the right criteria for expanding VRE

The Portland (Oregon) Metro system is planning to expand high-capacity transit into the suburbs of that metropolitan region.  Their criteria on where to expand make a lot more sense than the simplistic “gee, let’s build new VRE stations wherever the Orange and Alexandria or the Manassas Gap railroads built stations for dairy farmers before the Civil War” approach.

Six of the seven screening criteria are based on existing conditions or future economic circumstances, but local elected officials have the power to affect one of the seven. 

The seven criteria are:
• ridership potential based on existing and future conditions
• cost and availability of right of way
• environmental constraints
• compatibility with regional land use goals based on the region’s 2040 Growth Concept
• service to low-income, minority, elderly and disabled residents
• ability to serve corridors with congested roadways
• connectivity and benefits to the existing transit system

Local elected officials have the most control over land use goals.  The Portland Metro offers a build your own transit system tool – and the first step in that process is to define which “activity centers” (areas of concentrated development) should be connected.  From the beginning, transportation planning is based on land use planning.

The equivalent to the 2040 Growth Concept in Prince William is the Land Use Chapter of the Comprehensive Plan.  In theory, it shapes where new development will occur in Prince William between now and 2030.

If that chapter is vague, then “build uncoordinated development” scattered across Prince William County will lead to “build roads/rail anywhere” transportation planning.    That will lead politicians to promise an excess of road/transit projects scattered across the county, followed by Capital Improvement Plans that require high taxes for county financing through bonds – or, most likely, perpetual congestion everywhere while elected officials blame Richmond, Washington, or the economy-du-jour for the lack of money. 

Yes, there are days when I see  “abandon all hope, yee who live here” inscribed above the door before I attend meetings of the Planning Commission and Board of County Supervisors.  Still, I keep dreaming that traffic congestion in 2030 could really be diminished and taxes minimized, if county officials built on their smart decision to define a Development Area.  

The #1 action they could take is to concentrate future housing next to future transit stations within the Development Area.  The next Comprehensive Plan update offers the appointed planning commissioners and elected supervisors the opportunity to take charge of our future, rather than be passive, vague, and uncoordinated.

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