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Path of Diminished Potential
Highways' Place in Rail Plan Will Make Tysons' Transition Tougher

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Six years from now, when Metro service is promised to jump-start the remaking of Tysons Corner into a livable city, the central crossroads of Virginia's largest business district is likely to feature no walkers, no bikers, no restaurants, no parks.

There, where routes 7 and 123 meet, will lie the same thing as today: a 35-acre cloverleaf interchange. It will sit within walking distance of two new aboveground Metro stations in the medians of both highways, but there will be little to walk to. Instead, the roads will continue to physically and psychologically divide this promised new downtown.

Critics of Metrorail's proposed 23-mile extension to Dulles International Airport say there is no better illustration of the lost opportunity to transform Tysons from a traffic-clogged edge city to a functioning real place than the plans to preserve that interchange. Routes 7 and 123 will be maintained as arterial highways; Route 7 will even be widened. And the rail line's aerial route down the middle of the highways, critics say, will make it all the more difficult, if not impossible, to remake 7 and 123 into something less -- and Tysons into something more.

Supporters of the aerial design and its accompanying road plans say there is no other way, now that a Metro tunnel has been rejected as too expensive. And there is no turning back the clock on what Tysons is, they say: a suburban retail and jobs center where the road network must continue to move tens of thousands of cars each day.

All agree that Tysons' potential is limited by the two major highways and that an elevated track that will split its core. But will it really be that bad? Yes, say those wedded to truly transforming Tysons into a city. No, say others who see good in the creation of scattered new spaces along a Metro line. Finding Tysons' future, now that state and county officials approved the aerial design this month, will be a balance between the perfect and the possible.

"In a perfect world, yes, I'd love to narrow Route 123 and some of those other things so you don't have to cross eight lanes," said Clark Tyler, chairman of Fairfax County's Tysons Land Use Task Force, an advisory group that has been working for three years to draft recommendations on how to transform Tysons. The task force supported the tunnel.

"We can't unfry the egg," Tyler said. "But I think we can determine the look, the feel and the convenience of what is coming because of Metro."

Unfrying the egg is exactly what the most ardent advocates for a wholesale metamorphosis in Tysons Corner have in mind. They would rip up that cloverleaf interchange, narrow Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) and Route 123 (Chain Bridge Road) and create an entirely new grid of city streets in all parts of the district. The goal would be to alleviate traffic on the main roads and put an end to the dead-end street circuits that force most traffic in Tysons to use one of the two main thoroughfares. They also envision wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes and pedestrian crossings at every block.

Gone from the medians of those two roads would be the elevated concrete pillars for the tracks. Gone would be the one street-level station planned for Route 7 prohibiting a crossing for pedestrians for about 800 feet. The escalators of an underground rail line, meanwhile, would deliver passengers directly into that intimate, urban environment -- and not onto glass-enclosed aerial walkways traversing six or eight lanes of high-volume traffic.

"If you had dropped the train -- and it would have been such an important step as infrastructure -- instead of having this thing that slices through like a barrier, you would have this Metro that everyone has access to. What's that worth?" asked Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.

Much is at stake for "smart-growth" advocates. An urban rebirth in Tysons -- one of the original edge cities of the United States and the nation's 12th-largest business district -- could fuel efforts to try urban redevelopment in even the most established suburban places.

"It's such an important project for so much of the country where we're trying to convert these auto-dependent places into more livable, real places," said Norman W. Garrick, a University of Connecticut professor and director of the school's Center for Transportation and Urban Planning. "To be able to change, and to become something different -- that would make it become such a compelling example."

Some government decision-makers are skeptical of such sweeping visions. Although Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) campaigned for office in 2005 on a promise to do a better job linking planning for transportation and land use, the effects of that promise are still trickling through the Virginia Department of Transportation. Dennis C. Morrison, district administrator for VDOT's Northern Virginia office, said that shrinking Route 7, which carries 65,000 cars a day and is projected to carry more than 90,000 by 2030, would probably never be an option, even if the design process started over today.

"Would VDOT consider reducing capacity on Route 7 to make it more community-friendly, pedestrian-friendly, bicycle-friendly?" Morrison asked. "I'd love to say yes. But where would you send all that traffic?"

Federal money, which will help pay for the Route 7 changes, come with conditions -- including the ability to widen a road in the future. Such funds could be jeopardized if Route 7's function as an arterial highway was altered.

Critics of the rail project's design say VDOT's traffic projections don't account for drivers who will start taking Metro or for traffic that a city grid would eliminate from Route 7 by providing alternative routes. The threat of losing federal highway dollars frustrates them, too -- as does the Federal Transit Administration's stringent criteria for helping to pay for Dulles rail. The FTA's rigorous review of the Dulles budget made it difficult to go for big-ticket features, such as a tunnel, or better-sited stations requiring more land, that accomplish the larger goal of urban rebirth, they say.

"The way that we unfortunately look at a lot of these projects is to look at the minimum short-term cost versus the longer-term benefit and the longer-term payoff," said Tom Sanchez, associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech.

Those who have helped shaped the Dulles rail project note that a number of design changes have been made to accommodate Fairfax's goal of transforming Tysons. Rick Stevens, the county Transportation Department's point man on Dulles rail, said VDOT has agreed to narrow the eight future lanes of Route 7 to 11 feet from the standard 12, to allow for two additional pedestrian crossings beneath the aerial line and to build eight-foot sidewalks.

"We've always emphasized that we need wider sidewalks, we need more pedestrian crosswalks, we need to slow traffic down," Stevens said.

Stevens also said it is not too late for street grids to be built -- including level intersections along Route 7 that cross beneath the elevated track. And he said that the interchange of routes 7 and 123 might yet be remade. Stevens does not envision a level intersection because the volume of traffic is too high. But an underpass such as the one on Connecticut Avenue through Dupont Circle might be an option.

"The rail line hasn't precluded that," he said.

Finally, there is the rail line itself: white concrete pillars supporting the tracks, futuristic walkways from stations to sidewalks, bicycle boxes and, at some stations, entrances designed expressly to link to pedestrian plazas. Dulles Transit Partners, the consortium building the $5.1 billion project, has promised stations that welcome pedestrian-friendly development; their detractors criticize the aerial walkways and second-floor plazas that have failed in other places, and they say that the ground levels would continue to be dominated by the automobile.

Ultimately, much of the future look of Tysons will be determined by the private sector -- including the owners of Tysons' two malls, which both have proposed tall, mixed-use projects along Route 123.

In the end, it will be many years, perhaps decades, before the success or failure of Tysons can be measured.

"It's like landscaping -- there's a certain dynamism to it," said Sanchez, the urban affairs professor at Virginia Tech.

"What you originally anticipated isn't exactly going to work. But something else might take its place and bring some vitality to it."

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