FAIRFAX, Va. –As Virginia transportation officials met to discuss a six-year vision this week, lawmakers and residents debated the role of highways and mass transit for commuters.
How much money should be spent on widening roads, or adding new lanes? How much money should be spent on better Metro and VRE (Virginia Railway Express) service? What role can light rail play? How about bus only lanes to allow buses to bypass traffic?
“In Northern Virginia, unlike any other part of the Commonwealth, adding capacity for mass transit, or enhancing them, is a large congestion mitigator. It can have a big impact on our roads,” says Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.
Each work day, transit advocates say more than 500,000 people ride transit to work, entertainment, shopping, schools and doctors’ appointments in Northern Virginia.
“The investment in transit is the equivalent of one lane on I-66 and I-95 in rush hour. If all of those people were in their cars, the congestion would even be worse than it is today,” says Dave Snyder, Vice Chair of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.
VRE has 19,000 daily riders, many of them who could have taken I-95 from Fredericksburg to DC, or from Manassas to DC on I-66.
But board member and Aquia Supervisor Paul Milde says trains are too crowded, making the option less attractive right now. He says VRE needs more money.
“When a train leaves Fredericksburg, by the time it gets to the fourth stop in Woodbridge, the Prince William County riders cannot get a seat on the train. So you can imagine, a lot of people aren’t coming to get on the VRE,” says Milde.
He says with proper funding, VRE could run longer trains, build longer platforms, and fix spots where trains often stop because the tracks narrow. One such spot is over the Potomac River on the Long Bridge, north of National Airport. He adds that it needs to also get more space to store railcars.
“If we could get all the money to do that, we could add five to ten-thousand more people in our capacity. Right now the state portion of funding is very small, about as much as Prince William County, or 30 million dollars a year,” says Milde.
Metro also plays a role in the equation. About two million jobs are located within 1/4 mile of a Metrorail station. But Metro is struggling to just keep up with capacity, rather than expand it. Momentum 2025 hopes to add all eight-car trains during rush hours.
“It’s tough because everybody seems to want to expand Metro here, there and everywhere. The reality is, as the Momentum 2025 document points out, our number one priority is to fix the core of the system. We can only increase capacity to a certain level before the core doesn’t work and the system fails as a whole,” says Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff McKay.
Then, there is also mass transit outside the rail. Arlington is currently examining streetcars. Alexandria is about to launch bus-rapid transit in bus-only lanes. Studies are underway on Route 1 near Ft. Belvoir and Route 7 between Alexandria and Tysons.
“We realize there are areas of the region that are simply not able to be served by rail. This plan will help the bus systems, as well, improve their level of service to customers,” says Snyder.
But how much money these mass transit projects get versus road widening or new interchanges, all depends on complicated equations. Under House Bill 2, passed into law during the 2014 General Assembly, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) must calculate the overall traffic congestion relief that each project would bring across the Commonwealth, rank it, then compare the results. Projects with high scores will be more likely to move forward.
However, what the exact equation is, and how accurate the math will be, is unknown.
How will transit projects compare to road projects? Will the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority or VDOT give them a fair shake when each dole out money in the coming years?
“I think the bottom line is congestion reduction in the most cost-effective way. If that’s Metrorail, it’s Metrorail. If it’s more bus service, it’s more bus service. If it’s more lane capacity on roads, it’s more lane capacity,” says Del. Jim LeMunyon (R-67th District).
“When we designed the rating system for Northern Virginia to make congestion reduction the highest priority, we were agnostic in terms of transportation mode. We weren’t trying to bias it towards transit or road. Let the chips fall where they may.”
This summer, the NVTA (Northern Virginia Transportation Authority) will decide on funding for the next fiscal year and will have to make those key decisions and rate project versus project.