Metrorail/VRE is the answer (ugh, what’s the question?)

In suburban San Jose, California, voters this November are being asked to approve a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase (Measure B) to extend BART (their “Metrorail”) from San Francisco.  

One rider notes “BART backers sell Measure B as a way to ease traffic, save the world from global warming and move toward independence from foreign oil.”  In San Jose, “many people still believe that having BART will make us a big city at last, like the Velveteen Rabbit turned real.”  You can read the whole story at Why One Transit Rider Opposes BART to San Jose.

How could anyone with half-a-brain think a subway extension to the suburbs was a bad idea?

If you want to measure if a rail project is the “right answer,” first be clear about the problem.  Are we trying to make Prince William into Fairfax, so our Velveteen rabbit dreams of being a big-tme jurisdiction can come true?  Are we trying to subsidize new home building in PW County, by having taxpayers absorb much of the cost of commuting to urban centers in Fairfax/DC?

Or are we trying to create a Prince William that offers high-paying jobs near our homes, reducing the need to commute long distances?   

Some points to consider before flinging money at new rail projects:
– how much traffic congestion will be reduced by diverting traffic from the clogged roads?
(how many rail passengers come from existing vanpools and buses, rather than solo drivers in cars?  will the project just encourage new commuters from more-distant suburbs such as Front Royal to drive to a parking lot at Haymarket?)
– how much will the project cost, compared to alternative solutions? 
(would subsidizing van pools or an upgraded bus system move just as many passengers at less cost?  would a dedicated lane on I-66 in rush hour make Bus Rapid Transit realistic?)
– how will we fund the cost?
(even if the Federal government funded up-front capital costs to extend Metrorail to Potomac Mills/Gainesville or extension of VRE to Haymarket, riders and local governments typically cover 100% of long-term operating costs… so what local taxes will be required to subsidize operations?)
– does the rail route stimulate appropriate “town center” development?
(would a VRE station make Nokesville look like the end of the Orange Line at Vienna?  how could Haymarket handle the extra commuter traffic if we built a a Gaineville Metro or Haymarket VRE station?)  
– how flexible is the system?
(if increases in gas prices, revisions in car technology, or changes in land uses don’t occur as expected… can the mass transit system adjust and carry people to other places?  what would happen if the military or commercial sector moved jobs to locations not served by a rail line?) 

In Prince William, many of us assume we only need to add Metro to our transportation mix and places like Old Town Alexandria will pop up.  We also assume Congress or the General  Assembly will pay for the vast majority of costs.

Take a look at the development around Vienna or Springfield metro stations, and you can see that it takes far more than just expensive steel rails to stimulate vibrant town centers.  Take a look at the headlines, and you can see that new “sugar daddy” funding from DC or Richmond is unlikely.  

The good news is that integrated land use and transportation planning can coordinate public and private investments. We can upgrade existing infrastructure, and expand our transit choices. 

Private developers can rehabilitate/replace existing private buildings, using private money.  Taxpayers can cover most of the operating costs of mass transit systems, plus costs of street landscaping, burying utility lines, building stormwater ponds, etc.  Working together, public and private investment could revitalize the “Potomac Communities” on Route 1 and Yorkshire, or create the “centers of commerce/community” that we envision.

It’s our money, and our Comprehensive Plan.  We’re talking big big big bucks when we talk about rail projects.  Before assuming rail is always the right answer, be clear about the problem we think rail will fix and the alternatives that might do more/cost less.

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1 comment so far

  1. Mom on

    You left out the most important dynamic, that being PWC’s mantra “As long as we get our fair share we don’t care what it costs.” This about the typical shortsighted stupidity of our local pols and staff. The thought being, there’s private, federal and state money available so lets go get it, forget the cost and forget whether the project makes sense or not, we need to go get those funds for the greater glory of PWC.


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