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Let’s transform VRE from a commuter rail system into a run-trains-throughout-the-day transit system

Editors note: Potomac Local occasionally publishes opinion letters from our readers that address issues of broad community impact.

On September 7, a public meeting at the Manassas Park Community Center will highlight proposals to construct a new four-lane bypass around Manassas. 

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), City of Manassas, and Prince William County are now proposing solutions for traffic congestion on Route 28 (see http://www.route28study.com).  All the choices appear to be based on what they’ve done in the past.

“Build more roads” has been the solution to Northern Virginia traffic congestion since the Shirley Highway (now Interstate-95) was built to the Occoquan River in 1949 and expanded to four lanes in 1952.

How’s that worked, so far?  Is traffic flowing smoothly.  Think traditional solutions will fix future problems too?

It is now 2017.  Is it smart to assume Northern Virginia will continue its pattern of sprawl development, based on cars, for another 65 years – so we should build even more roads?

Hmmm, let’s pretend it is 1910.  Should we assume that the horse-and-buggy business would boom for another 65 years and build more stables?

The times, they are a’changing.  Virginia’s most “intelligent highways,” I-66 and I-95, already run through Prince William County.  In the next 10 to 20 years, new technology such as self-driving trucks and cars may enable the Virginia Department of Transportation to squeeze far more vehicles onto existing roadways.

Transportation technology is not static.  What-we-did-in-the-past solutions are not the only answer.  A new bypass could be an expensive, big, permanent solution to what may become a smaller, shorter-term problem. 

In 2013, the General Assembly approved extra taxes dedicated to Northern Virginia transportation – including more transit, not just more roads based on old ideas.  We need to consider other solutions besides the pave-it-all approach.

The good news is that Manassas city is well along in implementing its plans for transit-oriented development.  Construction of new housing downtown is well underway.  New units in the city’s center will diminish potential future commuter traffic that would come north on Route 28. 

Transit-oriented development is not a theoretical option.  Private sector developers have “skin in the game,” right now.   They will profit by providing more housing within walking distance of the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) station. 

Manassas Park is also ripe for such development.  City officials there are also savvy enough to encourage economic development around the VRE station..

If private investors see the benefits of transit-oriented development, shouldn’t the September 7 meeting look at that option too?  

Rather than just build yet another road that will end up as congested as all the other roads we have built, let’s simultaneously invest in upgrading VRE. 

Let’s transform VRE from a commuter rail system into a run-trains-throughout-the-day transit system.  Let’s integrate land use planning with transportation planning, and create incentives for more housing next to the stations rather than encourage more commuter traffic on Route 28.

Converting VRE from commuter rail into a real transit system would increase the potential for attracting new business to Manassas/Manassas Park/Prince William, since skilled workers living in the urban core (especially tech-skilled millenials) could get to jobs in our area without having to drive.  

With a little coordination in scheduling local bus service, even Innovation might finally evolve into the jobs center once envisioned for that site.  Wow, new jobs at Innovation.  Wouldn’t that be a nice development?

Creating more jobs near VRE stations and at Innovation, and creating more housing near those jobs, could impact commuting patterns over the next 30 years.  Now is the time to raise your voice and ask for a far better investment of our infrastructure dollars than paving a new bypass along Bull Run.

Charlie Grymes is the Chairman of the Prince William Conservation Alliance is an independent, non-government organization focused on the natural environment in Prince William, Manassas, and Manassas Park.

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  • BPH

    I’m so tired of hearing this argument over and over again that I swear to God it makes me yawn! This has been the fantasy from car-hating fundamentalists since the 1970’s that sometime very soon people would get tired of their cars, gasoline would run out, and automobiles would go the way of the horse and carriage. Then we can all ride around in buses and trains and use public transportation. How has building highways since the Shirley Highway worked out?? Pretty damn well for the most part, in fact! Yes, these roads are congested much of the time, which is a sign of how much in demand they are, but by the author’s logic it would have been better to build no roads in the first place so that no trips at all can occur. Then with no one able to drive anywhere, then there wouldn’t ever be any congestion!!

    • Really.

      There is demand for roads because there are few other options in Northern Virginia, especially outside the Beltway and outside of peak rush hours. For the last 50+ years our department of transportation has focused on spending money on only one form of transportation, single-occupancy-vehicle transportation. This focus has resulted in a pretty darn poor outcome for our region: we hurt our health by sitting longer in cars and breathing in polluted air; we hurt our wallets in lost productivity time and tax dollars spent on huge road building projects; we hurt low-income communities by subsidizing habits of the wealthy who live in far-flung suburbs and drive more miles; and we hurt the environment by paving our landscape with roads and parking lots.

      In the 1970s, European cities looked pretty similar to ours, growing suburbs and growing car infrastructure taking over the landscape and costing governments billions. Many governments at that time made a conscious effort to incrementally shift the focus from building roads to move cars to building infrastructure that moves people. They didn’t eliminate the car, they just made people the priority. And the cities that have done this have healthier environments, stronger economies, and happier people than most American cities.

  • Michael Lambert

    You cannot build your way out of congestion. Who says? Every group, institute and university that has studied the problem. See: https://www.planetizen.com/node/69472 The most convincing case was made by the Texas Transportation Institute – and if you think Texas is hotbed of socialists you haven’t been paying attention.In fact, Austin built a double decker freeway and Houston has a 22 lane wide freeway that is… wait for it… congested. Can you find contrary opinions – sure but opinions are like… well you know. Is transit the cure-all? No. But the idea of finding alternative means of moving thousands of people is fundamentally sound. Highway departments do one thing – build roads. As the author pointed out, the evidence is more highway capacity just leads to more traffic… so ignore the alternatives if you wish, but the evidence is right before our eyes. As one of the most congested regions in the country the Washington D.C. region is living proof of the futility of doing the same thing and expecting different results – which is the definition of insanity.



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