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Transit


Ask GGW: Why is there a Metro tunnel in Tysons?

Several years ago, as the Silver line was being planned, there was a debate about whether to build the line underground through Tysons Corner. Eventually, the elevated option was selected, but there's still a tunnel. Reader Dennis McGarry wants to know why.


The tunnel portal. Photo by Dan Malouff.
Why is there a short tunnel on the Silver Line with no underground stops? Why not just build the entire track above ground? It seems like such a huge undertaking with little payback.
There are two short tunnels in Tysons (one for each track). They run about 1700 feet between Tysons Corner station and Greensboro station. The reason they exist is to cut through the highest point in Fairfax County, at 520 feet above sea level.

The tracks through Tysons are already high above the streets, and the climb between McLean and Tysons Corner is noticeable, especially from the front of a westbound train. Because trains are limited in the grade they can ascend, crossing this hill with an elevated viaduct would make the stations at Tysons Corner and McLean obscenely high.

In addition to the engineering and aesthetic challenges that a super-high viaduct would have caused, trying to keep the line elevated would have probably been much more expensive. So it was probably cheaper for the contractor to build these short tunnels than it would have been to keep the line elevated over the hill.

As a result, riders at McLean get a soaring view of the Tysons skyline (and in fact, you can see Bethesda, too), but a few minutes later, they find themselves riding underground, ever so briefly.

Pedestrians


Many Silver Line riders have no way to safely reach their offices

Tysons now has four Metro stations, but workers trying to get from those stations to nearby offices often have no choice but to cross wide, high-speed roads without any crosswalks.


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by the author.

I saw several Tysons Corner workers walking across streets with up to 9 lanes of traffic in order to take the Silver Line this morning, due to the continued lack of crosswalks in Tysons. It's a matter of time before a Silver Line rider is struck by a car in Tysons Corner.

At the Tysons Corner station, the entrance north of Route 123 (the side with most of the offices) is on the west side of Tysons Blvd between 123 and Galleria Drive. There's no legal way to walk east on Galleria Drive, because there are no crosswalks on the south or east side of the intersection of Tysons Blvd and Galleria Drive.


There are no crosswalks from Tysons Corner station for workers walking east along Galleria Drive. Base map from Google Maps.

Many Silver Line riders therefore walked across nine lanes of traffic on Tysons Boulevard.


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by the author.

My company's office is at 7900 Westpark Drive along with dozens of other tech companies. The main topic of conversation around the office this morning was the safest places to jaywalk to get to the Silver Line.

I've endured the lack of crosswalks in Tysons Corner for years as a pedestrian, but assumed that Fairfax County would add crosswalks before the Silver Line began operation. The county needs to create safe pedestrian pathways immediately, rather than waiting until someone gets hurt or killed.

Transit


The Silver Line's opening day, in 41 photos

Metro's new Silver Line is officially open and carrying passengers. Enjoy this photo tour of the new line and opening day festivities.


All photos by Dan Malouff, Matt Johnson, and Malcolm Kenton.

Metro's star-studded ribbon-cutting ceremony featured US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, and seemingly every other dignitary in Northern Virginia.


Left: Anthony Foxx, Terry McAuliffe, and Sharon Bulova. Right: The ribbon-cutting.

Once the gates at Wiehle station opened, riders rushed in to catch the first train. Cheers erupted as the "doors closing" chime sounded for the first time, and the train sped forward.

The first train took off from Wiehle-Reston East station shortly after noon, and moved east through Tysons on its way to Largo. GGW's troop of partiers exited at East Falls Church to double back and tour each of the five new Silver Line stations individually.

McLean station

The ride between East Falls Church and McLean station offers a champion view of the Tysons skyline, and McLean station itself.

Metro's tracks swoop gracefully into McLean station.

The station is elevated over Capital One Drive, and features an angular starburst-shaped platform canopy. The mezzanine is one level below the tracks. The sidewalk is one level below that.

Construction transforms the landscape outside the station, except a lone ball field.

Looking west, the growing skyline around the Tysons Corner station looms.

Tysons Corner station

Tysons Corner station is situated between Tysons' two gargantuan shopping malls and its tallest buildings (so far). The platform canopy is a futuristic gambrel-like shape.

Tysons Corner station uses the gambrel roof instead of the starburst because the mezzanine is above the tracks, rather than below. That same pattern repeats at other stations along the line. Mezzanine below tracks gets a starburst, while mezzanine above gets a gambrel.

The mezzanine commands an impressive east-facing view.

On the north side, Tysons Boulevard runs perpendicularly under the station. It's so similar to how Colesville Road runs under Silver Spring that it's easy to imagine Tysons Corner one day being just as urban.

On the south side, Chain Bridge Road is a highway that most people will use a bridge to cross.

At sidewalk level below the station, it's reminiscent of Silver Spring.

The south facade includes a prominent public art piece.

Just past Tysons Corner station the Silver Line enters a brief subway tunnel, to pass under the crest of a hill.


Subway portal.

Greensboro station

The next station west is Greensboro, which also uses the gambrel-like roof.

High walls block out noise from car traffic on Leesburg Pike, to either side of the station.

Like all new Silver Line stations, Greensboro sports updated WMATA branding: More colorful signage and silver fixtures, rather than Metro's original 1970s-era brown.

Looking west, there's a great view of Leesburg Pike and the next station, Spring Hill.

Spring Hill station

Spring Hill uses the starburst roof, like McLean.

Spring Hill is the final station in Tysons. From there, it's a five-mile ride through the Fairfax County suburbs to Wiehle-Reston East.

Wiehle-Reston East station

The terminal station feels like a nicer-looking twin of Vienna, set in the median of the Dulles Access Road instead of I-66.

The gambrel-style roof looks great here.

One key difference from Vienna is that Wiehle's commodious mezzanine includes publicly-accessible restrooms. All five new Silver Line stations have them.

South of the station, a pedestrian bridge crosses the Dulles Toll Road and lands in an unassuming bus depot, with office building parking lots beyond.

North of the station, impressive transit-oriented development is already sprouting.

On the north side, the station entrance is set in a plaza atop the roof of a parking garage. The ground floor of the garage is Wiehle's main bus depot, taxi stand, and bike parking room. To access the garage, go through the glass house.

Beyond Wiehle, the Silver Line will eventually extend to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County, but for now it's just a bit of train parking and construction staging. For a tour of the six stations that will make up Silver Line Phase II, check back in 2018.

Transit


Did Rush Plus depress Blue Line ridership?

To make room for new Silver Line trains at the Rosslyn bottleneck, WMATA has reduced the number of Blue Line (and Orange Line) trains and added Yellow Line trains. A group calling itself Save the Blue Line claims that a similar change in 2012 caused riders to stop using Metro. Is that accurate?


Graph from Save The Blue Line.

In June of 2012, Metro started a new service pattern in Virginia. To make way for more Orange Line trains and more service in north Arlington and Fairfax, the agency started sending some "Blue" Line trains from Franconia over the Yellow Line bridge to Greenbelt, labeled "Rush Plus" Yellow Line trains.

In the two years since, has that lowered ridership?

It's hard to say with any certainty. Ridership at the stations south of Pentagon is lower than it was before Rush Plus. On the other hand, ridership was already dropping before Rush Plus started.

There's actually an error in the Save The Blue Line graph: while the arrow suggests Rush Plus started between the 2011 and 2012 data points, the 2012 data is actually from a count in May, before Rush Plus started. The arrow should actually point one more space to the right, and therefore the drop you can see on the graph began before Rush Plus.

Did Rush Plus contribute to the ridership drop?

We cannot prove causation from correlation, but perhaps we can glean some insight from the numbers.

If we look just at boardings from Van Dorn Street and Franconia/Springfield, we can see a noticeable dip starting in about 2010. It continues into 2013 before leveling off a bit.


This and all subsequent graphics by the author.

From 2011 to 2012 (one year before Rush Plus), ridership at Van Dorn and Franconia declined 3.94%. That drop contrasted with a systemwide increase in ridership of 0.13%. So before Rush Plus the Blue Line (the end at least) was already losing riders compared to the rest of the system.

The May 2013 number is the first data point after Rush Plus started. In the period from May 2012 to May 2013, ridership at Van Dorn and Franconia shrank 7.81%, significantly more than the systemwide decline of 2.57%.

The ridership decrease was somewhat attenuated between 2013 and 2014, where at Franconia and Van Dorn it dropped only 1.17% compared to 0.55% systemwide.

If we look at all the stations most affected by Rush Plus, from Pentagon south, we see similar trends, though they're less strong.

Prior to Rush Plus, average daily boardings at Pentagon and the stations to the south (to Huntington and Franconia/Springfield) declined 3.68% over the 12 months from May 2011 to May 2012. Following 11 months of Rush Plus, ridership on this section had dropped 4.49% (compared to 2.57% systemwide).

So the data do show that ridership on the Blue and Yellow lines south of Pentagon has been lower since Rush Plus was implemented. But the ridership was already shrinking before Rush Plus.

It's certainly possible that Rush Plus exacerbated the ridership loss, but there's no way to tell for sure with the data available.

Even if Rush Plus did cause a significant drop, there's little WMATA can do. The tracks between Rosslyn and Stadium/Armory are operating at their capacity of 26 trains per hour. With Silver Line service starting this weekend, something has to give. With higher ridership in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, WMATA has decided to shift some Blue Line trains onto the 7th Street subway.

The number of trains at Franconia and Van Dorn hasn't decreased. Passengers still have the same number of trains going downtown. But fewer of them go to Rosslyn. For getting to the western end of downtown, some riders will now be better off transferring at L'Enfant Plaza.

WMATA planners are hoping to relieve pressure in the future by upgrading the system to handle more 8-car trains and building new Blue Line platforms at Rosslyn. Future phases could take the line across downtown.

Without more railcars, power stations, and core capacity, WMATA has little alternative but to reduce Blue Line service. That's why riders frustrated at losing Blue Line trains can have the best impact by lobbying their elected officials to fund Metro's plans for 8-car trains, a second Rosslyn station, and eventually a new crossing into DC.

Public Spaces


Arlington's Court House parking lot will become a park

Arlington may be a paragon of Smart Growth and sustainable transportation, but if you go to the county offices at Court House, a giant surface parking lot dominates the landscape. That could soon change with recommendations to turn it into a new town green with parking below.


All images from Arlington County.

County planners presented three options last night which incorporated input from a task force and the public. All three options keep most or all of the current parking lot as a new green, with only small amounts of parking at surface level.


Courthouse Square today and the parcels for possible redevelopment.

They mainly differ in minor aspects of the layout. Concept A is oriented more north-south, B diagonal, and C east-west. They all recommend development on the Verizon plaza south of 14th Street, and redeveloping some of the nearby buildings, though with varying options for where to put taller buildings versus shorter ones.

The county would also move office space into one of the new buildings. On Option C, that could include an "iconic wing" at the southern end of the square; in exchange, some of what's now the AMC theater would become open space as part of the plaza, with a small "market shed" near where the theater now stands. The other options would leave all of the current parking lot as open space.


View concept: A   B   C  

County staff emphasized that, as with many of these studies that create a few options, the options simply illustrate various pieces that planners can ultimately mix and match.

They will seek feedback in person and through an online survey to develop a final plan, which they will show to community groups in September and October, the Planning Commission in November, and bring to the County Board in December.

What do you think would be the best design for the square?

Transit


A "wye" is out, but a second Rosslyn station may make more Blue Line trains possible

Metro's planners have been studying ways to deal with the capacity crunch at Rosslyn station. A track connection from Court House to Arlington Cemetery isn't possible, but a second station for the Blue Line is, and could be built by 2025.

Each Metro track segment is limited to 26 trains per hour (TPH). At Rosslyn, where the Blue, Orange, and (soon!) Silver Lines come together, this limits the number of trains on each line. In 2012, Metro reduced the number of Blue Line trains to allow more Orange Line capacity. Later this month, the number of Blue Line trains will decline even more to make room for the Silver Line.


Two possible fixes for Rosslyn. Image from WMATA.

There's really no way to alleviate this crunch without additional track capacity. Eventually, it's likely that a second subway across downtown will be necessary to handle the ridership. Metro is currently exploring the idea of building a new loop line through the central city. A new subway would allow Orange and Silver lines to each have 13 slots, and the Blue Line could also to have increased service up to 13 TPH.

Earlier, Metro was looking at two ways to address the capacity constraints. One concept was a "wye" track connection, to allow trains coming from Court House to turn south and go toward Arlington Cemetery and vice versa. The follow-up study this year, though, determined that building foundations make this option impossible.


Potential location for a second Rosslyn station. Image from WMATA.

The other option, though, is feasible. It would require building a second station one block west of the current Rosslyn station. This new platform would connect to the existing Rosslyn station with a pedestrian tunnel. At least initially, only the Blue Line would use it. The Orange and Silver lines would stay in the current station.

If built, this would mean that the Blue Line would only operate between Franconia-Springfield and Rosslyn (though some Yellow Line trains might still start and end in Franconia as they do today). That would mean that, at least until the line is extended across the Potomac, Blue Line riders would need to transfer to an Orange or Silver line train at Rosslyn to get downtown. But all the lines at Rosslyn would be coming more frequently than they do today, which might alleviate the inconvenience of changing trains.

These diagrams I made last year show how the new station (and the infeasible wye) could work.


View peak service levels: Pre-Silver Line   With Silver Line
Possible solutions: Blue Line terminal Wye (rejected)  

Note: Since this graphic was created in 2013, Metro has announced there will be 5 TPH per hour on the Blue Line once the Silver Line opens, rather than 6 as shown here.

The wye would have allowed for more trains on the new Silver Line tracks and given riders from Alexandria and south Arlington a one-seat ride to Court House, Clarendon, etc. (if they caught the train every ten minutes going that way), but it also would have made service more complex, added chances for delays, and not fit in as well with a future Potomac River crossing. A new Rosslyn terminal would hopefully be just the first segment of a crosstown subway through Georgetown.


Possible extension to Georgetown.

Right now, Metro's planning staff is recommending the proposed station be moved forward for project development funding, which essentially means that they want it to get money for more detailed study. But the project is in the Metro 2025 plan, so planners anticipate that this could be opened within 11 yearsif the jurisdictions, particularly Virginia and its cities and counties, are willing to pay for it.

For the next few years, the capacity crush at Rosslyn is likely to get worse. But this project might be the light at the end of the tunnel for Blue, Orange, and Silver line riders.

Transit


Virginia commits to fund the Columbia Pike streetcar

The Commonwealth of Virginia will dedicate funding for up to half the cost of the Columbia Pike streetcar project.


Photo by Fairfax County on Flickr.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne announced $65 million in dedicated streetcar funding today, above and beyond state money Arlington and Fairfax had already hoped to receive.

More state funding means Arlington and Fairfax won't have to rely on the cumbersome federal New Starts funding process. That will speed up construction by a year, and save at least $25 million in costs.

Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette has repeatedly said that Arlington would not finance the project using homeowner property taxes. This new money guarantees Arlington can stick to that promise.

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