Woe Unto Tysons Commuters

Construction of office and residential towers, extension of a Metrorail line and other projects are poised to exacerbate traffic headaches in Tysons Corner.
Construction of office and residential towers, extension of a Metrorail line and other projects are poised to exacerbate traffic headaches in Tysons Corner. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 27, 2007

Take the 12th-biggest business district in the country, which already suffers spirit-crushing traffic jams as more than 100,000 employees and thousands more shoppers try to squeeze onto the few roads in or out of the area daily.

Then add the construction of an aboveground rail line that would require the complete reshaping of one of two major roads. At the same time, throw in the addition of two or three sets of highway ramps dropping in from the often-clogged Capital Beltway. Top it off with the building of 30-story towers around the huge mall in the center of the area.

The resulting scenario sounds like the cruel fantasy of an angry god. But it is the reality of the next several years facing the tens of thousands of residents, shoppers and employees who pass through Tysons Corner every day.

"It will be a monumental disaster if all of these projects are allowed to move forward at the same time," said Mark C. Lowham, a senior vice president with WestGroup, the largest Tysons landowner. The company has been arguing for burying the rail line planned for Tysons partly to lessen congestion during construction.

The daunting future facing Tysons was underscored this week with Fairfax County's approval of an overhaul of Tysons Corner Center, which includes surrounding the mall with eight towers containing offices, a hotel and 1,385 apartments. The project, to span the next decade, is a crucial element of the county government's vision for turning Tysons from a car-dependent office park into a thriving downtown, sparked by the anticipated arrival of Metrorail in 2012.

There is widespread disagreement over whether this vision is realistic and whether the arrival of rail and thousands of new Tysons residents will, over the long term, improve traffic in an area that now has about 40,000 commuters forcing their way into it at the peak of the morning rush. Midday and weekend traffic is also notoriously bad.

But even among proponents of the area's transformation, there is little doubt that, in the short term, things are not going to be pretty, as its 1,700 acres turns into a construction zone.

Starting in August, contractors will start relocating utility lines along Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) and Route 123 (Chain Bridge Road) to prepare for the 23-mile Metrorail extension from West Falls Church to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County. The plan calls for running an elevated track as high as 70 feet through Tysons along the edge of Route 123. The line will dip underground at the juncture of Routes 123 and 7 and then climb back to an elevated track running down the median of Route 7.

Route 7 will be overhauled beginning early next year, with its existing six lanes and service roads converted to eight lanes with no service roads.

Businesses along Route 7 are bracing for the chaos. Korby Srihakote, manager of Performance Bicycle Shop at Pike 7 Plaza, said he worried that people driving up Leesburg Pike would be far less likely to pull into the plaza if the road was completely jammed, making it harder for them to get back on it. "It's already bad, but right now you have to enjoy what you've got here," he said.

Also next year, construction is scheduled to start on the tallest of the mall towers, which face Route 123. It is also the scheduled start date for building new toll lanes on the Beltway, which will include at least two, but more likely three, sets of new access ramps into Tysons, including one plunging into the heart of the area, onto the bridge over Route 123 that connects the two malls, Tysons Corner Center and Tysons II Galleria. And this summer, the owner of open parcels near Tysons II, Lerner Enterprises, is expected to start building the first of eight towers that will hold mostly offices.

Those in charge of the projects have been meeting for months to coordinate efforts and reduce the odds of complete paralysis. Possible tools to manage the congestion include rerouting county buses; launching a shuttle bus service linking Tysons to nearby communities and possible satellite parking lots; using electronic message boards on roadways; sending workplace e-mail alerts to commuters; placing ads in media as far away as West Virginia and Pennsylvania to warn drivers; urging employers to stagger shifts; and making some roads one-way.

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