The Tysons Lunch Bunch

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

So many workers drive to lunch in Tysons Corner that it has created a third rush hour during the middle of the day that actually exceeds the morning rush.

Having so many of the approximately 115,000 Tysons workers on the road, often driving less than a mile to grab a sandwich, is complicating construction plans for a Metrorail extension and Capital Beltway toll lanes that will rip up the streets around the area. An analysis of traffic counts shows more than 23,000 vehicles on the major Tysons thoroughfares, routes 7 and 123, between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., surpassing the morning rush by 24 percent.

Things are so bad that traffic planners are introducing a lunchtime shuttle to try to get some of the vehicles off the road.

"Everyone comes in, goes out for lunch and then goes home," said Keith Turner, president of the Tysons Transportation Association (TYTRAN), a business group that works to improve movement around the commercial core. "It's not easy to get anywhere by walking or biking or bus. There are not even cabs around here."

As Virginia's most concentrated jobs district and shopping hub with four major highways traversing it -- Route 7, Route 123, the Beltway and the Dulles Toll Road -- Tysons presents unique traffic challenges. The lunchtime rush underscores the need to change the area -- a business center the same size as downtown Denver -- into a more urban, less car-centric workplace, officials said.

The Tysons Land Use Task Force has recommended to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors that the county transform Tysons into a series of eight urban districts with high-rises, "green" buildings, sidewalk culture and the arts. By extending Metrorail to Tysons and turning the area into more of an urban grid, planners hope that more workers, shoppers and residents will walk to lunch.

Traffic problems will be exacerbated during the next five years as work proceeds on several big projects planned for the area, including the new Metro line with four stops in Tysons and a Beltway expansion that will include toll lanes with several exits into Tysons. Substantial commercial real estate construction also is planned.

For transportation officials used to getting work done between the morning and evening rushes, a midday rush adds significant headaches. And for office workers, the prospect of spending half their lunch hour in construction traffic is no picnic, either.

"You don't leave the office unless you have to," said Pat Donnelly, a 10-year Tysons veteran. "You look out the window and decide to work through lunch."

Randi Halavazis actually walked from her office to a diner for lunch recently, doing what officials and planners hope most Tysons workers will do in the future when the area becomes a walkable urban jobs center.

But in reality, Halavazis is a symbol of today's Tysons: She went to the diner, which is literally next door to her building, only to avoid the hassle of getting into her car and driving the half-mile to where she really wanted to eat, a Panera bakery-cafe.

Ronaldo T. "Nick" Nicholson, the state Department of Transportation official in charge of coordinating the Metro expansion and toll lane construction, suggested shuttle buses circulate throughout Tysons so workers would not have to drive to lunch. A similar shuttle system was used during the Springfield interchange construction and is still running, funded by a federal grant and local businesses.

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