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Archive for the ‘VDOT’ Category

Media Groupthink

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on March 3, 2013

The shrill chorus of pro-highway voices reached a crescendo today with the Washington Post’s editorial calling out the Northern Virginia delegates who voted against the state’s transportation bill. This week’s Fairfax Times also contained an editorial lauding the McDonnell Administration for striking a deal, and castigating opponents of the bill for “creat[ing] roadblocks and [fall]ing on political swords.”

The Northern Virginia media, and in particular the Post, are determined to punish legislators who were not willing to cut a blank check for the Commonwealth Transportation Board. The transportation bill raises taxes for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads residents to pay for transportation improvements that the state should be paying for already. The state is instead squandering the money on new highway projects such as Route 460, the Outer Beltway in Loudoun and Prince William and the Charlottesville western bypass.

The fundamental problems with the bill are aptly explained by Senator Chap Petersen, and in Stewart Schwartz’s blog piece in Greater Greater Washington. As Petersen said, “Money alone will not solve this issue.” The Commonwealth Transportation Board and VDOT are focused on “megaprojects” that provide fat contracts for construction companies and open up new land for development. The McDonnell Administration is moving up the $1.2 billion Outer Beltway project to the first project in line in Northern Virginia to receive the new funds. Northern Virginia does not need new highways. Improvements on existing roads to relieve bottlenecks are a much higher priority, as county transportation directors explained in Robert McCartney’s recent Post article.

Many legislators voted for the bill believing that it was the best deal they could get under the political realities of Virginia both now and in the foreseeable future. Virginia is still a largely rural state. The rural districts are powerfully represented in the legislature and on the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Transportation funds have traditionally been allocated liberally throughout the state, with a priority on new highway construction.

The bill allows Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to raise their own transportation money – which business and political leaders in the regions have been trying to do for well over a decade. It provides a new funding source for transit – albeit from raiding the general fund. In many legislators’ minds, it was too good to pass up.

Reasonable minds may disagree. But to the editorial board of the Post, there is only one right answer. They choose not to listen to, and are determined to punish, the reasonable voices of caution and skepticism who are all too aware of the state’s poor track record of using transportation funds to increase transportation choices and reduce traffic congestion. It is sad to see such narrow-mindedness and vindictiveness in the editorial board of our paper of record.

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Changes are afoot — let’s speed them up!

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 7, 2009

Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria has been redesigned to make bicycling and walking safe and pleasant.

Check out Scott Polikov’s excellent article in citiwire.net for an encouraging view of the changes afoot in state transportation departments. Last week the Texas became the first state to adopt the The Institute for Transportation Engineers’ and Congress for the New Urbanism’s Manual for Walkable Urban Thoroughfares as an accepted set of guidelines for street design. Polikov, a Fort Worth-based planner, also commends the Virginia Department of Transportation for its policy to encourage interconnected streets.

Last Tuesday, Charlotte,  North Carolina received a National Award for Smart Growth Achievement for its urban street design guidelines, which it adopted five years ago and has already implemented on 20 streets and at 10 intersections.

Are the dominoes falling, as Polikov suggests? Maybe, but they’re heavy dominoes with a bit of glue underneath each one. Adopting the guidelines is just the first step; Texas now  has to figure out how to incorporate them in the Department of Transportation’s various manuals and programs. State DOTs have layers upon layers of staff expertise and established processes that support more conventional auto-oriented practices.

The  Virginia Department of Transportation is changing, but the changes are not as fast as the pace of change in Fairfax communities. Tysons Corner is  poised to get four rail stations by 2013. Fairfax will need to make Routes 7 and 123 into more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevards to take advantage of transit and attract businesses along these streets. But VDOT and the Metro Washington Airports Authority’s plans for 7 and 123 have barebones pedestrian accommodations and discourage at-grade crossings for pedestrians. Nor do they have bike lanes.

Following the example  of Texas and adopting the Walkable Urban Thoroughfare guidelines would be a great step for VDOT. So would a program of trainings in “complete street” design practices for VDOT and FCDOT engineers. VDOT and FCDOT could start by focusing trainings for staff working on projects in Fairfax County designated revitalization areas, such as the Richmond Highway Corridor.

Posted in Transportation, Uncategorized, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Getting across the street

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 10, 2009

Rte 7 ped

Route 7 near Seven Corners has many pedestrians, no sidewalks and no safe crossings

If you live in Fairfax and want to walk or bicycle to the 7-11, your job or to your child’s school, chances are you will have to cross a major road. To bicycle to our son’s elementary school, we have to cross both Route 236 and Route 50, plus a busy secondary road, Jermantown Road. During peak hours Route 236 and 50 have many turning vehicles and short walk cycles. The crosswalks are poorly lit, increasing the risk of collisions with pedestrians.

But these crosswalks are still a lot safer than on many other arterial roads in Fairfax County. Twenty two pedestrians were killed on Route 1 between 1995 and 2005, according to a 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Eleven pedestrians were killed on Route 7.  A lot of people live along these streets, and many of them don’t drive. Yet the streets lack sidewalks, lighting and safe crossings.

Virginia ranks last among states in spending on pedestrian and bicycle projects per capita, according to a report released yesterday by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. The report,  Dangerous by Design: Solving the Epidemic of Preventable Pedestrian Deaths (and Making Great Neighborhoods), looks at pedestrian spending and safety, using a “pedestrian danger index” that computes the rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the amount of walking the residents do on average. For safety, the Washington area ranks 32nd among the largest 52 metro areas  (with 52 being the least dangerous) — better than many Sunbelt areas that have been mostly built in the age of the automobile, but worse than Virginia Beach and many comparable metro regions.  A 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth ranked Fairfax as the most dangerous county in the region for pedestrians, based on the same pedestrian danger index.

Fairfax County  recognizes the problem and is investing millions of dollars in better pedestrian design on its most dangerous roads. Earlier this year the $8 million Patrick Henry pedestrian bridge opened on Route 50 near Falls Church. But this may not be the best design solution.  Steven Offutt’s great post on the bridge showed that most pedestrians still cross on the street. Ultimately, the street itself has to be made more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

Making these roads complete streets that are safe and convenient for all users will require a major overhaul of VDOT’s current approach. VDOT does have a policy requiring routine accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists as part of any major road construction and maintenance project. But sidewalks and bike lanes, however important, are only parts of complete streets. There are many tools such as bulb-outs, pedestrian refuge islands, express bus lanes and tighter curb radii that would correct the balance toward pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.

There is no better place to use these tools than at Tysons Corner. If we don’t build complete streets on Routes 7 and 123, the success of transit-oriented development at Tysons will be limited. Will VDOT and other agencies involved in the redesign of these roads show more flexibility in making them pleasant and safe for walking and bicycling?

Posted in Bicycling, Central Fairfax, Fairfax Boulevard, Fairfax City, Transportation, Tysons Corner, VDOT, Walk to school, Walking | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

A step forward — maybe

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 29, 2009

Gallows and Strawberry toward 29

Local control might help make crosswalks such as this one at Merrifield Town Center more pedestrian-friendly.

If you’ve ever tried walking or bicycling on Gallows Road, you know it’s hardly a pleasant experience. The road is extremely wide, has narrow sidewalks, and is very difficult to cross as pedestrians try to beat cars moving and turning in every direction. It could be much different. Threading through some major destinations including Fairfax Hospital, Exxon-Mobil’s world headquarters, and the W & OD Trail all the way to Tysons Corner, Gallows could be a great corridor for walking, bicycling and using transit. In fact, some of the county’s major development initiatives, such as Merrifield Town Center, Dunn Loring, and Tysons Corner, are planned along this road.

But Fairfax doesn’t have control over the design of Gallows Road. The Virginia Department Of Transportation does. Even as county officials decide how to best plan development so more people can walk, bicycle, and use transit, the most important factor — whether they can safely cross the street — is out of their hands.

This could change. As Kali Schumitz of the Fairfax Times reports, Fairfax County has initiated a study of options for taking over road maintenance and construction from VDOT.  Fairfax wants to wrest more money for transportation from Richmond and control that money themselves. But local control of roads could also help make the county more walkable and bicycle-friendly.

In all Virginia counties but two, VDOT controls both the primary roads like Route 123 and Route 50, and secondary roads that connect with primary roads. Arlington and Henrico Counties have taken over control of their secondary roads, although VDOT still controls the primary roads. Fairfax is looking to do the same thing.

Local control certainly is no panacea. Fairfax City controls all of its roads, and they are hardly pedestrian paradises. Wherever they work, transportation engineers are trained in the same places and follow the same rigorous and generally auto-oriented discipline. And even if Fairfax did take over its secondary roads, VDOT would still control the arterial roads that are the biggest barriers to pedestrian and bicycle access.

But local control of secondary roads would enable Fairfax citizens and groups to hold their local officials more accountable. Right now it is too easy for our elected officials and transportation department to pass the buck to VDOT. With local control, they would have to walk the talk — and we would have to make them.

Posted in Bicycling, Fairfax City, smart growth, Transportation, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

What are we getting for $5,000,000,000?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 15, 2009

The Springfield Interchange. Photo courtesy bankbryan, <div xmlns:cc="http://creativecommons.org/ns#" about="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bankbryan/326714624/"><a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=

The Springfield Interchange. Photo courtesy bankbryan, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bankbryan/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With so much discussion focused on getting more money for transportation, a little perspective is helpful. As Ashley Halsey III reports in today’s Washington Post, Northern Virginia has $5 billion in transit and road projects currently under construction.  But this $5 billion, all agree, will do little to ease congestion or shorten commutes. As every motorist knows, the traffic delays from constructing the projects are themselves considerable. The Springfield Interchange improvements may never recover all the lost time in traffic caused by the project in the first place.

Land use is the elephant in the room, and Halsey sees it — unlike the Post’s editors. More efficient, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly land use, focused near transit stations and along corridors with some semblance of a pedestrian infrastructure, such as Routes 1, 7, 236, is the only way that Fairfax will be able to address its transportation crisis. It will certainly take money to make the improvements needed to redevelop these areas, upgrade their infrastructure, put in more efficient street grids, and even, in some cases, widen roads to accommodate increased traffic. The formidable planning apparatus being rolled out to retrofit Tysons Corner gives a sense of just how difficult and expensive — and necessary — this will be.

The problem is that there’s been little coordinated analysis, planning or funding for these needed land use and transportation improvements. Atlanta, despite its well deserved reputation for dysfunctional land use, has a robust Livable Centers Initiative that prioritizes $500 million in transportation funds for communities that are making innovative land use decisions. While the Washington area has  some helpful programs to encourage greater coordination of transportation and land use, it lacks a strong tool such as this. The Coalition for Smarter Growth’s Blueprint for a Better Region provides a great vision for development around the region’s transit assets. We need a program with strong funding incentives to make this vision happen.

Posted in Transportation, VDOT | Leave a Comment »

Will the candidates talk about priorities?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 12, 2009

As Senator Creigh Deeds and Attorney General Robert McDonnell get set to square off in tonight’s gubernatorial debate in Richmond, they will be once again be asked how they will raise more money for transportation. That’s the wrong question. There will never be close to enough money for the wish list of transportation projects promoted by Northern Virginia’s road and sprawl development lobby. The transportation discussion needs to change its focus from money to priorities.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council are trying to reorient the discussion, asking the candidates to describe their plans for reforming the state’s process of planning, selecting, and funding transportation projects.

The Coalition and PEC identify several principles that should guide transportation investments, including:

  • Revitalizing existing communities.  Redevelopment in Virginia’s cities, towns and older communities will allow the private sector to partner with the state in replacing aging roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure, while reducing the amount that Virginians have to drive.
  • Designing communities to be mixed-use, mixed-income, walking and bicycling-friendly, and transit-oriented to reduce commute distances, improve access to jobs and services, and reduce energy use.
  • Focusing on repair and replacement of existing roads, transit, and other infrastructure.  The state has a $3.7 billion backlog of structurally deficient bridges, yet VDOT proposes an $11.4 billion expansion of I-81 – most of it to 8 lanes; an approach that is unaffordable.
  • Directing spending to better local street networks that more safely accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists and support mixed-use development.
  • Tying economic development incentives to companies that locate in cities, towns and/or adjacent to high-capacity transit; and for industrial facilities and distribution centers that locate adjacent to freight rail lines.

Posted in Transportation, VDOT | Leave a Comment »

Less pretty, more functional please

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 8, 2009

Vienna Maple LawyersDon’t let the pretty bricks fool you. This crosswalk in downtown Vienna is no fun if you have to walk on it. Wide curb radii make it much more difficult to cross because a)they lengthen the walking distance, and b) motorists are encouraged to take turns without stopping or looking for pedestrians.

For years Vienna and Fairfax have been trying to revitalize their downtowns and make them more walkable and bicycle-friendly. But there’s a big disconnect with conventional traffic engineering wisdom. Getting more automobiles through the road faster trumps everything. Traffic calming measures such as squaring off intersections get in the way of this engineering priority.

One issue is institutional. VDOT controls the roads in Fairfax County.The agency is not accountable to local communities. Local control over roads could lead to more flexible, pedestrian-friendly designs. Although pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design of Routes 7 and 123 will be critical to making Tysons Corner work as a transit-oriented community, VDOT shows little sign of flexibility in its auto-focused approach. This is one reason Fairfax County is looking into taking control of its roads.

But that’s not the only issue. Even county and local transportation divisions tend to narrowly focus on automobile “throughput.” Engineers are trained to move cars efficiently. Pedestrian and bicycle-oriented features are not familiar concepts to many traffic engineers. Local elected officials hear complaints about traffic all the time, and usually it is from a “windshield perspective.” So they, too, are often pressured to look for short-term, auto-oriented solutions rather than a more balanced approach.

In addition, often our elected leaders themselves have a windshield perspective. It can help to take them on walks and bicycle rides to broaden their perspective.

Until a better balance is struck between the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motorists, Vienna, Fairfax and other communities will not be able to attract a critical mass of people to revitalize their downtowns. One good step would be for VDOT and local transportation divisions to train all their engineering staff in the Complete Streets approach to street design.

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

Boulevard, or auto sewer?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 25, 2009

This is a boulevard?

This is a boulevard?

When you take the future Silver Line to Tysons Corner, chances are you’ll end up walking along either Leesburg Pike or Chain Bridge Road. All of the four planned Metro stations will be on either Leesburg or Chain Bridge. They will be the most important streets in a redeveloped Tysons Corner. For Tysons to become a real place, people on these streets will need to feel comfortable  bicycling, walking, sitting with a friend and drinking coffee, window-shopping and doing the many other things that support a vibrant urban environment.

Fairfax County’s draft comprehensive plan for Tysons Corner recognizes the importance of redesigning these pedestrian- and bicycle-unfriendly roads.  Complete streets principles are honored in theory. But the proposed design will not create a more  inviting environment for people who want to experience the pleasures and amenities of a city. Above is one of the proposed “Boulevard” cross-sections for Chain Bridge Road  and Leesburg Pike. There would be four car travel lanes in each direction and a median. A tree buffer is planned between the sidewalk and the road. The local service lanes that currently exist on Leesburg Pike would be eliminated. These currently serve slower-moving traffic and are good for bicycling. There are no bicycle lanes.

Arlington has more created complete streets to complement transit, such as here at Courthouse. Photo courtesy digitaldefection, http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitaldefection/

Arlington has created complete streets to complement transit, such as here at Courthouse. Photo courtesy digitaldefection, http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitaldefection/

The median will be literally overshadowed by above-ground Metro tracks. That will make it even harder to redesign Leesburg and Chain Bridge as complete streets. In fact, the major players in the rail project — including the Metro Washington Airports Authority, VDOT, Washington Metro and Fairfax County — seem resigned to the rail corridors becoming dark, impersonal and pedestrian-unfriendly places where the only safe crossings will be the station bridges. That’s certainly the impression given by the latest visual renderings.  SAIC, which is moving its national headquarters to Tysons, is planning to build its own bridge to get employees across Leesburg Pike.

Isn’t there a better way to balance concerns about traffic flow and accommodating the Metro rail with creating a more pleasant urban environment?   In Arlington, the major thoroughfares on the Rosslyn-Ballston transit corridor carry a lot of traffic but also include on-street parking and bike lanes. Let’s hope we can find a better design for these key streets in Tysons.

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

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 »

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 »