Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Posts Tagged ‘VDOT’

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.

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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 »

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.

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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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Stop neighborhood silos

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 19, 2009

I should stop being surprised by the inefficiency of Fairfax’s streets. Fairfax Gateway on School Street and Route 123 is one of Fairfax City’s newest townhouse developments. It is a five-minute walk from George Mason University. Give the city and the developer credit for the handsome brick quasi-rowhomes that front School Street and can be entered from the sidewalk. School Street looks a lot better with this new addition, and the recent opening of a gourmet delicatessen  across the street may add some sorely needed foot traffic.

Gateway FairfaxGateway Fairfax2The main subdivision, however, is a standard pod. There is only one entrance, onto School Street. The end of the subdivision is a one-minute walk from the Metro 29K GMU-Pentagon bus stop. Is there a sidewalk connection? Of course not. A break in the forest, though, suggests that some residents and commuters might be bushwhacking. This could become a dirt footpath soon.

The new Kendall Square townhomes on Kingsbridge Street near the Vienna Metro station have the same M.O. Nice street-oriented design, but only one entrance and no connection to Blake Lane or Fairfax Boulevard.

VDOT’s new rules encouraging more connected streets may lead to fewer neighborhood silos for larger subdivisions. But these new roads are private roads that will be maintained by the developer. They will continue to be built unless local officials press for more connected streets as part of the rezoning process.

Traffic will flow much more efficiently with interconnected streets. Landscape architects have long since woken up from their love affair with curvilinear streets, and traffic engineers are finally coming to recognize that connected street grids are more efficient for getting from Point A to Point B than the once-hallowed “street hierarchy.” But the urge to build cul-de-sacs persists. Serious question: Do most people really (still) want these? Is the real estate industry still finding such a strong desire for streets to nowhere in their market research?

For all the money that has been spent on transportation in this area, it’s not getting easier to walk, bicycle or drive between Fairfax City and GMU. By closing University Drive to car traffic, the city has eliminated a connection that worked very well for driving, bicycling and walking. In recent rides along University Drive I’ve never seen anyone there. It’s become not only “car-free,” but pedestrian- and neighbor-free too. The newly opened George Mason Boulevard, running parallel to University Drive, is a thorn in the side of residents of the Crestmont subdivision, who are pressing for sound walls. The city has spent a lot of money on a project that is simply moving cars somewhere else, and not creating a better environment that will encourage more walking and bicycling.

Posted in Planning, 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.

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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 »