Posts about Woodbridge
On Monday, a meeting hosted by Congressman Gerry Connolly will talk about the potential to extend Metro to Woodbridge. The hurdles are large, especially funding, and on the pure transportation merits another mode might be better. However, it's still a good idea for the Congressman and residents of Prince William to talk about Metro.
Why talk about an idea which might never happen and might not even be the best of the options? There are many good reasons:
- Talking about Metro gets people excited, and can stimulate the real important conversation about all transit modes.
- It takes a long time to build big transportation facilities, and by the time this happens, Metro might be the best option after all.
- There is political value as well as mobility value in bringing some forms of transit to all communities, not just the densest ones.
- Transportation "megaprojects" tend to suck up all the transportation funding, and transit megaprojects should be among the options when funding comes available.
Metro is a starting point for the broad discussion around transit.
The meeting revolves around a bill Connolly introduced to study running Metro specifically in the area. But as he explained, his goal is "not to prejudge Metro" as the right or wrong mode, but rather to get a conversation going about transit in the area. That is sorely needed.
Earlier this week, we discussed the merits of many transportation options, from light rail to improved VRE to extending the Blue or Yellow Lines (or both). All of these have their pros and cons and any discussion of transit options for southern Fairfax and eastern Prince William should consider them all and more.
But the simple reality is that if Connolly had called a meeting entitled "Discussion of multimodal travel alternatives in the I-95 corridor," almost nobody would show up. But announce a meeting on "Metro to Woodbridge!" and it gets major coverage in the press.
We have to think very long-term.
Prince William County needs to start thinking about transit. If they fill the county with entirely car-dependent development, they'll end up regretting it in 30 years, but it'll be too late to cost-effectively provide any alternatives. Designing more walkable and transit-oriented communities in a few spots and focusing most of the growth there can help the county grow without making traffic worse for all its existing residents.
But these things take a long time. Connolly pointed out that rail in the Dulles corridor was first discussed in a federal document in 1962. 47 years later, Virginia signed the first funding agreement to build it. The question is not just what's best for southern Fairfax and eastern Prince William today, but what's best in 2058 as well.
And for all we know, 47 years from now there will be automated tunnel-building machines which can not only dig tunnels, like today's TBMs, but handle utility relocation and everything else to make building a long tunnel far cheaper than it is today. Or maybe not, but we can't know today.
Transit planning is also politics.
Some argued in the comments on Tuesday's article that we should focus on transit in the core. That is where the capacity crunch is greatest. On the other hand, transit in outer areas will bring transit accessibility to the greatest number of people who lack it today. Not only is that good public policy, but it builds public support for transit generally.
When there's no transit in a community, nobody uses it, nobody builds with it in mind, and so few people can imagine how transit could be a part of their transportation mix. If a big transit project is coming to the area, people have something to look forward to and advocate around.
Also, designing transit for all communities is an important way to bridge the "culture war" gap between the urban and suburban lifestyle. When transit is an element of many communities from the densest urban ones to the lowest-density suburbs (perhaps with different modes, like commuter rail or express buses), it helps prevent or reduce the political dynamic where the more numerous suburban legislators want to cut transit entirely since they have no constituents who use it.
Bad road projects shouldn't be the only megaprojects to choose from.
Finally, our system of government and media has a bias toward transportation megaprojects over many smaller ones. A huge project gets headlines and attention. Leaders, from local to federal, like to be associated with big public works. Big projects make people feel that something significant is getting done.
This is unfortunate, since a larger number of smaller transportation improvements can make more of a difference for less money. As I noted in the Post, Capital Bikeshare (which was itself a big deal) could be built 18 times over for the price of the massive Gainesville interchange rebuild alone. Individual bike lanes, sidewalks, roundabouts, street reconnections, bus lanes, bus service enhancements, and more each cost little but add up to a lot of value.
The 2030 Group/Bob Chase/Rich Parsons survey of unnamed transportation experts fell (or deliberately leapt) into this trap, asking transportation engineers what their short list of 10 big projects would be to address regional mobility. Naturally, those engineers picked 10 very large projects even if 100 or 1,000 small ones would do more.
But if transit advocates simply stop thinking big, the result won't be more sensible projects, but just more big, sprawl-inducing, induced demand-creating road projects. There are always more pie-in-the-sky big freeways. The state DOTs have been studying some of them for decades, like the Tri-County Parkway in Virginia or the I-270 widening in Maryland. If they're turned down, like the Mid-County Highway extension, the DOT brings it back a decade later.
These projects float around for a long time with absolutely no money to build them. Then, at some point the economic outlook improves or a governor wants to borrow significant money from a few generations hence, and presto, the projects get funded.
Therefore, it's important to start studying and planning some big transit projects and get those plans closer to "shovel-ready." Maybe the conversation will settle on a more modest solution. Maybe the travel demand and federal funding climate will change and big projects will again become fiscally feasible. Maybe technology will make building subway tunnels cheaper. Or maybe just having the conversation will itself lead to a better vision for the future of this area.
The meeting is Monday, September 26, 6:30 pm at Harbour View, 13200 Marina Way, in Woodbridge.
Congressman Gerry Connolly and local officials are holding a public meeting September 26 in Prince William County to discuss extending Metro to Woodbridge.
It this a good idea? Like any proposal, it has pros and cons. The issue also depends greatly on whether you look at the problem from a transit planner lens or a public opinion lens.
Is actually bringing Metro to Woodbridge a good idea? If money were no object, probably. However, it would worsen capacity crunches in the core, and so really needs to be paired with a project like the separated Blue Line or separated Yellow Line in DC.
Is bringing Metro to Woodbridge worth the money? It depends what else you spend the money on, but if the same money went to other transit, expanding VRE and express bus options is probably better. However, the budgetary tradeoff is rarely between Metro and other transit of equivalent cost.
Is talking about bringing Metro to Woodbridge a good idea? Absolutely, because talking about how transit can best serve the people of Prince William County can only lead to better thinking about how to grow the Woodbridge area and general public support for transit. Besides, most likely if the state isn't planning a Metro extension, it would instead be planning some much more sprawl-inducing highway proposal.
First, let's talk about the actual tradeoffs in serving the area with transit.
Any Metro extension in this area absolutely has to serve Fort Belvoir. This is the largest focused job center in the area thanks to BRAC and will likely continue to grow. Putting any new transit here without going to Fort Belvoir would be foolish.
In particular, one factor that makes Metro much more cost-effective than other transit systems which serve suburbs, like BART, is the way Metro has significant reverse commuters. Instead of mostly empty trains out to the ends of lines in the morning, many people are riding those trains to federal facilities like those at Medical Center and Suitland.
There's already been talk about extending the Yellow Line down Route 1 instead of the Blue Line. This has the added benefit of helping the communities along the way, many of which are just the kind that could plan constructively around transit. Just like the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor 30 years ago, there are aging and often struggling commercial properties which could become mixed-used transit-oriented communities serving people who work to the south in Fort Belvoir or to the north in Alexandria, Arlington and DC.
Building any new rail line, however, is quite expensive. Most of the area is low density. Meanwhile, there's another rail line already here: VRE, which goes to Woodbridge (and has a station not far from Fort Belvoir).
Why not make VRE run far more frequently? It could even combine with MARC to create Metro "express lines." With fewer stops, these would provide a quicker route to the Pentagon and downtown than any Blue or Yellow line extension would.
The biggest obstacle is that VRE doesn't own the tracks, which also serve as the primary east coast freight line. CSX is planning to run even more freight here, which is why they're expanding the tunnels on Capitol Hill as part of the National Corridor plan.
The freight trains don't necessarily need to go through downtown DC. In fact, it's probably better if hazardous material weren't being transported a few hundred feet from the Capitol. NCPC looked years ago at adding a freight bypass, but it's expensive and encountered political opposition in Southern Maryland.
Without building the freight bypass, Virginia could still improve capacity on the VRE Fredericksburg Line by adding passing tracks and a third track as much as possible. Some of that is already happening to accommodate more Amtrak service. Plus, improving this line can enhance intercity rail to Richmond.
Any added Metro service would increase the numbers of passengers coming into the central sections of the Metro system (Arlington and DC). As that ridership grows Metro will need to run the maximum possible numbers of trains on the Blue-Yellow segment, but to do that, they'll need one of the core expansion projects to separate lines.
That's either a new M Street Blue Line subway from Rosslyn to Georgetown to downtown, so the Blue Line trains don't have to merge with Orange and Silver trains at Rosslyn, or a separate Yellow Line tunnel from Southwest to either downtown or Union Station, so Yellow Line trains don't have to merge with Green at L'Enfant Plaza.
The other option is more express buses. Virginia has looked at projects which add special bus exits on and off the freeways, so buses can run in HOV or HOT lanes, get off and stop at a station near the freeway, then hop back on. Light rail could also serve the corridor.
These options are far cheaper. If the tens of billions of dollars required for such a project were sitting in a special bank account marked "TO BE USED FOR TRANSIT IN SOUTHERN FAIRFAX AND EASTERN PRINCE WILLIAM," then a combination of buses and light rail is likely the most productive use of the money. However, that's never the way it works, and planning a big transit project may be the best option compared to the likely alternative, which is planning big and destructive highway projects.
In the next part, we'll talk about the political and public opinion ramifications of talking about such a project.
Videographer Jay Mallin was outraged when Prince William County gave a man a ticket for "interfering with traffic" after he was hit trying to cross Route 1 in Woodbridge. He created this great video of how many of our suburban areas ignore the needs of people on foot:
In that area of Woodbridge, the nearest marked crosswalk is a half mile away or more, and not visible due to a hill. Mallin goes to other areas of Bethesda and Chevy Chase where getting to a bus stop also requires crossing Wisconsin Avenue where there are no marked crosswalks in sight.
The Woodbridge area where Mallin tried to cross does have an intersection nearby without a marked crosswalk. Technically, this counts as an unmarked crosswalk, and pedestrians could legally cross here, though it's no safer than crossing anywhere else in the middle of the street.
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