Officials Push for Planning on Array of Transit Projects

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

With construction to expand Metro to Dulles International Airport finally underway, the region's political leaders have turned their attention to the next frontiers of Washington area transit: new bus lines everywhere, trolleys in Alexandria and Arlington County, and rail lines to Centreville, Mount Vernon and Prince William County.

Planning the $5.2 billion, 23-mile Dulles extension from Arlington to Loudoun County took 47 years and required overcoming huge hurdles such as the growing scarcity of state and federal transportation dollars and the high cost of laying heavy rail. As a result, some advocates are dreading the prospect of planning the next round of transit improvements.

Others say the lesson of Dulles rail is to keep pushing for more.

"If we're looking 50 years out, do we really want to think of ourselves with no more expansion of the Metro?" asked U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). "Fifty years out, I see Northern Virginia intimately linked with the Metro system so that lots of workers can get to lots of jobs and shops and neighborhoods by rail and transit in ways right now not available to them."

Connolly has introduced federal legislation to study extending all three Metrorail lines -- Orange, Blue and Yellow -- that cross the Potomac River into Virginia. The Orange Line, which runs along Interstate 66 to Vienna, could extend to Centreville in western Fairfax County. The Blue Line, with a terminus at Springfield, could stretch down I-95 into Prince William. And the Yellow Line, which ends at Huntington, might one day travel south on Route 1 toward Mount Vernon and Fort Belvoir.

The bill also calls for the extension of the proposed Purple Line, now being considered for construction across Montgomery County, into Virginia and around the Capitol Beltway.

Although Connolly acknowledged how ambitious -- and costly -- such a slate of rail lines would be, he said that beginning the planning now is essential to prepare for the development patterns that will continue to bring jobs and residents to areas such as the I-66 corridor, Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax and Prince William. More transit is also crucial to reduce greenhouse emissions and keep cars off the roads, he said.

"This is designed to get us moving in that direction," Connolly said. "Let's not sit on our laurels."

Heavy rail is just one avenue being pursued. Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D), also a member of the Metro board, said planning also must move ahead with less costly transit options, such as improving local bus service and installing trolley lines at Pentagon City and along Columbia Pike in Arlington. The region must take a new approach to transportation and development that gives travelers more options to leave their cars at home, he said.

"Going forward in this century, we're going to have to have a massive reorientation in terms of how we invest in transportation, how we live, how we plan our communities," he said. "Every imperative we face pushes in that direction, whether it's the need to deal with air-quality problems, global warming, whether it's energy independence. And it all points to a lot more public transportation. It also is what the market is telling us people want."

As if to underscore that point of view, virtually all of Northern Virginia's governments and congressional leaders are promoting greater investment in transit. In addition to Connolly's legislation to plan extensions of Virginia's three Metro lines, U.S. Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) teamed up to secure funding to study bus rapid transit in the I-66 corridor. That effort doesn't contradict Connolly's push for heavy rail in the corridor, Wolf said.

"My goal is to get quick impact at very low cost with bus rapid transit throughout Northern Virginia," he said, adding that heavy rail could come later.

In addition, Moran is pushing for $6 million in federal funding for a circulator bus system in Tysons Corner, connecting workplaces with four planned Metrorail stations. Moran is also seeking federal funds for trolley lines connecting Crystal City, Potomac Yard and Columbia Pike.

"It's not just a matter of having a project here or a project there," Zimmerman said. "It's having an orientation in the whole way we approach communities and travel."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company