Northern Virginia tries to think big about road, transit improvements

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 6, 2013

As Northern Virginians debate how they should invest new transportation revenue, the region’s jurisdictions are pressing for local projects on their wish lists. Reviewing those lists, some transportation advocates urge that the money be spent on the biggest possible congestion-busters, and fear it might not be.

At times, the debate can sound like it’s between people who want to spend money on highway relief for thousands and people who want fancy bus shelters for a handful of transit users.

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

Neither view would fully capture what’s going on in this remarkable process. While Maryland also increased its transportation revenue, there’s no comparable decision-making underway in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs, because the state has nothing like the newly empowered Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

Hot topics include whether the projects proposed by individual jurisdictions in Virginia fit into a regional plan and whether they would provide congestion relief.

The plan

Some public testimony in June suggested the authority might choose projects that were small, local and of low impact. Chris Zimmerman of Arlington, the authority board member who leads its project committee, noted that the authority is guided by a regional plan. It’s called TransAction 2040, an update of an earlier long-range plan to ease congestion, improve safety and increase mobility in Northern Virginia.

The broadly stated goals are to provide those jurisdictions with an integrated transportation network that offers people a variety of ways to get around, is responsive to their needs, respects historical and environmental factors, addresses transportation and land use together, incorporates the benefits of technology, and identifies sources of funding to accomplish all that.

From those goals, the planners developed a list of roadway, transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects, many of which are focused on the region’s most heavily traveled corridors:

●Route 7, Dulles Toll Road, Silver Line

●Route 28

●Loudoun County Parkway, Tri-County Parkway, Belmont Ridge Road, Gum Springs Road

●Fairfax County Parkway

●Prince William Parkway

●Capital Beltway

●I-95, I-395, Route 1, VRE, Metro Blue, Yellow Line

●I-66, Route 29, Route 50, Orange Line

If a Northern Virginian goes more than a few miles, the travel is likely to include at least one of the corridors. So improvements in these areas are likely to have a high impact.

The final, grand list of projects that evolved for the 2040 plan included more than 100 highway programs that would add 785 miles of lanes, 50 transit projects and 40 projects specifically to improve bicycle and pedestrian travel.

The projects on the grand list were evaluated to set priorities. The evaluation standards included project readiness; urgency; ability to ease congestion and reduce travel time; ability to link employment, shopping and entertainment centers; and safety. They were put through a further review to test the potential benefits vs. the cost.

Sample projects

Here are some projects that have a high rating under the NVTA’s standards. This is only a sample to illustrate the variety, how they fit into the 2040 corridor plan and how their advocates describe the congestion relief they would provide.

These are among the scores of requests made by local jurisdictions and agencies for an initial round of NVTA funding. In many cases, that funding would not cover the complete cost of the project but would advance some stage of it. Funding for the Virginia Department of Transportation and its projects dwarfs that for the regional transportation authority.

Some projects on this list look like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle when regarded individually, but commuters who travel the corridors will see how they fit together. Others, particularly some examples from the inner suburbs, will be welcomed by transit users even though critics view them as nickel-and-dime projects.

Corridor: Dulles, Route 7,
Silver Line

Leesburg Park and Ride. With at least 300 spaces, the park-and-ride will connect with the Silver Line, reducing the number of cars on the region’s highway system.

Interchange at Leesburg Bypass, Edwards Ferry Road. This would enhance regional traffic flow by eliminating an at-grade, signalized intersection on an important north-south connector that experiences significant congestion.

Loudoun County transit buses. This would finance two 40-foot transit buses at $440,000 each to introduce Silver Line connecting service from a new park-and-ride along Tall Cedars Parkway. That would reduce the number of car commuter trips and provide access to Metrorail.

Corridor: Parkways, Belmont Ridge, Gum Springs Roads

Belmont Ridge Road widening. The road north and south of the Dulles Greenway along the western boundary of Ashburn would be widened from two to four lanes, reducing congestion for both commuters and school traffic. An at-grade intersection with the Washington and Old Dominion Trail would be eliminated, improving safety.

Corridor: Route 28

Route 28 hot-spot improvements. Design improvements at the Dulles Toll Road and at Sterling Boulevard, north of the toll road, would ease congestion in a segment where traffic is stop and go during the morning rush.

Route 28 widening from McLearen Road to Dulles Toll Road. The project would provide an additional northbound lane along a corridor that serves three counties.

Route 28 widening from Dulles Toll Road to Route 50. The project would add a fourth lane southbound.

Corridor: I-66, routes 29, 50

Pedestrian signal improvement, City of Falls Church. The project installs pedestrian signals at the intersection of East Columbia Street and North Washington Street, within a mile of the East Falls Church Metro station. Adding pedestrian and bike enhancements such as this is meant to increase accessibility for Metrorail.

Chain Bridge Road widening, City of Fairfax. This project improves vehicular and pedestrian mobility in the vicinity of Route 123 and Route 29/50 and eliminates roadway flooding.

Corridor: I-95, 395, Route 1, VRE, Metrorail

Blue/Silver Line mitigation in Arlington County. Buys four Arlington Transit (ART) buses as a short-term measure to moderately increase ART’s north-south bus capacity, coinciding with the opening of the Silver Line, the new Metrorail route that already is affecting Blue Line commuters.

Boundary Channel Drive interchange. Arlington County proposes to redesign the interchange with I-395 to improve traffic flow in Northern Virginia’s most congested area.

Shelters and real-time transit information. This project would fund the replacement and expansion of DASH and Metro bus shelters at high-ridership locations throughout Alexandria.

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