Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Archive for July, 2009

Who’s dodging the issue?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 29, 2009

Say “transportation” to the editors of The Washington Post, and count how many times they say “money.” In today’s paper, the Virginia gubernatorial candidates are drubbed both on the front page and in a long editorial for “dodg[ing] the main issue” allegedly underlying Virginia’s “transportation mess” — the need for new sources of money.

Northern Virginia”s media establishment, elected officials, and VDOT are sounding this theme ad nauseam to inspire the political courage that they know will be needed to raise taxes. But when it comes to transportation in Northern Virginia, prudence and common sense are a lot more important than whatever courage — or foolhardiness — it takes to try to raise taxes in a time of such pronounced fiscal stress.

The fundamental issue behind Northern Virginia’s transportation mess is land use, not money. Take decades of shortsighted, uncoordinated land use and transportation decisions, add spectacular growth, and you gets lot of traffic — and few alternatives. Most of the homes built in the area are in enclaves with limited outlets to main roads. Transit stations are isolated along major roads or interstates, distant from stores, homes, and offices. The places where people shop are located along arterial streets that were putatively designed as “limited access” through-roads, and were not supposed to handle so much development.

The Post chides Governor Tim Kaine for not building the political will for new transportation funding from the very beginning of his candidacy. Kaine certainly tried — and failed — to get new transportation funding. But Kaine also stressed the importance of tying transportation with land use. Transportation funds should reward, and leverage, good land use planning.

Yes, we need new sources of revenue for transportation in Northern Virginia. Raising the gas tax is long overdue. But  more money will not dig us out of the hole we’re in unless we tie transportation investments to better land use planning. Under Kaine and Secretary Pierce Homer, VDOT has made good steps by establishing new policies encouraging interconnected streets and measuring the traffic impacts of new development.

Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates don’t need to sidestep the issue. They can tell voters about sensible, and inexpensive options to address Northern Virginia’s land use and transportation challenges.

Posted in Taxes, Transportation, VDOT | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Getting across the street

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 28, 2009

Wide curb radii are barriers to safe walking in Fairfax

Wide curb radii are barriers to safe walking in Fairfax

Development of the Merrifield Town Center near the Dunn-Loring metro station area is moving along, offering Fairfaxites a needed whiff of walkability and more urban living. Steve Kattula’s excellent Greater Greater Washington post looked at the transportation and urban design elements of the first, completed phase of the Town Center. As Kattula and several respondents pointed out, Route 29 and Gallows Road are major barriers between the area and the nearby transit station.

The curb radii at Gallows Road and Strawberry Lane are a case in point. The wider the curb radii, the earlier and faster a motor vehicle can make right turns, and the longer a pedestrian has to travel to cross. These curb radii (pictured at left) are extremely wide, and vehicles are turning into and out of the development without stopping or looking for pedestrians. It is no wonder that the only people I saw during my fifteen minutes there were four worried pedestrians planning their mad dash and two men holding up signs for the new gym club.

Wide curb radii are ubiquitous in Fairfax. Even neighborhood streets often have very wide radii, and you even find them in one of the county’s most walkable areas, Reston Town Center. The need to allow trucks and buses to turn safely is often cited to justify wider curb radii. But communities have successfully squared off intersections to make crossing safer, and Fairfax can do it too — and should be doing it, especially in areas near transit.

Even Reston Town Center makes things too easy for drivers, and harder for pedestrians

Even Reston Town Center makes things too easy for drivers, and harder for pedestrians

Posted in Transit-oriented development, Transportation, Uncategorized, Walking | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Looks pretty, but try walking there

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 24, 2009

The new Chevy Chase Bank  on Fairfax Boulevard and Warwick Avenue was approved by Fairfax City shortly after completion of the excellent Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan in 2007. The new building — on the site of one of the Boulevard’s many foundering or former furniture showrooms — has several good features: a pocket park; a nice wide sidewalk with a bench and trees that, over time, will provide shade;  a well-designed wall buffering pedestrians from the front parking lot; and a handsome Neo-classical front.
But these “human scale” features — making the site more welcome to someone who is actually present there rather than behind a windshield — are just a tease. There is no pedestrian access from the sidewalk. A parking lot separates the building from the street. The building’s two entrances front the parking lot and larger shopping plaza on one side, and the drive-through area on the other.
The recently approved Fairfax Pointe project has similar hints at human-scale, pedestrian-oriented design, but also falls short in some important ways. This new one-story retail building at the confluence of Fairfax Boulevard, Route 29, and Route 236, whose expected tenants include a restaurant and small grocery,will present a false front at Route 236 and have entrances on this street, but the main entrance will be from the parking lot on Fairfax Boulevard. Most of the site is taken up by surface parking. Will people walk there? The planned uses are neighborhood-oriented, and the Fairchester and Warren Woods neighborhoods are within easy walking distance. But the design, as well as conditions on 236 and Fairfax Boulevard, are much less conducive to walking and bicycling — and business — than they could be. The project could have been designed more intentionally to encourage walking trips and reduce traffic on these extremely clogged arterials.
Let’s hope future projects on the Boulevard are more closely aligned with the creative vision of the master plan.
Nice facade. . .

Nice facade. . .

Nice sidewalk. . .

Nice sidewalk. . .

. . . but the entrance is behind a parking lot

. . . but the entrance is behind a parking lot

Posted in Fairfax Boulevard, Fairfax City, Walking | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Want to walk or bike to rail? Tell Metro

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 23, 2009

Even those of us in Fairfax lucky enough to live within walking or bicycling distance of a Metro rail station often choose to drive. The roads can be difficult to cross and have fast moving traffic intimidating to many bicyclists, and sidewalks are often missing.

If you have ideas about how to improve conditions for walking and bicycling, let Metro know by responding to its online questionnaire. Metro is doing a study of pedestrian and bicycle access that will feed into recommended improvements and projects for its 10-year capital needs program. At last night’s workshop at the Metro headquarters, the project consultants, Toole Design, presented the initial outline of the study. Toole is a highly respected consulting firm that helped the county with the excellent Fairfax County bike map. The project manager, Dan Goodman, bicycles to the Metro — a prerequisite for doing good bike planning.

Both Franconia-Springfield and Vienna are priority station areas in the study, where Metro will be looking to make relatively small, “bang for the buck”  improvements that can increase bicycle and walking trips. If you’ve tried to walk — or drive, for that matter — to the Franconia-Springfield station, you know how poor the access is there. This is the paradigm for brutalist transit design. The area is going to have stunning growth, mainly because of military base realignment, which could be an opportunity to redevelop its pedestrian- and bicycle-unfriendly streets. Approval of the redevelopment of the Springfield mall is imminent, which will help, although the nearby arterial roads will remain barriers to good access.

The Vienna station has a lot of things going for it, especially the Metrowest project, and Metro’s focus on strategic improvements is one more good sign. But the glacial pace of the Metrowest development is frustrating. Although it was approved more than three years ago, ground has not yet been broken. The residential developer, Pulte Homes, is having the same trouble finding money from lenders as most other developers.

Even with the eventual development of Metrowest, the station area could still become just an oasis of walkability surrounded by the pedestrian and bicycle deserts of Nutley Street and Route 29. Getting the Virginia Department of Transportation on board with changes to these roads is important to improving pedestrian and bicycle access. This is even more important at the future stations in Tysons Corner. It’s also important for making the Merrifield development work near the Dunn-Loring station, where Route 29 and Gallows Road form barriers between the growing numbers of residents and the Metro station.

Will Metro’s study address these more systemic issues? To what extent can the study foster better coordination with Fairfax County and VDOT to improve these obscenely wide roads and make them safer for walking and bicycling?

Posted in Bicycling, Transit, Transit-oriented development, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Do developers dislike bikes?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 21, 2009

Developers like the West*Group are key proponents for smarter growth that enables people to walk, bicycle and use transit – but you wouldn’t know this from the jeremiads of the developer-funded Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. NVTA’s latest press release attacks regional transportation planners and officials for including regional bike sharing in a proposal for federal stimulus funding. Apparently, NVTA’s governing members – including developers West*Group and The Peterson Companies – feel that bicycle facilities are “trivial.”

NVTA makes no secret about its agenda. NVTA wants to build an Outer Beltway, widen I-66 and I-95, and widen and build interchanges on arterial roads such as Route 28 and Route 29. These projects would cost billions of dollars and allow more low-density, auto-oriented development, which is why traffic in Northern Virginia is so bad in the first place. NVTA also supports some transit projects, and in fact supports the regional busway project that is the main component of the region’s stimulus proposal. Businesses and real estate developers want more public dollars expended on transportation facilities that serve their interests. This makes sense.

The Millennium Park bike station has been a boon for downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy of Steve Vance, www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/

The Millennium Park bike station has been a boon for downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy of Steve Vance, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/

But why the contempt for bicycling? The proposed program for 1,600 bikes at 160 stations in core urban areas costs a fraction of any of NVTA’s priority projects. Transportation is the second largest household expense on average for Americans, behind only housing, and more than 90 percent of household transportation costs go toward owning and maintaining cars.  On average, Washington residents sink 15% of their household budgets on transportation. Many Northern Virginia residents – especially apartment dwellers and students – cannot easily own bikes because of space constraints, but can take advantage of bike sharing for a low membership cost. As Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling points out in a strong rebuttal, “Bike sharing is one of the most promising transportation ideas being used throughout Europe and is taking hold in North America. It is very popular in Paris and is helping residents replace many short motorized trips with bike trips, reducing congestion and air pollution. In the U.S. half of all trips are a 20 minute or less bike ride and nearly all are currently taken by car.”

In a 2007 presentation sponsored by the Tysons Corner Land Use Task Force, TOD expert Robert Cervero said, “I used to think that bicycling was a frill. It’s not. It’s a necessity for an efficient transportation network.” Planning for the redesign of Tysons Corner, with heavy involvement from The West*Group and other developers, includes bike stations and on-road bicycle facilities.

By shaving off a small but significant percentage of car trips, bicycling provides a big bang for a very small buck.  Every trip made by bicycle instead of by car saves people money in fuel and other vehicle costs. Don’t the Northern Virginia business and real estate development communities recognize this?

Posted in Bicycling, Transportation | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

To know where we’re going, learn how we got here

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 17, 2009

For a relative newcomer to Northern Virginia, Paul E. Ceruzzi’s Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner (MIT Press, 2008) is a treasure trove of information about the partnerships between the federal government, research and development institutions and technology firms that produced the explosive growth of Fairfax County. If you want to learn about how Tysons developed the way it did, and the major players and their sensibilities shaping this development, this is a great read, seasoned with a lot of colorful anecdotes.

Ceruzzi details the convergence of supportive land use policies, serendipitous transportation decisions, the Pentagon’s growing need for scientific analytical expertise and the evolution of a quasi-private sector catering to this need. In the 1950s special entities known as Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) emerged that developed top scientific and analytical talent and could pay this talent private sector salaries — establishing a new research and development sector apart from the universities. Many of the FFRDCs, such as the Mitre Corporation, evolved into the companies that dominate the Tysons business community. Meanwhile, federal planners under Eisenhower chose to site the region’s airport in Chantilly, and also acquired land for an access road that would link the airport with the capital. Tysons’ convenient location relative to the airport, and its proximity to the Pentagon, helped make it the hub for the research and development community.

Ceruzzi provides a highly informative account of the decisions around the Dulles project that paved the way for Northern Virginia’s growth — in particular, the extension of a huge sewer pipe under the Potomac to the Blue Plains treatment plant that provided massive capacity for new growth. He also covers the development of the Beltway in detail, in particular the tortured right-of-ways that planners had to carve to wind the road around politically powerful constituencies in Maryland. Ceruzzi talked to a lot of developers and business leaders in the area, and he has some great insights about the self-consciously bland architecture of Tysons’ office buildings and the odd but productive alliance of the Tysons defense-related research establishment and the more entrepreneurial IT industry that emerged in the Dulles corridor in the ’80s and ’90s — an alliance that took off after 9/11.

Not surprisingly, the book betrays a bias toward technological solutions to the problems that have resulted from Tysons’ dysfunctional land use. Ceruzzi, the Curator of the National Air and Space Museum, is by no means uncritical toward the Tysons business community, but he does largely buy into the mythology peddled by business groups such as the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance that Northern Virginia’s traffic mess is a result of the region’s failure to build more roads — particularly an Outer Beltway linking Tysons with Maryland’s biotechnology centers. His argument attempting to link the concentration of Northern Virginia’s creative and technical talent to the Washington and Old Dominion Trail is intriguing but not very coherent. (A bicycle advocate is left to draw his or her own conclusions from Ceruzzi’s suggestive thesis — is the trail the “water cooler” for all these techno-geniuses who would otherwise be husbanding their expertise in patents?) And the solutions he offers for taming Tysons traffic are highly oriented toward futuristic technological fixes such as Personal Rapid Transit, while he discounts the possibility of improving the area’s land use.

Ceruzzi doesn’t really offer a master thesis of why growth and talent concentrated in Tysons. But the study does assemble and synthesize a lot of local history that an outsider to the Northern Virginia business community could not easily find anywhere else.

Posted in Books, Tysons Corner | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

It’s about priorities too

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 16, 2009

Northern Virginia residents are being barraged with tales of woe about transportation funding shortfalls. It is all about money, the story goes. With current skewed funding formulas favoring rural areas over Northern Virginia, a gas tax that hasn’t been raised in decades and the decline in gas tax revenues from more fuel efficient vehicles and less driving, our region is cooked unless we come up with a “game changer” for transportation funding.

That’s the party line — among politicians across the ideological spectrum, and in all the major media outlets. And it’s true to  a large extent. Funding for secondary roads in Fairfax is being cut to about 1 percent of  previous levels. Highway rest stops are being closed. There is a crisis of resources.

Battlefield Boulevard interchange, Hampton Roads. Photo credit: Virginia Department of Transportation

Battlefield Boulevard interchange, Hampton Roads. Photo credit: Virginia Department of Transportation

For a fraction of the cost of what's on the left, we could get scores of these kinds of projects. Photo credit: www.pedbikeimages.org / Dan Burden

For a fraction of the cost of what's on the left, we could get scores of these kinds of projects. Photo credit: http://www.pedbikeimages.org / Dan Burden

But that’s only part of the story. There is also a crisis of priorities. The region’s skewed priorities were again shown at yesterday’s meeting of the Metro Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board (TPB). Eric Gilliland of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association commented on the region’s proposed 6-year Transportation Improvement Program (TIP):

Of the more than $17 billion for transportation projects in the Draft TIP, less than 1% of TIP funds are allocated to bike and pedestrian projects. Of the $168 million in the bike/ped program, over 60% will be spent in DC alone and zero dollars have been allocated to bike and pedestrian projects in northern Virginia. There are also zero dollars for such projects in Prince George’s County.

While pleading poor, VDOT is still finding hundreds of millions of dollars to support road projects that reward inefficient land use. A good example is the Linton Hall Road / Route 29 interchange in Prince William County. Many Northern Virginia residents will know this area from the array of signs announcing over 15 new subdivisions pointing in all directions and the long trail of strip malls that greet them just off I-66 on Route 29 in Gainesville. Residents along Linton Hall Road have among the longest commutes in the region. The explosion of residential development without any good pedestrian, bicycle and transit connections has, predictably, has made driving or any other form of transportation in the area a nightmare. VDOT’s 6-year Transportation Program provides $130 million for this $200 million project. By comparison, bike lanes on Gallows Road linking the W & OD Trail to Tysons Corner have an estimated cost of $600,000,  far less than 1 percent of the cost of the interchange.

In response to WABA, COG transportation director Ronald Kirby said that many bicycle and pedestrian improvements are folded into larger projects and are funded locally, so that the TIP does not truly represent the full resources invested in bicycling and walking. Fair enough, but as transportation board member Chris Zimmerman of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors urged, every reasonable effort should be made to track the resources being spent to improve the transportation infrastructure for walking and bicycling. Currently neither VDOT nor the TPB even have a database showing what pedestrian and bicycle projects are in their transportation plans, although an enterprising citizen with some spare time can find this out by parsing the project list. If the region is serious about reducing traffic and enabling more people to get around without cars, it should put more effort into tracking its pedestrian and bicycle investments and monitoring its progress in increasing walking, bicycling and transit trips.

Yes, we need more money for transportation. But increasing walking and bicycling connections between activity centers, such as with the bike lane to Tysons Corner, are “game changers” too.

Posted in Bicycling, Transit, Transportation, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Leaving money on the table, and cracks on the roads

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 14, 2009

According to a recent guest column in the Fairfax Times by McLean Citizens’ Association president Rob Jackson, State Senator Janet Howell (D-32) plans to introduce legislation next year that will both plug a gaping hole in VDOT’s road maintenance budget and encourage cleaner and more efficient transportation. Freight trucks carrying larger-than-permitted weights caused more than $211 million in damages in 2007,  but paid only $2.7 million in fines. Jackson points out the perverse effects of what is essentially a $200 million subsidy for the freight trucking industry:

This foolishness creates a $200 million hole — approximately 20 percent of VDOT’s annual maintenance budget — that could, instead, go every year toward fixing some of the $4.4 billion in road and bridge repair that [VDOT Secretary] Pierce Homer has identified. . . . Not only would charging cost-based fees release more money for other road and bridge repairs, but those higher fees would also price more heavy loads off our highways and onto rail.

Freight rail is far more energy efficient than freight trucking. According to the national transportation reform advocacy group Transportation For America,  “Trucks currently use 27 gallons of fuel for each ton of freight moved from coast to coast; at the same time, bringing the same ton of freight buy rail only uses seven gallons of fuel” (Breaking Down the Blueprint: Energy Efficiency and Energy Security). That’s one reason why Transportation For America and other environmental and smart growth organizations are working closely with freight rail advocates to include strong support for freight rail as part of the upcoming authorization of a new federal surface transportation program.

But there’s clearly something we can also do in Virginia, and that is to support Senator Howell’s legislative initiative. And press the two gubernatorial candidates, Creigh Deeds and Robert McDonnell, to pledge their support of this initiative.

Posted in Transportation, VDOT | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Tysons plan under review: Send your comments

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 10, 2009

Will the Tysons plan tame Rtes. 123 (pictured here at Scotts Crossing), Leesburg Pike and International Boulevard?

Will the Tysons plan tame Rtes. 123 (pictured here at Scotts Crossing), Leesburg Pike and International Boulevard?

The Comprehensive Plan for the redevelopment of Tysons Corner is being refined and public comments are due next Friday, July 17. One key to successful redevelopment will be taming Route 123 and Route 7 so that pedestrians and bicyclists can navigate them safely. All four planned Tysons Metrorail stations are located on either 123 or 7 (the picture shows the site of the Tysons West station), but currently both roads are highly forbidding to pedestrians and bicyclists. Yet the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plans for Route 7 have minimal pedestrian facilities — a 6-foot sidewalk — and would make bicycling even worse than on the old Route 7 by eliminating the service roads and providing no suitable replacement for local traffic or for bicyclists.

The “Straw Man” Comprehensive Plan has street design guidelines for the secondary streets and includes plans for an internal street grid, which will be critical steps forward to making Tysons more walkable and bicycle-friendly. But the elephant in the room are Routes 7 and 123, and the plan needs to address this. VDOT’s designs  are overwhelmingly focused on moving more automobiles. Yet it will be hard to achieve truly transit-oriented development unless these two streets are designed to encourage street-level activity. Do you really want to shop or meet your friends at a place where you get off the station and have to sweat just to cross the street?

The Comprehensive Plan language that is adopted will strongly guide future rezonings, so it’s imperative to get needed language inserted now.

Posted in Bicycling, Transit, Transit-oriented development, Transportation, Tysons Corner, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Superblocks about to tumble

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 9, 2009

Two large vacant retail spaces suggest future redevelopment is not far off at Jermantown Plaza and the nearby shopping center once anchored by Home Expo

Few places are as existentially lonely as a parking lot of an over-the-hill shopping center. I spent a recent afternoon scouting out the area around the in-transition Fairfax Center and Jermantown Plaza shopping centers, located on both sides of Route 29 west of Kamp Washington. Both owned by A.J. Dwoskin and Associates, these shopping centers have lost key tenants and their parking lots are vast asphalt deserts. Across Jermantown Road is industrial space and the Ted Britt Ford dealership; Britt is apparently interested in redeveloping his property. The Waples Mill homes, a very well maintained mobile home community behind Fairfax Center, has also been eyed for redevelopment. Much of this area is in play over the next few years — and it’s an eight-minute bike ride from our house.

Some neighbors had their pitchforks ready at the intimation of redevelopment of Waples Mill Homes as part of the Fairfax County Area Plans Review process several years ago. The fact that this area straddles the Fairfax City / County border makes land use even more complex. But redevelopment of Jermantown Plaza could relieve traffic problems by creating more connecting roads between Route 29 and Lee-Jackson Highway, and extending the Government Center Parkway to Jermantown Road. And with the pleasant Morrison Townhomes complex on Stevenson Road, and the development of the Ridgewood mixed-income apartments and condominiums near 29 and Ridge Top Road, we have something to build on.

I’ll miss Bloom, but these it’s time to carve these superblocks into something much finer and more functional.

Posted in Central Fairfax, Fairfax Boulevard, Fairfax City | Leave a Comment »