Busway – the right way?

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) has proposed to dedicate specific paths for buses on major highways.

With a dedicated lane (or busway), rush hour congestion could be avoided.  Buses could get to destinations faster than cars.  Since one bus can carry 40+ people, Prince William-to-DC busways could have a dramatic impact on the need to expand I-95, I-66, Route 123, Route 28, and Route 1.

We’re finally starting to shift from the “rail transit is new, clean and good – but buses are old, smelly and bad, so focus all transit investments on VRE/Metro extensions.”

Commuters in Prince William know that buses work.  Commuters have already voted with their feet, crowding into OmniRide buses to reach downtown DC and into MetroDirect buses to reach Metrorail stations.  Buses have won a customer base for commuting.

Expanding transit services through buses (including Bus Rapid Transit in the HOV/HOT lanes of I-95, and dedicating a lane on I-66 in rush hour to just buses) is cost-effective.   A network of busways across Northern Virginia would offer a quick cure for commuter congestion.

Next step: expanding local bus service for everyone in Prince William County.  Moving PW residents to places outside the county is not the entire solution.  If fixing the commute is all that we do… Prince William is doomed to be a bedroom community forever, a colony providing low-cost housing and low-cost labor to job centers that generate high tax revenues for other jurisdictions.

Most proposals from politicians to “fix transportation” cater to just commuters.  Listen to the noises about expanding VRE, bringing Metro to Woodbridge/Gainesville, and starting a ferry up the Potomac River to the Navy Yard.   What’s missing: proposals to expand OmniLink, the local bus service within the county.  OmniLink gets short shrift, or no shrift at all.

This is dangerously short-sighted.  We need to integrate transportation planning with land use planning, if we ever expect to create the future Prince William described in various vision documents.

That’s a Prince William where we work at local jobs, and don’t spend 2-3 hours commuting each day.  Every time we improve just the commute, we perpetuate the pattern of “live in Prince William… send kids to school in Prince William… expand job centers located outside the county… commute forever.”

Fairfax and DC officials love getting the tax revenues from those job centers, and love having Prince William residents pay high taxes for educating the commuters’ kids.  Are you surprised that those officials focus on commute-out-of-Prince-William solutions, when discussing transportation projects in Northern Virginia?  (Inside their own counties, they propose projects such as adding streetcars to Columbia Pike, so transit enhances a neighborhood and increases the local tax base.)

It’s time for busways to improve the commute – but it’s also time to enhance local bus service as an economic development tool to increase jobs in Prince William.  If we make transit within the county easier than commuting to downtown DC, then we can stimulate some local job centers.  Once the economy recovers, employers will compete for high-quality workers again.  A company that offers a short commute to a local office in Prince William will have a leg up on its competitors in Tysons.

We need Prince William officials to focus on local transportation fixes.  Don’t put 100% of transportation funding into commuter solutions.  For every dollar allocated for PW County residents to get an easier commute to jobs in other jurisdictions, allocate an equal dollar for improving transit services within the county.

Investing in local transit will reduce local congestion and attract new jobs.  In contrast, investing in solutions to export workers to Fairfax/DC will subsidize commercial development in those other jurisdictions, lowering property taxes for homeowners in other jurisdictions rather than helping Prince William taxpayers.

Want lower property taxes and more jobs in Prince William?  Then ask for local bus improvements, and don’t settle for just busways to other places.

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