For about a year, Northern Virginia transportation officials have been studying ways to reduce traffic congestion and improve transit along the stretch of Route 7 between Tysons and Alexandria.
Now they have narrowed down their options to one: bus rapid transit.
If the plan is approved, this major commuter route that passes through a booming job hub, shopping centers and residential neighborhoods could be transformed in the next decade into a road system that gives buses priority on dedicated transit lanes. This would significantly reduce travel time for bus users, and the more efficient and frequent service would attract more riders who now depend on personal vehicles to get around.
The proposal presented to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission Thursday night calls for a BRT route from the Spring Hill Metro station in Tysons to the Mark Center in Alexandria, with a connection at the East Falls Church Metro. It would run 11 miles, mostly on dedicated bus lane, and draw as many as 9,500 new riders to the corridor. The cost of the project is estimated to be between $250 million and $270 million, with annual operating costs of $18 million.
“This is really about using the highway that is there much more efficiently,” said David Snyder, a member of the commission and of the Falls Church City Council. The project, he said, would significantly improve the current bus service, making it easier for people to commute to and from their jobs in an area where riders have been asking for more frequent service with better connections to Metrorail, along with transit facilities that incorporate modern bus shelters equipped with digital technology, such as screens that forecast bus arrivals.
As part of the Route 7 study, consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff also looked at light rail as an option but concluded that a bus rapid transit would be cheaper to build and operate. It would also provide more flexibility in the design of the road. For example, in the more urbanized areas of the corridor, it would allow for mixed-traffic use and only peak-hour bus lanes, while allowing bus-only lanes in portions of the corridor with multiple lanes.
“It also will dramatically improve congestion in one of the most congested highways in Northern Virginia and will do a lot for air quality,” Snyder said. “Perhaps most importantly it will serve underserved areas of small businesses and very diverse neighborhoods.”
The NVTC ordered the study to find solutions that could ease travel. The roadway’s design, which shrinks from four lanes in each direction in Tysons to one in Alexandria, produces unavoidable bottlenecks. And despite a high reliance on transit along that heavily traveled portion, the stretch lacks bike paths, bus shelters, and, in some places, sidewalks and ramps needed for accessibility. Transit advocates say more, and better, bus service is needed along the route, which already handles more than 6,300 rides daily.
Even though some officials advocated to bring in a light rail line similar to Maryland’s Purple Line, the bus rapid transit option was more cost-effective. It would be about 70 percent cheaper to build bus lanes. The first phase of the study eliminated the most financially prohibitive options — such as adding a new Metro line or streetcar service.
Snyder said the projected cost for the BRT is reasonable compared to other major transportation projects in the region. The Silver Line extension in Northern Virginia, for example, is estimated at $5.6 billion. In Maryland, the state recently approved $5.6 billion for the construction of the 16-mile Purple Line that will connect Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Moving forward, the commission will hold three public meetings in June to gather public input, and then it’s set to vote on the recommendation in July. And it would need to identify funding sources, and move into a federal environmental review process and design phase. It could be between five and 10 years before a bus rapid transit system opens, according to the commission.