently, in 2015 VDOT ran three projects through a sophisticated computer model called "HB-599," to see how they would affect traffic congestion. The three projects:

  • "Transform66 Inside," the transit and tolls proposal
  • "Widen I-66 Inside," a widening-only alternate
  • "Transform66 Outside," an entirely separate project outside the beltway, that's less controversial.
The outcome: For inside the beltway, the transit and tolls proposal is a far more effective project than widening only. It reduces congestion on I-66 much, much more than widening only would. Never mind the added mobility and benefits to car-free urbanites. Simply in the terms of reducing highway congestion, the model says the transit and tolls proposal is better.


Image by VDOT.

Be objective, unless being objective doesn't produce what you want

Ironically, the HB-599 process is Jim LeMunyon's own brainchild. It's the result of a bill he sponsored in 2012 to force Northern Virginia to objectively evaluate the congestion reduction effects of major projects.

But now the HB-599 results are in, and alas, they aren't what LeMunyon hoped for. According to LeMunyon's own hand-picked metrics, the transit and tolls project is better than just widening.

But none of that matters to the outer suburban politicians who just want bigger highways. For them, I-66 seems to be a case of "Damn the numbers! Widen baby, widen!"

What will happen?

Until a bill to block tolls becomes law, VDOT is continuing to move forward with the transit and tolls plan. If the plan stays alive, construction will begin this summer, and the project will open in the summer of 2017.

With Governor McAuliffe threatening to withhold a veto, some of Northern Virginia's lawmakers will need to come out in support of the transit and tolls plan. Virginians can contact their lawmakers via the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

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Public Spaces


The National Park Service turns 100 this year

2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which oversees lots of outdoor space in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. All year, there will be special events throughout our region to celebrate.


The Korean War Memorial. All images from the NPS.

The NPS is celebrating its milestone birthday with events and fee-free days all across the country. During National Park Week, which is April 16th-24th, admission to all NPS sites will be free.

In May, an exhibit celebrating biodiversity in the US will come to the DC, with an accompanying festival on the National Mall. There are battlefield and garden tours scheduled in Virginia throughout the spring, and a few chances to learn about Maryland's roads and trails are coming up soon.

Since its establishment in 1916, 44 years after Congress designated Yellowstone National Park as the country's first national park, the NPS has come to oversee 400 unique places, ranging from national parks and monuments to battlefields and parkways.

The DC region has a unique relationship with the NPS. In the city alone, NPS manages 23 places, notably Rock Creek Park, National Mall, and its surrounding monuments. These parks represent a significant portion of our green space, generating more than $600 million in economic activity, supporting physical and mental health, and providing cultural resources.


The National Mall and its monuments are among the most popular places in the NPS system.

Of course, the NPS' involvement in local land use decisions does have its downsides. NPS controls the open space within DC's L'Enfant City, subjecting urban parks to the same planning and permitting process as Yosemite National Park. In 2014, its representative to the DC Zoning Commission successfully led the push to keep the 1910 Height Act intact.

Maryland and Virginia have an additional 37 sites combined, including the George Washington Parkway, Mt. Vernon Trail, or Great Falls Park.


Great Falls Park on the Potomac River in both Maryland and Virginia

NPS sites generate nearly $250 million and $1 billion in economic activity in Maryland and Virginia, respectively.


Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, a Civil War battlefield.

What are your favorite NPS parks in the region, and why? Tell us in the comments!

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Pedestrians


Officials are blaming people for walking in the street, but they aren't ensuring clear sidewalks

In the snowstorm's aftermath, local officials are telling people not to walk in the streets. But they're not offering any alternatives to those who don't drive.


Photo by Jason Vines on Flickr.

After the snowstorm, something magical happened. People began filling the streets, to play in the snow or to frequent the few businesses that managed to stay open. Across the east coast, people starting documenting their vibrant, yet unplowed, streets with the hashtag #snopenstreets.

Local leaders have been vocal: "Don't walk in the street"

But city and county officials spent much of the weekend admonishing people for walking in the street, and even threatening to fine people for it.

On Twitter, DC Councilmember Jack Evans told people whose only option was to walk to stay inside if there wasn't a clear sidewalk.


Screenshot from the author. Original tweet was deleted.

In an exchange with Greater Greater Washington contributor Gray Kimbrough, Montgomery County officials dismissed concerns about a dangerous situation for pedestrians on a busy street by saying people should just stay off the roads.

In a press conference yesterday, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker asked people to move their vehicles out of the path of plows, but then went on to ask that neighbors avoid walking in the streets:

"There are people walking in the middle of streets," he said. "It is dangerous. Please, if you don't have to be outside, do not go outside."

In a Washington Post article, DC Police Chief Lanier said that police would cite drivers stuck in the road, but that people could also be fined for walking in the street. "We're going to have to start stepping up and being a little more aggressive about asking our public not to be out, walking in the streets," Lanier said.

At the same time, clear sidewalks aren't a priority

While there is a legitimate need to keep roads clear of vehicles and people so that emergency vehicles and snow plows can pass, those who aren't driving need a way to get around. That's supposed to be clear sidewalks, but efforts to make that happen have been dismal at best.

In DC, police the mayor decided not to fine residents for failing to shovel their sidewalks, even though a new law permits them to do so.

During the Twitter exchange Kimbrough had with Montgomery County, the Montgomery account said the county had not cleared its own sidewalks because the primary focus is on roads for now.

And in many suburban parts of the area, governments don't clear sidewalks on major roads at all, so the responsibility falls to good neighbors.

Drivers shouldn't trump pedestrians after a snow emergency

With restaurants and bars offering specials, sledding hills calling out to kids (and kids at heart), and, you know, people needing supplies after being stuck inside for 48 hours, residents are going to leave their homes no matter what, even with most transit options closed.

But sidewalks aren't cleared, and in many places won't be cleared for days (until the snow melts). So now, with sidewalks impassible, pedestrians are still walking in the street. But cars aren't moving at 6 mph, they're moving at 40 mph. We should make space for our most vulnerable road users first. Otherwise we expose them to unsafe situations.

While the line on Friday and Saturday was generally "stay off the roads," it has since evolved to "If you get stuck and block snowplows, we'll fine you." A message that's basically "it's fine to drive now, just stay out of the way of plows" and that does not stress the importance of slowing down and watching for people walking implies that drivers have more right to mobility than pedestrians in a snow emergency. So does telling people not to walk at all.

Just last night, a snow plow struck a man walking on Georgia Avenue in Montgomery Hills. And two years ago, days after a snowstorm, a driver struck and killed a man on the Sousa Bridge. The pedestrian path had not been cleared. In fact, it had been filled with the snow plowed off the vehicular lanes.

Is this what Vision Zero looks like for our region?

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Government


Local (and federal) governments want you to go sledding!

For the first time in recent years, government officials are actually encouraging (or at least tacitly allowing) area residents to have some winter fun on hills that were previously off limits to unsanctioned sledding.


Photo by Stephanie Clifford on Flickr.

Last year, DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton slipped a rider into the federal Omnibus Budget that overturned the 140 year-old ban on sledding on the West Lawn—other activities like throwing Frisbees, to our staff editor's chagrin, remain banned.

Local officials are also trying to bring some semblance of reason to sledding in the region: Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson recently released a list of sanctioned sledding hills in all parts of the county.

Here is a list of sledding hills across the region. Some are sanctioned, others... not so much.

Government officials have long been accused of not letting "kids be kids" and letting liability concerns keep residents from sledding on a number of the area's totally great hills. It came to a head in 2015, when US Capitol Police vigorously enforced a longstanding ban on sledding on Capitol Hill, ending in an odd detente between families with small children and heavily armed officers.

Similar stories were playing out all across the region on local levels, sledders being chased away out of safety or liability concerns, or being worried about property damage (think golf courses).

It's worth noting that these concerns aren't always unfounded, as a local child was severely injured last year while sledding. But strict rules put local authorities in the difficult position of enforcing bans, when many hills were safe in most circumstances.

Sledding is great for communities

Lots of people in more spread out places joke that they only meet their neighbors during snowstorms and power outages, when everyone is outside with a common cause. Shared use recreation, particularly during a time when most residents are home, is a fantastic way to build community and promote neighborhood cohesion in general. Some neighborhoods across the area even close certain streets in snowstorms to allow children to safely sled on them.

From a government policy perspective, this is a "quick win" that provides a tangible benefit at little cost.

"Sometimes it takes so long and it is so hard to get things done or change a policy, so it feels great to be able to do something like this that doesn't require years of study and analysis or figuring out where to find the budget," said Anderson. "I want to make sure everyone knows that we are working to maximize access to parks wherever and whenever we can. In some cases we can't allow access, but I want to look for ways to say yes, not for reasons to keep people out."

This weekend, enjoy those sledding hills, and make a point of getting to know your neighbors while you're out there! You'd be surprised at when that will come in handy.

Feel free to list your favorite sledding spots the comments!

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