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.
He said VDOT will coordinate the construction work to minimize the impact on the day-to-day business of Tysons. Officials also are looking at church parking lots and extra spaces in strip malls that can serve as satellite parking for workers and shoppers, he said.
"We're going to have to change the culture of Tysons," Nicholson said. "Folks will have to rethink not just their commute, but daily activities in this work zone -- or be very tolerant of the inconvenience."
But changing that culture will be difficult. Tysons workers interviewed recently unanimously mocked the idea of anyone in Tysons walking or waiting for a shuttle bus to go to lunch.
"It's a terrible idea," said Kyle Bergeron, echoing the sentiments of more than a dozen workers interviewed during a recent lunch hour. "We drive a mile at most," he said. "Even with traffic, it's not more than a couple of minutes."
Nicholson said officials haven't "jelled" on a comprehensive solution but realize that the busy holiday season is fast approaching, further complicating matters.
"Are people going to stop going there? No," he said. "But there is going to be a difference, and people will have to adjust . . . teleworking, working different hours. And they're going to have to get on that bus to get to and fro."
A true solution can be elusive in a place where almost everything has to be done by car on just a few streets. And for those who would like to leave their vehicles behind, the prospect of trying to dodge the whizzing traffic on foot can be daunting, even dangerous.
"If there was more transit-oriented development, there would be more pedestrian activity and sandwich shops within walking distance," said Turner, who is also an executive with the WestGroup, one of the major landowners in Tysons. "Then they would just get out of their building and walk. The problem is that Tysons was not developed with urban characteristics."
According to traffic counts provided by VDOT and conducted by Fluor-Lane LLC, the company building the Beltway toll lanes, there were 18,718 vehicles on Route 7 and Route 123 in Tysons during the morning rush between 7 and 9 a.m. during weeklong periods this spring. But there were 23,171 vehicles on those same roads between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. The traffic studies were conducted in March and April.
Although some of those lunchtime drivers were shoppers, most were probably Tysons workers.
On a recent sunny weekday, four young financiers got out of Mike Eisenberg's Acura in the parking lot of the Silver Diner. They took the three-minute drive from their office building, rather than walk.
"We're not willing to risk our lives crossing Route 123," Eisenberg said.
"The Silver Diner's not that good," quipped another.
The new Metro stops will include four pedestrian bridges over routes 7 and 123, making it safer to cross the multilane highways, said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors.
In Tysons, many of the major corporations have their own cafeterias, and smaller buildings have little sandwich shops in the lobbies. But life requires variety, even if that variety is only Olive Garden or McDonald's.
"Habits will change out of necessity," said William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. "Tysons people are not predisposed to walking or taking mass transit."
But, he said, the future Tysons must deemphasize the automobile. And the next five years of near-constant construction will be painful to those who are used to driving across the street for a bite to eat.
"In the meantime," Lecos said, "human nature and hunger will figure a way."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.