Manassas Starts to Give City Parks the “Green Light”

manassaswoodsThe City of Manassas mothballed its parks management operation during the 2008 recession, but it’s coming back to life.

In 2016 it completed a Parks, Recreation and Cultural Needs Assessment and Facilities Plan and a Master Plan for Dean Park.  In 2017, the city started a plan for Stonewall Park.

The planning has defined “Levels of Service” for active recreation.  The city has identified how many more ballfields, basketball courts, etc. are needed as the population grows.  The challenge is not a small one.

boxturtleWhat’s missing, so far, is the recognition that the city also has natural resources to protect in its parks. The initial proposal for Stonewall Park would clear some of the mature forest there, with trees perhaps 75 years old, to add a rectangular ballfield.

Stonewall Park is not a wilderness area, but it’s special. Not many places in Manassas offer a chance to walk underneath a canopy of old oak trees. The forest at Liberia is much younger, for example. Cannon Branch Fort also offers a rare experience to walk in the woods in a city park  There are still some trees left along Winters Branch, despite the recent city project to armor the streambank with stones.

At Stonewall Park, he city has the potential to consider how to replace the non-native Bradford pear trees with species that support wildlife, especially birds. Manassas has many back yards that offer a specific type of habitat and attract specific types of birds, but the city has few places that support critters that rely upon forest habitat. The plants the city installed around the parking lots, when the park was first developed, are only slightly better for native birds and butterflies than the cell tower disguised as a tree.

Manassas could also look into options for improving stormwater management at Stonewall Park. Currently, runoff from the park carries pollution downstream with no controls. It’s one reason Bull Run is on the state’s dirty water list of impaired streams.

Runoff from the urban area also puts the Occoquan River, Potomac River, and the Chesapeake Bay on that dirty water list.  Ugh.

It’s still early in the planning process for Manassas parks.  City staff and elected officials seem receptive to comments.

If you want the city to inventory its natural assets and manage the trees as much as the ballfields, now is a good time to say what you want – submit your comments regarding Stonewall Park.

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VDOT Tries Sneak Attack – Again – for New Roads West of Haymarket

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is engaged in another hide-and-seek exercise to facilitate sprawl west of Haymarket. They’re back, trying to build new roads west of Haymarket that are not in the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

The game plan is to use the massive “Transform I-66” project as an excuse to extend Heathcote Boulevard west, and build a bridge over I-66 connecting Heathcote to Route 55 near the Amazon data center.

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new roads are in red, and the new bridge with HOT ramps is in yellow

As they say on TV – but wait, there’s more.  Prince William County has already restarted a study of another road, the developers’ dream known as the Buckland Bypass.  It would run from Fauquier County north along the edge of the Bull Run Mountains.

If a 4-lane divided highway replaced Thoroughfare Road south of I-66, how long before there’s a proposal to widen Antioch Road and build a 4-lane road parallel to Route 15 at the base of Bull Run Mountain north to Loudoun County?  It’s another flavor of the Bi-County Parkway nightmare.

Once again, VDOT is not being transparent or straight-up irabbitn its Transform I-66 planning. The next round of I-66 public discussion, the Concept Plan meetings scheduled in June, has no discussion of any new construction west of Route 29.

The VDOT public involvement process is “Hey folks, look this way, to the east… no no no, don’t look at what we’re planning west of Route 29 until it’s too late to change anything.

VDOT’s Concept Plan public meetings in June resemble the way magicians do something flashy to draw the audience’s attention to one side of the stage, while stuffing a rabbit into the hat.

This is not VDOT’s first magician show on expanding roads west of Route 15. In 2015, after finishing all the public events to discuss how to improve I-66, the state transportation agency tried to sneak into the plan a new parking lot on Antioch Road, replacing an operating local farm with pavement.

The public response, including a resolution by the Board of County Supervisors to save the Heflin Farm, was quick and loud. The parking lot was dropped before the I-66 project was approved by the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB).

Now it’s back, though hidden quite well.  You have until midnight, April 8 to submit your comments on this latest attempt.  Yup, the deadline is that tight.
Read more »

Prince William Freezes VRE Expansion In Its Tracks

mapIn December, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) completed Phase 1 of the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension study.

Despite the clear preference of VRE at the start of the study to extend the commuter ail system 11 miles west to beyond Haymarket, the analysis in Phase 1 demonstrated that a different alternative was far better.

The staff recommended the VRE Operations Board adopt the”Relocated Broad Run Terminus” option. It would add three new commuter runs in the morning and evening, expand the existing railyard  at Broad Run to handle additional trains, and move the displaced Broad Run platform to a new site closer to Manassas.

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Prince William officials asked for delay.  The high costs of building to Haymarket and subsidizing service from that location had created sticker-shock.  The Board of County Supervisors declined to endorse the planned 11-mile extension, and was at risk of allowing the project to simply die.

“No action” would block VRE expansion of the Broad Run railyard, and block the addition of new trains.  Existing trains, already crowded with commuters, could be expanded by adding extra cars, but more trains are required to handle the increasing demand for transit.

The VRE Operations Board took a straw vote in December, and support for the Relocated Broad Run Terminus option was overwhelming.  However, since Prince William County had failed to identify a locally-preferred alternative, the VRE Operations Board took no official action to advance a preferred alternative to a Phase II study.

Earlier in 2016, VRE had submitted the project to expand service on the Manassas Line to the Commonwealth Transportation Board for the SmartScale ranking process.  That review is required obtain state funding in 2017 – but VRE withdrew its submission in January 2017.
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Since the next cycle for SmartScale ranking will not occur until 2019, the delay means that new state funding for expanding service on the Manassas Line will be postponed for at least two years.

In the 2019 SmartScale process, funding maintenance to keep existing infrastructure in a State of Good Repair will e the #1 priority.  For new projects, any expansion on the VRE Manassas Line will be competing against plans to build a new tunnel and widen I-64 at Hampton Roads.  That will dramatically reduce congestion, and could rank so high in SmartScale review that it sucks up all the available funding for new construction.

At the January 2017 meeting of the VRE Operations Board, Prince William officials again explained that they had not reached a decision on their preferred alternative.

Representatives from other jurisdictions expressed their frustration at the delay, noting that Prince William’s failure to expand transit capacity would result in more cars clogging the highways of Fairfax County and other jurisdictions.  One member commented with tension in his voice “You’re not just holding up yourself, you’re holding up the rest of us too.

To make matters worse, Prince William officials announced that the planned B-1 site for a relocated Broad Run station was no longer available.  The parcel where the rail line crosses Godwin Road has just been purchased by a private company for an economic development project.  Site B-2 was still available, but City of Manassas officials were not endorsing it yet.
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The county representative also suggested that Prince William may not endorse the Relocated Broad Run Terminus alternative, the one with the highest benefit/cost ratio.

Instead, the county may propose building new track west to a new station at Gainesville, even though that choice would not be eligible for Federal funding and operations would require a greater annual subsidy by local taxpayers.

Perhaps not coincidentally, developers have been looking for government-subsidized transportation projects that might stimulate new use at the old Atlantic Research site.The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) could help fund both extension of VRE to Gainesville and construction of the Bi-County Parkway there.
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At the end of the January 27, 2017 meeting, the VRE Operations Board members had made clear that Prince William County had to “get its act together,” but county officials had made no commitments regarding when they might adopt a locally preferred alternative.

Buckland/Haymarket Bypass: Just Moving a Pawn in the Bi-County Parkway Chess Game

buckPrince William County is considering constructing a new road between Route 29 and I-66, cutting through the Rural Area west of Haymarket.

The latest Buckland/Haymarket Bypass proposal is not a new idea.  It’s a vampire that just won’t die, and continues to suck planning  resources.

The latest (2016) proposal is to build a 4-lane divided highway with a 40-wide median in the center.  The road would be designed for cars to go 55-60mph between the county border and a new I-66 interchange.

There would be no intersections for any connections to local roads, not even Route 55 (John Marshall Highway).  Drivers would bypass every business in Prince William County, so the local economic development score is… zero, zip, nada.

Three lines have been drawn on the map as alternative routes for the county’s planning process.  On January 26 the county’s Department of Transportation hosted a “stakeholder’s” meeting to discuss which route might be preferred.

The answer was a clear “none of the above.”

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The only options proposed by Prince William County were
three routes for a new road and “do nothing.”

Fauquier County supervisor Holder Trumbo made clear at the start of the meeting that his county’s officials were strongly opposed to constructing a new bypass, and he did not expect the Prince William planning process to alter that perspective.

Members of the public also did not buy what Prince William staff were selling.

During the discussion, staff suggested that there were concerns:
(1) cumulative impacts on the Buckland Historic District,
(2) a need to accommodate traffic coming up Route 29 from North Carolina, and
(3) growing commuter traffic coming from south of the Prince William-Fauquier boundary.

Stakeholders questioned how the county had already decided that a new road was the best solution to those problems.

The public challenged county staff to consider more alternatives, such as improving Route 29 sight lines and removing stoplights – particularly at the Vint Hill Road/Route 29 interchange. Speakers also noted that the recent investment of $1 billion in new highway construction, to improve the Route 29/Linton Hall interchange and widen I-66, had reduced traffic congestion significantly.

So why was the Buckland/Haymarket Bypass being discussed at all?  Ah, that’s the interesting part of the story.
Read more »

When Will State Officials Authorize Rooftop Solar Options?

solarinstall2The “fix is in” for dealing with solar energy during the 2017 session of the General Assembly.  It’s not a good deal for homeowners or small businesses.

The 2017 General Assembly game plan is to endorse a deal cut by investor-owned utilities (Dominion, Appalachian Power) and the rich farmers:
– the utilities will get to control efforts to build community solar systems.  No options will be provided for community-owned solar systems, in addition to utility-owned systems.
– electricity delivered from new utility-owned systems could be priced at current rates charged by the big utilities, or even at pay-a-premium costs
– no Power Purchase Agreements (PPA’s) will be authorized.  Homeowners who can afford $10-25,000 to install their own rooftop system can continue to do so, but the state will continue to block business deals that involve third-party financing of the costs to install rooftop solar. Virginia will remain closed to businesses willing to invest in solar installations on individual homes.

Bills to make it easier to install solar panels on rooftops of typical homeowners were blocked by the 2016 General Assembly. Proposed legislation involving solar energy must be passed by the Commerce and Labor Committee in the House of Delegates and the State Senate. The committee chairs blocked those bills, claiming the issue required more discussion.

Later in 2016, that discussion was held – in private.

A lawyer, Mark Rubin led negotiations between the two major for-profit utilities in Virginia (Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power) and one group of farmers (Powered by Facts). The Virginia Solar Energy Industry Association also got to participate.

The “Rubin Group” brokered a deal that satisfies the few large farmers involved on one side, and the large utilities on the other side. Small farmers, small businesses, and every homeowner in Virginia was left out of the deal.

The Rubin Group deal would continue to block installation of solar panels on rooftops of typical homeowners. Read more »

Will VRE Capacity Grow – or Be Frozen?

gambleThe Virginia Railway Express (VRE), Northern Virginia’s commuter rail system, just lost its gamble.

The proposed construction of 11 miles of new track and three new stations at Innovation, Gainesville, and Haymarket is not cost effective. This week, local officials are expected to reject the expansion plans because they require too much money for too few benefits.

Local officials could go one step further and freeze any plans for adding capacity to VRE.

The study assumed three new trains would be added in the morning and evening rush hours to carry more commuters.

If the Board of County Supervisors in Prince William approves on December 13 the resolution proposed by staff, VRE’s ability to add those three new trains could be killed along with the proposed construction to Haymarket.

Ugh. VRE bet the house on the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Study, but now could lose the entire farm.

Phase I of the study has revealed that constructing new track/stations would cost up to $660 million, and would not be competitive for Federal grants. The state, Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), and local governments would have to dig deep, really deep into their pockets for one-time capital costs exceeding half-a-billion dollars.

Not likely.

Even worse, the study revealed that if the extension were built, annual operating costs would skyrocket and require more local subsidies every year. Local jurisdictions pay for 50% of the costs for each train trip; fares purchased by passengers covers only half the cost of each ride.

Finding more money for VRE operations, every year, would require local officials to cut funding for something else, every year.

Not likely, especially as Metrorail’s funding crisis squeezes NVTA jurisdictions such as Fairfax County..

If the benefits were worth the cost, then increased VRE subsidies make sense. After all, commuter rail reduces traffic congestion at rush hour. As I-66 tolls go into place, more commuters will consider VRE as an alternative route to work.

However, building new track to Haymarket would add only 555 new round-trip passengers each day. Compared to just adding three new trains on the existing track, the Haymarket extension would cost $9 million more in operating costs.

That’s over $16,000 per person, each year. Double ugh.

The surprise result in the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Study was that one option was feasible. Moving the current Broad Run station north to Godwin Road, and expanding the railyard and maintenance facilities now at Broad Run, would allow VRE to run three additional trains at morning and evening rush hour. The “Broad Run Relocated” option, with additional trains and railyard expansion, was far more cost-effective than any option involving construction of new track and new stations west of Route 28.

However, the high costs of the extension proposal led to county staff proposing a “none of the above” alternative. Staff’s resolution for the December 13 meeting of the Board of County Supervisors is to do nothing, and simply terminate any study.

The staff’s resolution could block future VRE growth. Without expansion of the Broad Run railyard, there would not be space to park and service additional trains. VRE might add cars to current trains to mitigate current crowding, but capacity would be capped.

Not coincidentally, killing VRE expansion would provide the county’s transportation department with more funds for new road construction. The “build more roads, forget about transit” mentality is always a factor in Prince William.

The Board of County Supervisors could recommend that the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Study proceed to Phase II, and scope Phase II to consider only the Broad Run Relocated option. Or it could terminate VRE expansion plans with extreme prejudice…

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proposed expansion of Broad Run railyard

Letter to PRTC and NVTC On How VRE Should Grow

Teachers in high school civics classes make clear that democracy depends upon people speaking up, and on elected officials responding to the priorities of the citizens.

We get the government that we ask for…

So we spoke up, and shared the perspective of the Prince William Conservation Alliance on how VRE should expand service and focus on more trains, not more track.

The following letter was sent to all the members and alternates on the boards of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVCT), as well as the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC).

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How Many Cars Would VRE Extension to Gainesville-Haymarket Remove From I-66? You Do the Math

calcVRE responded to the blog post  VRE Extension to Haymarket Proposes to Remove 100 Cars/Day from I-66… At Cost of $468 Million.

They said:
The statement that the extension alternative ‘only removes 100 more cars’ compared to the enhanced Broad Run alternative is not correct and is not based on the information presented by VRE. There was discussion during the public meeting of projected ridership and related savings in automobile vehicle miles traveled, or VMT. The 2025 ridership estimates presented for the Manassas Line show a difference of 600 riders for a Broad Run terminus (13,200) versus a Haymarket terminus (13,800). The Haymarket extension alternative would save corridor commuters 88,600 daily VMT, while the Broad Run alternative would save 31,300 VMT.

True, VRE did not provide the 100 cars/day number at the public meetings – but that 100 cars/day number is based on the information presented by VRE.

To help you do the math on your own without waiting for VRE to unveil this key statistic:
– 600 riders equals 300 cars in the morning and 300 cars in the evening, if everyone drives alone.
– 600 riders equals 100 cars in the morning and 100 cars in the evening, if each is carrying three people to avoid the toll after I-66 is “improved” with new toll lanes.

VRE’s numbers about Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) are not the same as the number of cars/day. Do not confuse the VMT numbers with the number of cars removed from I-66.

The VMT numbers do provide some insight.  One car going from Gainesville to DC travels about 34 miles inbound and 34 miles coming home, or 68 VMT per day. The difference between retaining the existing Broad Run station vs. building three stations to Haymarket would be 55,300VMT/day, counting both inbound-in-the-morning and outbound-in-the-afternoon travel.

At 68 VMT per vehicle per day, assuming everyone drove solo and paid the tolls required to travel on I-66 inside the Beltway, that equals 55,300VMT/68VMT per day.  That would be 813 cars/day.

If drivers chose to avoid tolls and carried two passengers, the the HOV3 number would be 813/3 or 271 cars/day.

VRE is an effective way to move commuters from the periphery into the urban core.  According to VRE’s presentation at the April 27 community meeting, each train carries 1,000 passengers and each lane of I-66 carries 2,000 vehicles/hour.   (Each car carries about 100 passengers, so VRE’s numbers assume 10-car trains.)

If the four VRE trains leaving Broad Run between 6:15am and 7:48am were completely full, They would reduce congestion on I-66 during that 90-minute period by 4,000 passengers.  That would be equivalent to 1,333 cars if each carried 3 people, or 4,000 cars if everyone was driving solo, or about 75 OmniRide buses.

The overall VRE system itself is an effective way to transport commuters.  It is the proposed  extension to Gainesville-Haymarket that fails the cost-effectiveness test.  At $468 million to remove 100, 271, or even 813 cars/day… surely there is a better way to spend the taxes raised by the 2013 General Assembly to reduce traffic congestion.

 

What Should Be the “Locally Preferred Alternative” for Expanding Service on the VRE?

leapThe Virginia Railway Express (VRE) proposed expansion to Gainesville/Haymarket requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to analyze the alternatives.  (NOTE:  VRE has responded to this post, asking for an update because: “A determination has not been made as to the federal environmental review process required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). VRE is working with the Federal Transit Administration to determine the federally required NEPA class of action.“)

VRE announced at its Community Meeting on April 17, 2016 that it hoped to identify a Locally Preferred Alternative *before* that analysis is completed.

Asking local officials to choose one alternative, without knowing the benefits/costs of the different choices, is a premature, “leap before you look” approach.

An EIS is not intended to justify a pre-determined choice.  Failure to complete an honest assessment of all reasonable choices could put at risk VRE’s hopes to get Federal funding.  One reason the Bi-County Parkway project never received Federal approval was debate over whether a key alternative had been included in the EIS process.

(NOTE: VRE also responded with “It is not uncommon for projects to identify an LPA before starting the Federal environmental review process; that decision can also be deferred until the environmental review process is underway.  To inform the decision on the LPA, VRE will continue to develop more detailed information regarding the smaller subset of alternatives presented at the April community meeting, including service plans and station locations.”  That would suggest there is no plan to analyze one obvious alternative discussed below: build an end-of-line station at Innovation)

If local officials proceeded anyway, what should they chose?

“Do nothing” is an option, but a poor one.  Northern Virginia has a great opportunity now to convert VRE from a commuter rail system, running only a few trips a day during rush hours, into a transit system that would offer regular service throughout the day.

The best way to stimulate local jobs, reducing the need to commute and reducing traffic congestion over time, is to enhance the transportation link between Manassas Park/Manassas/Prince William .  If VRE expanded service to become a transit system, employers could locate offices near VRE stations and recruit skilled workers from the urban core as well as from subdivisions south of the Occoquan River.

All other choices in the future EIS will probably include increasing the number of trains from the current eight (8) in the morning to eleven (11) in the morning, and increasing the number of trains returning home by the same number.

The option being advertised most heavily by VRE is to build three new train stations at Innovation. Gainesville, and Haymarket, plus additional lines of track and a new railyard.

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That would be the most expensive choice.  It was priced at $468 million when submitted to the Commonwealth Transportation Board in 2016.  The net benefit of that big investment is small, however.  In 2025 it would remove only 100 more cars/day from I-66, compared to the “stay at Broad Run and add three new trains there” option.

Even before completion of all the analysis for the EIS, it is clear that two other choices offer more benefits at lower cost.  Both include building just one new station, which would obviously be less expensive than building three new stations.

The best combination of low costs/high benefits appears to be the option of building a new end-of-line station at Godwin Road.  Replacing the current Broad Run station with an expanded railyard for maintenance/train storage would allow VRE to add the additional trains already planned.

(An expanded railyard is required for VRE to evolve into a transit system with hourly service to Alexandria. Using the existing facilities at Broad Run obviously would be far less expensive than buying 25 acres and building a brand new railyard west of Haymarket.)

Moving the end-of-line station 1.5 miles north to Godwin Road offers the greatest opportunity to increase economic benefits from transit-oriented development.  Broad Run is under the flight path for Manassas Airport, but the City of Manassas has already planned for a “gateway” to the city with new development at Godwin Road.

broadrun.pngBroad Run Station is too close to the airport flight path
to allow transit-oriented development

One other option could be a competitor for “locally preferred alternative.”  The end-of-line station could be moved to Innovation, where Prince William County is seeking to create a job center with a mix of housing and office buildings, the George Mason University Science and Technology campus, and the Hylton Performing Arts Center.

Annual operating costs at Innovation would be higher that building an end-of-line station at Godwin Road.  Trains based at Broad Run would have to travel further at the start/end of day, and payments to CSX Railroad for using their tracks would be higher.

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Changing the VRE Manassas Line: Exploring the Godwin Road Station Alternative

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is exploring if it should extend the line that runs from Broad Run through Manassas to Union Station, as well as add three new trains to carry commuters into DC each morning.

The “full bore” expansion option is to build new stations at Innovation, Gainesville, and Haymarket, while closing the existing Broad Run station and the end of the Manassas Line  That would require adding a second (and potentially a third) railroad track for the 11 miles to Haymarket, plus construction of a new railyard west of that town.

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Compared to the “minimal change” alternative of adding the three new trains but maintaining the existing station at Broad Run,  constructing a new 11-mile extension to Haymarket would cost an additional $250-$350 million.  Despite the expense for the additional infrastructure, VRE would carry only an additional 300 daily commuters each way in 2025 compared to the “minimal change” alternative.

Adding additional trains but still using the Broad Run station would provide a better benefit/cost ratio  than the alternative of building three new stations, new tracks, and a new railyard near Haymarket.   However, retaining the Broad Run station would create a major problem with train storage.

The railyard at Broad Run is limited in size.  The current passenger platform blocks addition of the extra storage tracks that would be necessary, if VRE added three additional trains in each direction.

A third alternative, costing perhaps $10 million more than the “minimal change” option, is to build a new station where the railroad crosses Godwin Road in Manassas.

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Godwin Road would become the end-of-line station and the platform at Broad Run would be closed.  The Godwin Road alternative would allow expansion of the existing railyard.

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It would cost far less to implement the Godwin Road alternative, compared to the high costs of building an extension to Haymarket with three new stations and a new railyard .  A Godwin Road end-of-line station would also minimize annual operating costs, since the trains in the yard would be located just 1.5 miles away from the location where service starts/ends each day.

Most significantly, a station at Godwin Road is not underneath the flight path of Manassas Airport.  Unlike Broad Run, the new end-of-line station could trigger transit-oriented development and create economic benefits consistent with the City of Manassas Comprehensive Plan.

The Manassas Landing area is described as a “gateway” for development.  Placing a VRE station there could result in high-tech companies choosing to locate there.  Adding more trains to VRE would offer the potential for skilled workers living within the urban core to commute to jobs in Manassas without using a car.

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Planning for growth at Godwin Road provides a clear contrast to the planning by Prince William County for the land west of Haymarket.  VRE has proposed a new station located west of Route 15, but at that site the station would be located within the Rural Area.

The Rural Area is supposed to be a zone of low density development. Unless current land use planning is ignored in order to speculate on rezonings that would transform the area, there would be few (if any) economic benefits for a new VRE station located west of Haymarket.

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