The “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.
– 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 »
The 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.
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…
proposed expansion of Broad Run railyard
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).
VRE responded to the blog post VRE Extension to Haymarket Proposes to Remove 100 Cars/Day from I-66… At Cost of $468 Million.
“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.
The 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.
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.