Supporting 21st Century Sprawl With 19th Century Technology

The Washington Post reports that Virginia will commit state funding to support an extra Amtrak train through eastern Prince William on the CSX corridor, and a second train through Manassas on the Norfolk Southern corridor.

Hey, if the governor wants to throw money at rail transportation, this is a pretty good toss.  The extra train through Manassas will expand service to Culpeper, Charlottesville, and Lynchburg – but these Amtrak trains won’t stop at Bristow, Nokesville, Calverton, Midland, Bealeton…

Whew!  We dodged another bullet in the never-ending push for the public to subsidize the efforts of private developers to suburbanize the rural areas on the southwestern periphery of ever-expanding Northern Virginia.

There are some stunning proposals for expanding rail service into the undeveloped rural areas of Prince William and Fauquier counties.  (For one, see the Greater Washington Transit Future fantasy map).   Some use New Urbanism language to support extending VRE/Amtrak/Metro past Manassas, as if trains automatically created “smart growth.”

Watch out for proposals that are “dumb-as-always growth,” but using steel rails instead of asphalt roads.  Splitting transportation planning from land use planning ain’t smart.   “Rail is good” is too simplistic.  We don’t need more simplistic thinking.

We already hear the extraordinary claim of local developers/politicians: once we build enough housing in Prince William, they gotta just gotta listen-to-me-they-really-gotta extend Metro to Prince William. Ugh, who’s the “they”?  The taxpayers in Fairfax, Arlington, and Alexandria?  The residents in Maryland and DC?  The Federal taxpayers in Texas and California?  What’s in it for them to extend Metro further west or south?

Getting $900 million from Congress for extending Metrorail to Dulles was the last blood from the Federal turnip.  There’s not sufficient population density anywhere in Prince William that would qualify for any Metrorail extension here.  We can hardly support an intra-county bus system, and that’s a zillion dollars cheaper than Metrorail at $200+ million/mile.

Of course, we could increase our population density as well as total population by the year 2030.

As our population grows and new residents look for new housing in Prince William.. we don’t have to carve up our remaining 10-acre lots in the Rural Area just so a developer can build new mini-mansions on 2.5-acre lots.  If we focused that projected growth (over 100,000 new residents by 2030), and incentivized new town centers within walking distance of VRE stations rather than duplicated our existing housing pattern, we could move beyond railroad fantasy and into comprehensive planning.

While stuck in traffic, we’ve all dreamed of quick-fix transportation solutions.  It’s easier if we ignore budget realities, and forget how long-term land use patterns overwhelm expanded roads/interchanges within a decade.

Integrated, comprehensive planning requires more than a commuter’s creative imagination spurred by frustration, or a developer’s dream of busting the Rural Crescent so land bought by the acre could be sold by the square foot.

We need some people dedicated to linking both transportation and land use planning.  We need some people with a vision of the future that includes, by the year 2030, growing new town centers within walking distance of train stations.

Perhaps as soon as April 15, we’ll see if a majority of the Planning Commission fits that description.

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