Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

Tame this street

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 2, 2009

use thisFairfax County has done a nice job of planning the mix of buildings fronting Prosperity Avenue near the Dunn Loring Metro. The problem is Prosperity Avenue. It is too wide, and an 8-minute walk separates the two pedestrian crossings. The crosswalk at the US Immigrations and Custom Enforcement office is unsignalized. The county formerly had in-street crosswalk signs at this crosswalk, which were effective in getting motorists to yield to pedestrians. Without any signal or signs alerting motorists to the presence of pedestrians and their legal responsibility to yield at crosswalks, the intersection is now harder to cross.

The county has approved redevelopment plans on the other side of Prosperity, where the station is. The surface parking lot will be replaced by stores, giving residents on the newly urban Merrilee Drive and along the other side of Prosperity some places to walk to besides Merrifield Town Center. But residents are more likely to leave their cars in the garage if the county and VDOT design improvements to make Prosperity safer to cross, such as bulb-outs and a new traffic signal .

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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 »

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 »

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 »

Idiot-proof roads

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 2, 2009

With upcoming Congressional hearings on the reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program, the road building lobby today released a new report explaining that, to make our roads safer for drivers, we need to make them all look like Interstate highways. The report by the Transportation Construction Coalition, an alliance of road building interest groups, argues that “road conditions” are the leading factor in motorist injuries and deaths. Road conditions are defined as most anything that could have an adverse effect on driving comfort, including traffic congestion and “narrow roads.”

This obsession with making roads idiot-proof for motorists has gone out of date in transportation planning circles, and you could hardly write a better parody of the auto-focused road building mentality. Co-author Dr. Ted Miller is quoted in today’s Washington Post, “A lot of this is a problem of old roads. A road that was built in horse and buggy days had lots of trees for shade.” Which is a problem, because trees are considered roadside hazards. Under the study’s methodology, any collision involving a tree — whether the driver was drunk, going 120 mph or driving on the wrong side of the road — is a product of  “road conditions.”

I have no problem with enlarging the margin of human error for drivers if it doesn’t make conditions even more dangerous and hostile for everyone else. A lot of human ingenuity and labor over the last sixty years has gone into designing safer and more convenient roads for motorists. But often that’s come at the expense of pedestrians, bicyclists, and others who have to get from Point A to Point B without driving. It’s time to use our transportation investments to build more complete streets that serve all users and enhance adjacent communities.

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Get over the Dillon Rule

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 1, 2009

Fairfax County leaders often invoke Dillon’s Rule when they are painted into a corner. The county’s authority is narrowly defined on matters such as land use and taxation, so the story goes, and Richmond is tying their hands. Now the Washington Post reports that Fairfax County Executive Anthony Griffin and the Board of Supervisors are considering broadening local powers by changing Fairfax’s status from a county to a city. By becoming a city, Fairfax would obtain broader powers to tax itself for things such as transportation improvements — sidestepping the horrendous political gridlock that has bedeviled the Kaine Administration over transportation funding.

I don’t understand the intricacies of Dillon’s Rule and home rule states, but I do know that our neighbor Arlington County has been one of the country’s innovators for smarter growth. If the main issue is getting more taxing authority, especially concerning transportation, I’m closer to the rabid libertarians — deeply suspicious that government will do good things with the extra money. Poorly coordinated transportation and land use decisions, exemplified by the debacle that is Tysons Corner, and not a lack of funding, are at the root of our traffic nightmare.

Posted in smart growth, Taxes, Transit, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Connecting Fairfax by bicycle

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 15, 2009

GMU - Vienna routesThe map shows two basic alternatives for bicycling between two of central Fairfax’s major destinations, George Mason University and the Vienna Metrorail station. Fairfax Boulevard is the yellow “spine” in the center, but only the most intrepid bicyclists would venture on this 6-lane curb cut-happy road. Currently the best options are either to follow Old Lee Highway (south of Fairfax Boulevard) or take Eaton Place, ride briefly on Fairfax Boulevard (sidewalk or road, pick your poison) and turn left on Plantation Parkway to ride through Mosby Woods to Fair Oaks Road. There is a cut-through trail connecting Mosby Woods with Fair Oaks that several resourceful bicyclists have found. Many thanks to Frank Linton for developing the map.

Both are decent routes, but would be strengthened by an improved system of signs and on-road bike lanes, especially on Old Lee Highway. The plan for access roads and on-road bike lanes in the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan would make the connection easier.

Posted in Bicycling, Fairfax Boulevard, Transit | Leave a Comment »

For transportation, priorities matter more than money

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 4, 2009

Will more money get us more of this?

Will more money get us more of this?

“More money” was the mantra during last night’s hearing on the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Six Year Improvement Program. The most extreme version of the mantra was voiced by highway lobbyist Bob Chase. “No state that allows its maintenance fund to drain its construction fund” can be successful, Chase said — this about a state that ranked last in the nation for investing in maintenance and repair of its road system between 1992 and 2001. Chase then reeled off a list of new highways and road widenings that he contended Virginia needed to remain economically competitive.

This is a person the Washington Post commonly cites as a “transportation expert.” Oh boy.

But he wasn’t the only one drinking the Kool-Aid. Three members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board that governs VDOT attended, as did VDOT Secretary  Pierce Homer and head engineers and division leaders, and dutifully listened to the parade of speakers. It was a short speakers’ list, fewer than 20, half of them elected leaders and the other half a mix of highway lobbyists, smart growth advocates and private citizens. “Give us more money” was the refrain of most of the elected leaders and everyone at VDOT. Doug Koelemay of the CTB suggested that $50 a year from each driver from a gas tax hike would get us well on the way toward a better transportation system. Secretary Homer observed that the coordinated transportation and land use improvements would only come if VDOT could get more money for its depleted urban and secondary roads program.

Fair enough — it’s been 23 years since Virginia last raised its gas tax and it’s well past time to jack it up. But what we would do with the $200 million or so of extra revenue per year? Build one or two more interchanges, or build sidewalks and bike lanes in places like Fairfax Boulevard and Route 1? The first will temporarily relieve traffic in a sprawling area — and essentially reward a locality for the inefficient land use that has created the traffic mess in the first place. The second will encourage and reward efforts to plan land use better so people have more convenient access to services and transit and can more easily walk, bicycle and use transit.

Kudos to VDOT’s leader and governing board for attending the hearing, listening politely to our testimony and providing some gentle corrections to one speaker (blush) who got his mode share numbers wrong. But until there is a clearer plan for how they would spend the money, this taxpayer is skeptical. It depends on how we develop. The transportation projects we prioritize will strongly influence patterns of development, so continuing a focus on interchanges, and interstate and arterial road widenings and more turning lanes will just spread the development further outward and make our roads more difficult to navigate on foot and by bicycle. It’s a vexing problem, and the current leadership at VDOT seems to be trying to sort out this dubious inheritance from the last sixty years of less-than-prudent long-term decisions. But we need a faster and more decisive shift in transportation investments if we really want to strike at the heart of our traffic problems.

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