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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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