Leaders highlight Va. transportation plans

Robert Thomson
Columnist October 21, 2011

Given five minutes, how would you sum up a key issue for the region’s transportation system? It’s become an annual tradition for the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance to ask local officials to stand in front of an auditorium full of business and civic leaders in Tysons Corner and do just that.

It’s an important audience for the officials, and the alliance’s “five-minute drill” focuses their attention on highlights. This is some of what they thought was most important.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive
Transportation planning

Marty Nohe, chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, said Northern Virginia is preparing an updated transportation program, looking forward to 2040.

The update, which he hopes will be ready for legislative consideration in the 2013 General Assembly session, will include possibilities for road projects to deal with the impact of the federal base realignments and look at further expanding the Metro system, among other things.

Regional planning will focus on improving transportation corridors, rather than on the needs of particular jurisdictions. New road and transit projects will be evaluated in light of their effect on how many miles we travel in vehicles, something that could potentially benefit other forms of transportation besides roads.

My take: Planners in and out of government are looking at what we need for the next several decades. They have lengthy lists of projects to consider but very limited prospects for raising money. Planners should focus resources on preserving what we have.

Metro

Richard Sarles, Metro’s general manager, is focused on guarding the D.C. region’s greatest transportation asset. He and his management team never tire of using the phrase “state of good repair” when describing their goal for the biggest maintenance program in the transit system’s history.

Highlights: Buy 428 new rail cars to replace the oldest ones in the fleet and provide for the new service on the Dulles line. Rehabilitate 100 buses a year for six years, and buy 100 new buses a year. Improve the Next Bus technology to give riders a more accurate reading on when buses will arrive. Upgrade stations, where platforms, walls and ceilings are deteriorating. Replace 60 miles of track. Comply with the National Transportation Safety Board recommendations on upgrading rail cars and track systems. Fix the escalators and elevators.

My take: Sarles is on the right track, but it’s not always obvious to riders. What’s obvious to them is that the stations are torn up for repairs and that tens of thousands of weekend riders are inconvenienced by station closings and single-tracking for maintenance. If there were ever a time for highlighting customer service and flat-out hand-holding, this is it.

VRE

Dale Zehner, chief executive of Virginia Railway Express, said a 10-year investment of $250 million has helped the commuter service in creating the “very good state of repair” for customers in search of a reliable trip to work, more reliable than what the highways are providing.

Investment in the stations has expanded parking, extended platforms and added second platforms, he said. The rolling stock includes 71 new rail cars and 20 new locomotives.

On-time performance on the Fredericksburg Line is about 90 percent, and on the Manassas Line about 94 percent. That’s about 92 percent overall. If you can get above 90 percent while operating commuter trains on a freight railroad, “you’re doing extremely well,” he said. Still, he said, the system is constrained on parking, rail car seating and train storage.

My take: The service is working on extensions that would take it to Spotsylvania and western Prince William. VRE is a success story. The railroad estimates it removes a lane’s worth of traffic off Interstates 66 and 95 during peak periods. If there’s a case for adding to the regional transportation network, VRE has grounds to make it, as long as the current riders don’t suffer for the sake of attracting new customers.

Highway projects

Helen Cuervo, the Virginia Department of Transportation construction engineer for Northern Virginia, presented the timetable for some major road work.

The widening of westbound I-66 inside the Capital Beltway between George Mason Drive and Sycamore Street is scheduled to be done in December. Construction of the interchange at Route 28 and Wellington Road, a project funded by the federal stimulus money, is scheduled to be done next fall. Construction of the Fairfax County Parkway interchange at Fair Oaks Boulevard, another project using stimulus money, is scheduled to be done in fall 2013. The Route 50/Courthouse Road interchange also is on track to be done in fall 2013.

Other projects in the pipeline but not underway include the widening of I-66 to Haymarket, creation of an electronic message system giving I-66 drivers real-time travel information, widening Route 7 to Reston and construction of a new ramp connecting I-395 and Seminary Road, at the Mark Center, where the base realignment is adding thousands of workers.

Steve Titunik, VDOT’s communications director for the big regional projects, noted that the high-occupancy toll lanes project opened four new bridge spans along the western side of the Beltway in August. The project, which involves widening 14 miles of the Beltway as well as rebuilding the bridges and interchanges, is about three-quarters done but still has more than a year to go. Meanwhile, VDOT has completed the widening of I-95 between the Fairfax County Parkway and Route 123. On the other side of the Beltway, the THRU lanes that are part of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project are scheduled to be done by the end of the year, weather permitting. But work on the Telegraph Road interchange will continue.

My take: The base realignment program should never again happen the way this round proceeded. Local planners were not given enough time and money to make transportation improvements. They are still years from being done in both Virginia and Maryland.

Dulles Metrorail

Pat Nowakowski, the rail project’s executive director, said construction of the first phase, through Tysons Corner and out to Wiehle Avenue along the Dulles Toll Road, is more than half done. Earlier that day, Sept. 28, Nowakowski had taken reporters on a tour of the construction zone, which included a look at the new Metro escalators arriving for installation at Wiehle Avenue.

Back in Tysons, workers have finished tunneling through the natural high point of Fairfax County. Drivers can see the elevated guideway now crossing over the Beltway, but it’s not quite done. All four stations in Tysons are under construction. Work is scheduled to be done by mid-2013.

My take: Of course, the key question now is whether it will indeed be “Dulles Metrorail.” Costs and revenue for the phase that will take the line out to the airport and beyond into Loudoun County still are not set. Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton said he expected an agreement “in the next couple of months” to move the project forward.

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