Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Posts Tagged ‘Transportation’

Great, but what about the big picture?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on March 7, 2013

Northern Virginia transportation officials are rightly concerned that new transportation funds bring new expectations from residents for traffic relief. Last week, Post columnist Robert McCartney reflected on his interviews with transportation directors in Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince William Counties on the new regional funds for transportation improvements (read the full article here): “Their comments surprised me. I was expecting an outpouring of gratitude and relief that after 27 years of paralysis, the Virginia legislature had finally approved the money they desperately needed to fund the projects they’ve dreamed of doing. Instead, some of these powerful but unheralded public servants seemed anxious about their newfound riches. If they don’t deliver visible improvements in commuting and travel time, they feared, then voters would erupt over getting nothing in return for the increased taxes and fees.”

McCartney’s column today, though, celebrates a new road project that would have minimal value in reducing traffic congestion. The Manassas Battlefield Bypass has long been pushed in conjunction with the Bi-County Parkway. An ostensible purpose of the bypass is to relieve traffic pressures through the historic battlefield. VDOT has promised to close Route 29 through the battlefield once the bypass is built. McCartney lauds the handshake arrangement that VDOT has made with the park superintendent to close 29 once the bypass and Bi-County Parkway has been built. He implies that opponents are narrowly focused on their property interests and are simply standing in the way of progress.

The bypass is part of a much larger North-South Corridor project that includes the Bi-County Parkway and new road segments extending south to I-95 and north to Leesburg. The North-South Corridor will cost more than $1 billion and doesn’t address the traffic issues afflicting Prince William and Loudoun, which are east-west and not north-south.It would also divert the new regional funds from much more pressing traffic and transit fixes in Fairfax and the inner suburbs.

Preserving the battlefield’s historic character and making it more accessible for visitors is important. It is great that the Battlefield superintendent and VDOT are negotiating a compromise (although it would be better if VDOT actually made the pledge in a binding form). But what happened to the paramount concern with traffic relief that McCartney seemed to hear so loud and clear last week?

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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.

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

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 »

Greasing the chain

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 7, 2009

Tysons Tour Apr 07Earlier this week Fairfax County took the first step toward a bicycle master plan. The County Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Jeff McKay directing the staff to study the development of a bicycle plan and provide recommendations for funding and creating the plan.

Fairfax County currently has very few bicycle projects in its countywide transportation plan. Less than 2 percent of the funds in VDOT’s Six-Year Transportation Improvement Program for Northern Virginia are for bicycle and pedestrian improvements. If it is not in these plans, it will not get built.

Washington DC approved a bicycle master plan in 2005.  Bicycle projects are now integrated in the city’s transportation plan, guiding decisions about design and funding for projects. Bicycle use in the city has soared. Without the plan, many bicycle projects would not have gotten into the city’s funding and construction pipeline. The bicycle master plan took a lot of work, and some money. But it is paying off.

With the budget constraints, Fairfax County cannot fund a bicycle planning effort. But the approval of a study of a bike plan greases the chain for a bicycle planning process when funding gets less tight. Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, which has been campaigning for a bicycle master plan, recognized this and worked with Supervisor McKay to get the process started. The District of Columbia used crack consultants to do their bicycle master plan, and the high quality and precision of their work surely has helped legitimize the plan and get it implemented. Still, the county might want to consider getting started with the resources it already has and not wait too long before beginning the plan. Despite the incessant hand-wringing about Virginia’s transportation woes, new money for transportation is coming within the next couple years through the federal transportation reauthorization. We need to be prepared with specific bicycle and pedestrian projects to take advantage of the opportunities.


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Connecting the dots

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 7, 2009

Fairfax County’s fragmented street network is a big reason why getting from one place to another — by car, bike, on foot, or any other means — is so stressful. A case in point is the new Merrifield development (pictured above left). The shops, restaurants and apartments at Merrifield Town Center are within easy walking and bicycling distance of the homes and offices on and near Arlington Boulevard. They are also within easy walking and bicycling distance of the Dunn-Loring metro station. But both Dunn-Loring and Arlington Boulevard have inefficient street systems that funnel all traffic to major roads.

As part of the Merrifield rezoning, Merrilee Drive will be connected to Eskridge Road, which will make it easier for Dunn-Loring residents, office workers and transit users to enjoy the amenities of Merrifield. A thornier problem is to connect Eskridge Road with Williams Drive and Arlington Boulevard. A few properties, including the Four Seasons Tennis Club (pictured on right), separate Eskridge and Williams. The medical staff and other office workers and visitors on Williams Drive are just 10 minutes away from Merrifield Town Center by foot — and within bicycling distance of the Dunn-Loring station — but private properties, a parking lot and a fence separate them. That just funnels more car traffic onto Arlington Boulevard, Gallows Road, Prosperity Drive and the Beltway.

Fairfax County looked closely into connecting Eskridge and Williams as part of the Merrifield rezoning, but stopped short when many property owners opposed it. But even if a connecting road cannot be built, one would think that the county could work with property owners to acquire easements for a trail connecting the two roads. It would be good for business in Merrifield, connect the many residents and workers in this area with amenities, and reduce the traffic burden on the roads.

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

Street grid near Fairfax Boulevard would be good, but don’t make it an island

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 3, 2009

Fair Lakes Market CommonsLast week Fairfax City Councilmembers briefly discussed a critical step in the implementation of the Fairfax Boulevard master plan — a more connected, walkable and bikeable street network. The city recently enacted a new commercial real estate tax dedicated exclusively to funding transportation projects. The first priority for this new money is to build a street network in the “Northfax” section of Fairfax Boulevard near Route 123. While the plans are still in a very early stage, and redevelopment proposals have not yet even been formally submitted, a dedicated funding source makes it likely that redevelopment in Northfax will move relatively quickly.

The Fairfax Boulevard master plan recommends a “8/10/10/8” design of new local streets — 8 feet for on-street parking on each side, a 10 foot travel lane, and wide sidewalks. The recommended design would resemble the street pictured above, at the Market Commons development in Fair Lakes — creating a pleasant place to walk, ride your bike, and spend money at local businesses.

It would be great to have new walkable streets in Fairfax City in places that are currently taken up mostly by surface parking. Doing this, though, will be easier than implementing the main aspect of the master plan, which is taming Fairfax Boulevard itself. The recommendations in the master plan call for a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevard with five travel lanes and two access lanes for local traffic. The “5-2” design would make Fairfax Boulevard a much more pleasant place to walk along. It would also make the street easier to cross, so that local residents could more easily get to places on the Boulevard on foot or bicycle rather than adding to the traffic. But city council members and developers are skeptical about the 5-2 design.

Without a more ambitious redesign of the Boulevard, the local streets will be nice places to go, but — like Market Commons and many other new developments in Fairfax County — they will be islands of livability surrounded by inhospitable wide roads.

Posted in Bicycling, Fairfax Boulevard, Transportation, Walking | 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 »

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 »