New taxes could alleviate VRE, Metro commutes

Officials say crossing the train tracks can lead to deadly accidents. (WTOP/Hank Silverberg)

FAIRFAX, Va. – Heavy traffic pushes many commuters to Virginia Railway Express and Metro. Both railways are over capacity, but new transportation funding could make the experience much smoother.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) approved 32 projects on July 24. Among them are four VRE projects:

  • Purchase of nine railway coaches ($19.8 million)
  • Design and construction of a second platform in Lorton ($7.9 million)
  • Tunnel and platform improvements in Alexandria ($1.3 million)
  • Studying an extension to Gainesville-Haymarket ($1.5 million)

Supporters say they believe the new railcars and the platform improvements will mean more people on each train and fewer people standing.

“Whether you’re looking at the I-95 corridor or the I-66 corridor, I think everyone agrees that what VRE does is take cars off of the road,” says NVTA Chairman and Prince William County Supervisor Martin Nohe.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisor Chair Sharon Bulova, who also serves on the VRE Board of Directors, says the VRE’s success is contributing to the problem.

“Congestion on I-95 and I-66 is so bad that more and more people are flocking to VRE. The problem with that is with more people on VRE, there are people who are standing for a good part of their trip. That is not OK. In some ways, we’re a victim of our own success,” Bulova says.

But Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, wants to know more information about how this would relieve congestion for everyone.

“That is a prudent use of money. But they still aren’t giving us a quantitative analysis. I like the idea, but I have to do more than like things to justify spending public money,” he says.

Marshall voted against the transportation package. He also filed a lawsuit in 2007 against the NVTA and won. Marshall tells WTOP that he’s seriously considering another suit. The NVTA is asking anyone who wants to sue them to come forward. Until the courts make a final decision, the NVTA will not commit debt-related financing to projects like the new railcars. A decision could come within the next nine months.

The additions at the Alexandria station will improve a key point for riders using transit across Northern Virginia. About 2,300 people each day transfer between the Alexandria VRE station and the King Street Metro Station, which will be revamped with the new money. About 58 percent of these riders live in Fairfax or Prince William counties and another 35 percent live in Stafford County or Fredericksburg.

Lengthening and adding a platform at the Lorton VRE station is being billed as a project that could help with congestion along Route 1. The stretch between Quantico and Ft. Belvoir is one of the busiest stretches in Northern Virginia. Some Ft. Belvoir employees station a car at the Lorton station and carpool into the base. About 300 VRE riders use the station each day.

Transit money will also go toward improving Metrorail. One project will go toward power upgrades along the Orange Line, which is necessary for Metro to transition to all eight-car trains during rush hour. It’s one of several measure in Metro’s Momentum plan to look toward improving the system by 2025.

Alexandria will receive money from the NVTA to plan, design and engineer an infill station at Potomac Yard. The project has met some stiff opposition, but supporters say it will provide necessary access to a growing neighborhood between the Reagan National Airport and Braddock Road stations. It’s unclear when the station will actually be constructed.

All these transit projects touched off a firestorm in recent weeks. Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance sent out a commentary in July that criticized the NVTA for the equal balance between transit and road projects. Chase argues that a lot of Northern Virginians want to drive and forcing transit on people is unfair.

The commentary drew swift response from transit groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Greater Greater Washington.

James Schroll of the Coalition for Smarter Growth addressed the issue before a NVTA public hearing on Wednesday.

“The focus of our future must be on mixed-use, walkable and transit-oriented communities. Only through these sustainable strategies can we manage congestion on our roads,” he says.

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