With Metro’s arrival in Tysons Corner less than a year away, mass transit is the talk of Northern Virginia planning and transportation experts. The chatter, though, is about more than trains.
Light rail, high-speed bus lanes and even driverless vehicles are among the ideas being bandied about for the urban center Tysons is seen becoming. They are a testament to the vision for an area long defined by shopping malls and congested boulevards, and some of the futuristic ideas might actually become reality.
For now, though, Fairfax County planners trying to cultivate a culture of public transportation are pushing a more traditional mode of transit: buses.
Fairfax plans to revamp bus service in Tysons, adding connections from other parts of the county and a new Circulator bus system, to coincide with this year’s projected Metro Silver Line opening. County officials see better and more bus options, alongside the rail service, as a first step toward acclimating residents to more use of public transit.
On Saturday, county leaders and local transportation authorities launched a bus line that will connect the Burke area to Tysons.
“This is really exciting,” said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), standing in front of three new Fairfax Connector buses at the Virginia Railway Express station in Burke. “This is really a big deal.”
“Once people learn how the bus runs, there will be a lot of people that ride it,” said driver Kevin Brown after a ribbon-cutting and before an inaugural trip to Tysons on a new bus.
Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) cautioned that shifting commuters to public transit may not be easy.
“We are so used to driving being the only way,” said Cook. “It is still going to be important; people are always going to drive their cars, and that’s fine. But you can also have another option, and I think a lot of people are going to find that they like that option.”
As the county moves forward with a plan to redevelop Tysons into a walkable downtown where people work, live and play, investment in public transit is seen as key.
The Burke-Tysons express bus line, which uses the new I-495 express lanes, is the first of three that the county’s transit agency plans for this year. Lines from Springfield and Lorton are to begin in March.
“This will be a real sea change in transportation,” said Bulova in a recent interview.
Mostly an office and commercial destination right now, Tyson’s new development is projected to boost its population from fewer than 20,000 residents to 100,000 by 2050, and double the number of jobs in the area to 200,000.
“Longer-term, there needs to be additional high-quality transit service into Tysons to support this vision of future development,” said Leonard Wolfenstein, Fairfax’s transportation planning section chief.
For now, county planners see buses as that long-term mode of transportation. Bus development would be less costly than light rail or a smart-vehicle option, according to a county study.
“It is also more flexible given all the uncertainties about how Tysons is going to develop and where and when the development is going to occur over the years,” said Wolfenstein.
In recent months, Fairfax has started to figure out how to fund more than $2 billion in transportation improvements such as public-transit projects, bike lanes, and a new network of streets.
Within the past year, the county has approved a funding agreement for the second phase of the Silver Line, has settled on names for the eight Metrorail stations on the new rail line and has started a countywide transit study.
County and Metro transportation planners have also been busy remapping many major bus routes in Fairfax in anticipation of the Silver Line’s opening. And when the line does open, county officials say nearly half of the Fairfax Connector's existing service will change.
In the mix is the addition of Circulator bus routes that will serve the four Silver Line stations in the Tysons Corner area. That service, which will cost $4 million annually, will run every 10 minutes from the train stations to shopping, office and residential destinations.
Officials say it is hard to predict whether Tysons’ planned development would lead to designated bus lanes, streetcars or a driverless system, but commuting patterns will almost surely change.
“I think some of those ideas could come to flourishing,” Cook said Saturday. “Some things might not work, others will, but if anyone can do it, it’s Fairfax County.”