Fairfax Weighs MetroWest Fines To Cut Car Use

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The builders of the MetroWest project -- the cluster of homes, offices and stores proposed near the Vienna Metro station -- could be fined almost $500,000 if they cannot persuade enough residents and workers to stop using their cars, according to a deal being considered by Fairfax County.

The unusual penalties against Pulte Homes would kick in if a series of carrots and sticks designed to reduce the number of car trips at MetroWest by almost half does not succeed.

Pulte also has proposed rewards for residents who ride Metro -- including a free SmartCard worth as much as $50 when they buy a home -- and a premium price for any additional parking spaces beyond the one that comes with a condominium. The hope is that such a financial disincentive will force people to rely more on carpooling and public transit and less on driving.

"You get one spot. If you want another, you have to pay for it," possibly in cash, said Jon Lindgren, Pulte's director of land acquisition. "We have a palette of options to offer people."

The list of incentives to change the county's suburban car culture is part of a package of cash payments and other so-called proffers Pulte proposed to the county to help win approval for the project, which will go before the Planning Commission on Feb. 8. Pulte is seeking to rezone 56 acres south of the Vienna station for 2,250 condos, apartments and townhouses, plus 300,000 square feet of office space and about 100,000 square feet of retail space.

The project, by its sheer size, has generated fierce opposition from neighbors. But county officials argue that continuing the traditional pattern of sprawl will only worsen gridlock and that the only way to reduce traffic is by concentrating new homes near Metro stations.

Consultants hired by the county and Pulte estimate that if a project the size of MetroWest were built far from a train station, it would generate 1,356 new car trips during the typical rush hour. Using those numbers as a starting point, Pulte must reduce residential trips by 47 percent and business trips by 25 percent by the time the mini-city is completed in 2012 or face the sanctions.

Pulte has agreed to set aside a $2 million penalty fund, and the county can begin taking fines from it if the builder cannot meet the goal. The county would take periodic traffic counts during construction and annually for several years after the last house is built.

"It really breaks new ground in Fairfax County," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), whose district includes the Vienna station. "It's not only a very aggressive program [to reduce car trips], but it calls for aggressive penalties."

Pulte officials said they believe that most MetroWest residents will move there so they can live near Metro, making the task of traffic reduction easier. Still, the plan envisions vigilant marketing and "branding" the MetroWest community as transit- and pedestrian-friendly. For example, Pulte's proposal calls for a full-time transportation coordinator to match potential carpoolers, a store that sells Farecards and a child-care center. Pulte officials said they have not signed contracts with any retailers but hope to attract a bank, health club, coffee shop, dry cleaner, fast-food restaurant and supermarket, among others.

Pulte also envisions promotions for frequent bus and train riders, such as free food deliveries, and oil changes or car washes to entice people to carpool.

The big question is whether these incentives will get people out of their cars in a county of 399 square miles and, for now, five Metro stations.

"The alternative is the kind of building you have in Loudoun County," said Roger Diedrich, chairman of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, referring to the development boom west of Fairfax. Diedrich lives a mile from the Vienna station. "We need to give this approach a chance. . . . We need to take a bigger view."

But skeptics, many of them MetroWest's neighbors, worry that the strategies to discourage driving will not be enforced far into the future. They say Pulte has no guarantees, only optimism, that the incentives will work. And they called on county officials to require the developer to find office and retail tenants as quickly as it builds townhouses and condominiums.

"The [trip-reduction] strategies will work only if this is a true mixed-use community," said Pam Miller, a member of FairGrowth, a group pushing for fewer homes in MetroWest. "The county must ensure that offices and enough shops are built."

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