The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) proposed expansion to Gainesville/Haymarket requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to analyze the alternatives. 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.
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.
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.
Broad 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is planning to build three new stations and additional miles of track to extend commuter rail service to Haymarket. VRE plans to submit a request for Federal funding, and therefore must study alternatives as well as its preferred plan.
Built into almost all alternatives is an expansion of service. VRE currently operates 16 daily trains, eight inbound to Union Station in DC and eight returning home to the end of the line at Broad Run, next to Manassas Airport.
Between 5:00-8:00am on workdays, six morning trains with a capacity of about 100 people/rail car take commuters into DC. One mid-day train goes into Union Station at 2:45pm. One of the afternoon commuter trains returns into DC at 5:10pm to make a second run home at the end of the workday.
VRE is a commuter rail system, designed to carry passengers from Prince William, Manassas, and Manassas Park to jobs in the urban core in the morning and to bring those workers home each evening.
VRE is not a transit system like Metrorail. VRE shuts down on weekends and major holidays. VRE offers only one train going into DC in the late afternoon, and anyone using it would have to spend the night. There is no evening service that would allow passengers to take the train into DC for an event and then return.
The trains run on freight rail tracks owned by Norfolk Southern between Manassas and Alexandria, and owned by CSX between Alexandria and Union Station. The contract with CSX allows a maximum of 22 trains/day north of Alexandria.
CSX makes a profit running freight trains on those tracks. The private railroad company is reluctant to lease additional slots of time to VRE because the current two-track railroad bridge over the Potomac River is a major bottleneck. Until that bridge is replaced, VRE expects to be constrained to 22 daily trains north of Alexandria.
VRE offers only 16 trains carrying customers now, but uses all 22 slots allowed by CSX. Two slots are used to bring empty trains back from DC for storage, because the yard near Union Station is too crowded. VRE has “loaned” four slots/day to Amtrak, helping that long-distance passenger rail system and the state-supported regional rail version to offer additional service through Northern Virginia.
Whether or not VRE expands to Haymarket, the commuter rail system plans to add at least three trains in each direction. That would increase current commuter rail service from 16 to the maximum of 22 daily trains carrying passengers.
How will VRE gain six slots?
New track for train storage will be constructed near L’Enfant Plaza. The additional “parking spaces” for empty trains will allow VRE to convert the two slots used now to move empty trains so they carry paying passengers.
The four slots loaned to Amtrak will be reclaimed after new track is constructed on the Fredericksburg line. Relieving congestion there will benefit CSX’s freight rail operations as well as passenger rail operations. Amtrak will then negotiate for additional slots on its own, and release the four borrowed slots back to VRE.
Additional service will cost additional money. VRE will have to purchase additional locomotives and rail cars to offer the additional three trains daily into DC, and three more back. Federal and state grants may cover most or all of the one-time costs for capital equipment, but local governments will have to pay for the extra annual operations costs. The tickets purchased by passengers cover 50-55% of the cost of each trip, and local governments subsidize the remainder.
In addition to the three additional trains to carry commuters in the morning and evening, VRE is considering expanding service throughout the day, adding 14 more train trips.
VRE could run one train/hour on the Manassas Line between rush hours, with trains stopping in Alexandria. By stopping in Alexandria, VRE avoids the bridge bottleneck that blocks additional trains from going across the Potomac River.
Customers could switch to Metrorail at Alexandria. People living in the DC area could use Yellow/Blue Line trains to get to Alexandria, then catch VRE to get as far as Broad Run.
Adding train service every hour on workdays could have a long-term but dramatic effect on job creation in Manassas Park, Manassas, and Prince William County.
High-tech firms are reluctant to open an office on the periphery of the urban core, even though costs for space are lower and skilled workers are readily available (and potentially willing to demand less money, in order to eliminate the long commute to Tysons Corner, Arlington, or DC). The number of workers with a car and willing to commute outward to the edge of the urban region is limited.
If VRE offered consistent, reliable train access throughout the day, employers located south of the Occoquan River could tap into the pool of expertise, including the millenials with cybersecurity or other specialized training who have chosen to live “downtown.”
The best way to measure if that scenario is coming true will be to measure demand for office space within walking distance of a VRE station (about ¼ mile). Rents are at a premium near Metrorail stations. If the same pattern develops near VRE stations, then the additional train service could be credited with spurring Transit Oriented Development.
In 2004, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) adopted a Strategic Plan that considered building an extension to Gainesville/Haymarket. Expanding the rail network was predicted to generate 3,100 – 5,500 new riders/day.1
VRE chose to focus on increasing capacity within the existing network of stations, rather than proceed with more-detailed planning for the extension.
In 2009, VRE completed a new feasibility study to consider the extension again. That study used the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) computer model to forecast travel demand. VRE estimated the extension would generate 500-1,800 new riders/day (also described as 1,000 to 3,600 trips/day, since each rider going into DC would be matched by a return trip in the evening).
The higher number of riders initially projected in 2004 assumed that VRE could run an unlimited number of trains into DC. The lower 2009 projection was based on the capacity limits in the contract with freight railroad CSX, which owns the railroad tracks. The contract allows VRE to make only six more trips/day on the Manassas line; the commuter rail system can add only three more trains for the morning rush hour, and three returning trips in the evening.2
In 2014 VRE adopted a new long-range plan called VRE System Plan 2040. It affirmed again “VRE’s mission is to provide a safe, reliable, convenient, and cost-effective passenger rail service as an alternative to driving congested highways from the northern Virginia suburbs to Alexandria, Crystal City, and Washington DC employment centers.“3
In 2015, VRE began planning the expansion again, and advertised the #1 public benefit for the extension to be “Adding capacity to the I-66 corridor.“4
Studies are now underway to identify where new passenger stations could be located, where the existing railyard at Broad Run for parking/maintaining trains could be relocated, and what would be the costs of adding one or two new tracks on the 11-mile stretch to Haymarket and building three new stations.
VRE plans to add three additional trains on the Manassas Line. The CSX contract allows only three more trains to go all the way into DC and to return (expanding the current 16 trips/day to 22 trips/day on the Manassas Line). VRE is also considering running trains during the day from Prince William County to the Alexandria station, where riders could switch to Metrorail.
At its public meeting on April 27, 2016, VRE revealed that the proposed Gainesville/Haymarket extension would generate 300 new riders/day in 2025, compared to the “no action” alternative of staying at the current Broad Run station with no construction of an extension to Gainesville/Haymarket.
Over the next 15 years, the extension would generate just an additional 50 more riders. VRE graphs display the numbers as 600 more trips in 2025 (13,800 trips/day with the extension vs. 13,200 trips/day without it) and 700 more trips in the year 2040 (14,700 trips/day vs. 14,000 trips/day).5
If the extension is built, it will go into operation after I-66 implements a requirement that High Occupancy Vehicles carry 3 passengers. Under HOV3, the 300 additional riders carried by VRE into DC each day would reduce traffic on I-66 by 100 cars/day in 2025, and by 116 cars in 2040.
Estimated cost of the VRE extension to Haymarket is $468,013,156.6
1. Phase 2 Report, VRE Strategic Plan, Virginia Railway Express, May 2004, p.76, http://www.vre.org/vre/assets/File/gainesvillehaymarket/strategic-plan.pdf (last checked April 30, 2016)
2. “Executive Summary,” VRE Gainesville-Haymarket Feasibility Study Report, Virginia Railway Express, September 28, 2009, pp.5-6, http://www.vre.org/vre/assets/File/gainesvillehaymarket/VRE_Executive_Summary_09_28_2009.pdf (last checked April 30, 2016)
3. “VRE System Plan 2040,” Virginia Railway Express, February 2014, p.4, http://www.vre.org/vre/assets/File/2040%20Sys%20Plan%20VRE%20finaltech%20memo%20combined.pdf (last checked April 30, 2016)
4. “Project Benefits – Why GHX Now?,” Frequently Asked Questions, Virginia Railway Express, http://www.vre-ghx.org/learn-more/project-benefits/ (last checked April 30, 2016)
5. “Initial Ridership 2025,” Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Study Community Meeting, April 27, 2016, slides 18-19, http://www.vre-ghx.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/GHX-Community-Meeting-2-April-2016-web_Optimize.pdf (last checked April 30, 2016)
6. “HB2 Project Scores in Excel,” NB2 Projects, Virginia Department of Transportation, http://www.virginiahb2.org/projects/default.asp (last checked April 30, 2016)
Lots of plants are pretty. Some pretty plants are a two-fer, and are also healthy for all the other critters that live in Northern Virginia.
The local animals have not developed a taste for non-native species. (Have you ever seen a caterpillar on a daffodil?)
New arrivals such as garlic mustard, Japanese stilt grass, etc. are close to bug-free. Our local bugs are not able to eat ’em. When the natives get replaced by the aliens, “no insects” means the local birds go hungry.
In contrast, different species of native oak trees provide food for the greatest variety of butterflies and moths. Pretty plants can feed butterflies and birds, but only if we put the right plants in the garden and in the yard.
Looking for natives? Ask your nursery to point out their display of native plants, or come to the Native Plant Sale of the Prince William Wildflower Society on May 7 at Bethel Lutheran Church, 8712 Plantation Lane in Manassas.
Update: The Board of County Supervisors voted 4-3 on March 15 to remove the Bi-County Parkway from the Comprehensive Plan.
Look closely – can you see how the Bi-County Parkway will spur economic development in Prince William County?
Prince William would get the traffic, from I-95 to I-66 and then north through the supposedly-protected Rural Area. If any business activity is generated by the road, it would be next to Dulles International Airport – far away in Loudoun County.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors vote on March 15. The 8 supervisors have the opportunity on March 15 to delete this taxpayer-funded subsidy for business development in Loudoun County.
The county should focus public investment, especially state funding for transportation, on projects that will spur economic development in Prince William. In Arlington County, homeowners and commercial property owners each pay about 50% of property taxes. In Prince William, homeowners pay about 80%.
Supervisors who say they want to limit property tax increases on homeowners know that the best long-tern strategy is to spur commercial development in Innovation, especially on Route 1 and at Innovation. Such development benefits homeowners who live on both the eastern and western halves of the county.
Prince William could grow local jobs at Innovation – but the Bi-County Parkway won’t make that happen.
The region won’t benefit either. Northern Virginia needs transportation projects that reduce congestion. Supervisors need to plan transportation solutions to fix what’s broke, rather than waste tax dollars on the Bi-County Parkway.
Curious about nature? Enjoy the outdoors? Want to be a part of natural resource management and conservation in Virginia? Then you are a perfect candidate to become a Virginia Master Naturalist.
Virginia’s environmental agencies initiated this program to build a community of educated, interested conservationists. The Merrimac Farm chapter will start its 2016 basic training program on April 10. Classes and field trips, including some evening sessions and many weekend expeditions to natural areas within the county, finish up in August.
The classes/field trips explore different fields of natural science (botany, geology, insects) with a focus on Northern Virginia’s ecological systems. The foundational knowledge, at the introductory college level, is targeted towards developing a real-world understanding of the local environment and how development is affecting natural systems. Our streams, our forests, our backyards are changing. The Master Naturalist program provides the context, examines what is causing those changes, and gives you the capacity to understand the impacts – good and bad – that we and our children will see over the next decades.
Some time is spent in classrooms; most is spent outdoors seeing up close and personal the plants, the animals, and the interactions that occur. Graduates extend that knowledge to the community through volunteer service. Master Naturalists renew their official certification annually through various projects and at least eight hours of continued training.
Graduates of earlier Merrimac Farm Master Naturalist Program classes are now having a great time monitoring bluebirds, investigating vernal pools, facilitating camera trapping for the Smithsonian, monitoring stream health, learning more about and speaking up for environmental protection.
No previous experience is needed, just a thirst for knowledge of the world around us paired with a commitment to service to maintain, preserve, and protect our environment for future generations.
For more on the statewide Master Naturalist program, see http://www.virginiamasternaturalist.org/
Update: The Planning Commission voted unanimously to remove the Bi-County Parkway from the Comprehensive Plan – with the stipulation that the Transportation Dept. be directed to include transportation options to provide objective measures and options as part of the Thoroughfare Plan Update.
Before the stipulation was added to the resolution, it appeared to be a 4-4 tie. suggesting the preferences of the Board of County Supervisors.
The “Bi-County Parkway” project has morphed over the years, as Virginia officials have proposed several Outer Beltway plans.
In the 1990’s, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) pushed for a “Western Transportation Corridor” linking I-95 to I-66, then extending north through Loudoun County to connect to I-70.
Maryland has never supported this major highway cutting through an area zoned for agriculture and large-parcel estates, and has consistently blocked Virginia’s dreams of funneling traffic across the Potomac River.
Ten years ago, VDOT proposed a “Tri-County Parkway” to connect I-66 in Prince William with Route 50 in Loudoun. In 2011, the Virginia Secretary of Transportation maneuvered to have the Tri-County Parkway added to the list of projects to be funded if Governor McDonnell convinced the General Assembly to finance his transportation plan.
The Secretary was Sean Connaughton, who in his previous job had been chair of the Board of County Supervisors in Prince William County. In a famous comment made after the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) delayed approval because it was not on the published agenda, Connaughton said “You guys would never make it on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors; we live for bushwhacking people.”
The CTB acted soon afterwards. It designated a new North-South Corridor of Statewide Significance, establishing the Tri-County Parkway route as a statewide priority for new construction.
In its latest incarnation, VDOT advertised the Bi-County Parkway as the “Road to Dulles.” The National Park Service cut a deal with VDOT. The Federal agency agreed to pave over the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park for the Bi-County Parkway.
In exchange, traffic now using Route 234 would be diverted from the core of the battlefield to the new Bi-County Parkway on the western edge, traffic on Route 29 past the Stone House would be diverted to a new Manassas Battlefield Bypass, and the visitor experience would be enhanced by closing the existing portions of those roads within the park.
The public reaction was to question VDOT’s justifications for the road, and then erupt when the state agency failed to support its arguments. The process for Federal approval stalled, despite National Park Service support, when it became clear that there were better alternatives to the proposed new road.
The new Bi-County Parkway:
– would not reduce commuter congestion on I-66 or Route 50, because commuters travel east-west and the road ran north-south
– would not provide better access to the airport, because it ran to the western side and all the roads enter on the eastern edge of Route 28
– would not enhance economic development at Innovation or elsewhere in Prince William, but instead would encourage commercial developers to locate new jobs in Loudoun County
– was not consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan to maintain a Rural Area and build new public infrastructure in the Development Area, where it would be more cost-effective
Opposition from residents on the western end of the county was matched by opposition on the eastern end. The proposal to widen Route 234 to six lanes near Montclair was recognized as an incentive for trucks to use Route 234 as a short-cut from I-95, creating a truckway instead of a parkway.
In 2013, the Board of County Supervisors in Prince William County intiated a Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPA) to kill the Bi-County Parkway, by modifying the county’s transportation plan and keeping the eastern end of Route 234 as a four-lane highway. No action was taken, but the Board initiated another CPA in April, 2015 to remove what was then called the “Route 234 Bypass-North” from the Comprehensive Plan.
Staff slow-walked that CPA, delaying it by claiming the project could not be considered separately from all the other components in the Transportation Chapter. Delay allowed VDOT to continue to include the Bi-County Parkway in preparation of the next budget for construction, the Six Year Improvement Plan (SYIP).
However, the Prince William County Planning Commission will vote on Wednesday, February 17 on Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2014-00201, Route 234 (Dumfries Road) and Comprehensive Plan Amendment #CPA2016-00003, Route 234 Bypass-North (Bi-County Parkway). The Planning Department has recommended further delay, opposing any change in existing planned prjects until the entire Transportation Chapter can be updated.
This is a new approach, not consistent with past policy. For example, in 2012 the staff supported altering the Transportation Chapter to keep Purcell Road at two lanes (see Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2013-00089).
The full set of the Prince William Conservation Alliance’s comments, and previous background material, highlight how investment in transportation infrastructure could enhance the county’s economic development, maintain the Rural Area, and limit the costs of government. The Bi-County Parkway proposal does none of those, and delaying action simply invites the state to build a road that the residents clearly oppose.
The 30″ of snow that fell a week ago… well, it’s good that it disappeared slowly.
A quick melt would have sent a quick pulse of runoff that could overload local creeks, delivering a surge sediment and pollution as stormwater raced down to the Potomac River.
A slow melt helped to recharge groundwater supplies, rather than damage surface streams.
But slow snow was a problem. Over 80 members of the Prince William Conservation Alliance had RSVP’d that they were coming to the Winter Party on January 30.
That meant lots of cars looking for a place to park, and a foot of snow was not evaporating, sublimating, or melting away to free up the parking spaces. (In suburban Prince William County, it’s ironic but typical that even conservation meetings require driving to get from hither to yon.)
How to make room for those cars? Shoveling was an option – but a few hours of effort made clear that it would require another few days to clear spaces for the expected crowd.
Hark! What’s that sound? Was it a bugle signalling the arrival of the cavalry?
Why yes, though the sound was really closer to a scrunch-bang-scrunch. It was the leader of the Mow-Cow lawn service team which, in the winter, morphs into Snow-Cow.
The cavalry was the founder/president plowing snow and clearing parking spaces so the party could happen.
Sure, it was his day off. Yes, he’d gotten home from work after 1:00am that morning – but good people do good deeds, even when it’s inconvenient. It’s a “Udderly Dependable” operation.
Before the Snow-Cow cavalry arrived
“Oh, they have destroyed it.”
That is what one recent visitor to Silver Lake Regional Park in Haymarket commented, as she walked to the platform on the shoreline. She saw a landscape of mud and old trees, with leaves rotting away at the bottom of what was once a beautiful lake.
Silver Lake has been drained for a dam rehabilitation project. Like all construction projects, it is aesthetically chaotic, even ugly. It does not resemble the “jewel in western Prince William,” as promised when the county decided to have the Park Authority manage the 230-acre site in 2009.
Prince William County government has a reputation of bulldozing first and checking for natural and cultural resources after the fact or not at all. Two citizen members of the Historical Commission resigned in protest last September, after the county decided to build a fire station on top of a family cemetery.
At Silver Lake itself, the Prince William County Department of Parks & Recreation has ignored the presence of vernal pools essential for frog and salamander breeding, and expanded a horse trail to create a dirt road for patrol vehicles through that special habitat.
However, in this case the draining of the lake is both essential and temporary.
The 29-foot high earthen dam at Silver Lake is classified as having High Hazard Potential. It must be reconstructed to conform to Virginia’s Dam Safety Regulations. The spillway is being replaced so a heavy storm will not cause the dam to break and flood homes downstream.
The lake has been lowered to construct needed control structures and provide additional storage to prevent flooding. There are concerns about impacts to aquatic life; the lowering of the water level during the winter months was intended to help minimize those impacts.
Work on the Silver Lake dam is expected to be completed in June 2016. Cost is budgeted at $2.5 million.