How a ferry would perpetuate traffic congestion in Prince William, and subsidize the DC government

Creating a new commuter ferry on the Potomac River would redirect funding from other transit systems serving Prince William.  If the ferry is a winner, then the immediate losers would be Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and the CommuteRide bus system.

In the mid-term, the loser would be the potential Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) capabilities on the proposed High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on I-95.  If money is spent on a ferry, then we reduce/eliminate $$$ for construction of BRT stations on the interstate.  (Ultimately, the HOT lane debate will be resolved and I-95 capacity expanded yet again, somehow.)

The long-term losers?  Those who thought Prince William County had a strategy to minimize traffic congestion over the next 20 years, and would implement that strategy.

In theory, the county seeks smart growth, transit-oriented development (TOD) so new growth will minimize new congestion on old highways.  The county’s Strategic Plan and draft updates to the Comprehensive Plan claim Prince William will shift away from “business as usual” development implemented since the 1960’s.

In the business-as-usual past, supervisors approved almost unlimited subdivisions in the undeveloped portion of the county – and then complained when state government would not fund quick upgrades to the old road network to relieve the (surprise!) new congestion.  Exhibit A: Braemar and other subdivisions on Linton Hall Road.  Exhibit B: Dominion Valley and other subdivisions on Route 15.

A commuter ferry would be a new technology for Prince William, but not a new way forward.  Using a boat sounds “different,” but a ferry perpetuates the same ol’ disconnect between land use and transportation.

A ferry going directly to DC is a commuter-only solution.  The draft route proving exercise study assumes almost all traffic will be one-way into DC in morning rush, and one-way back to Prince William in afternoon rush hour.  If we just solve the commuter problem… Prince William is doomed to be a bedroom community.

A ferry offers virtually no opportunity to stimulate development of transit-friendly communities in Prince William.  A ferry will never run as often as Metrorail, and it will never offer service to more than one or two locations.  All the potential locations for a ferry dock are already VRE station locations.  If we limit funding for VRE operations in order to finance a ferry, then we reduce the potential to develop VRE stations into thriving town centers based on transit-oriented development.

However, if we directed all the proposed ferry funding to VRE, it could become closer to an equivalent to Metro.  If we can find the resources over time to run VRE trains every 10-20 minutes, all day and on evenings/weekends too, then VRE could incentivize development of mixed use communities at each station.  We need places where offices and retail shopping are within easy walking distance of high rises, townhomes, and garden apartments.  Public investment in more-than-commuter transit is essential to create those walkable, don’t-need-a-car-for-everything communities.  A ferry won’t help the way VRE can help.

We can see from the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor that transit-oriented development really does create places where people spend less time in a car.  We can also see from experience that it takes about 20 years to transform an area.  Arlington County stuck to its redevelopment plans along Wilson Boulevard, and now has mixed use communities next to Metro stations.  Residents don’t need to drive to 10 separate locations every day to get to work, buy lunch, pick up dry cleaning, etc., and commercial buildings in that Rosslyn-Ballston corridor provides massive amounts of property taxes to support Arlington County’s schools.

The VRE corridor has a long way to go to match the Arlington example of “smart growth” triggered by Metrorail.  VRE needs to dramatically increase the number of trains it runs every day before any comparison to Metro services would be realistic.

Sadly, a ferry would undercut efforts to increase service on VRE, by siphoning away essential $$$.  Diverting public funds to a duplicative, more-limited ferry operation will postpone the potential for Woodbridge/Belmont, Rippon, Harbor Station, and Quantico to evolve into something like Clarendon or Ballston, walkable mixed use (residential/commercial) communities based on transit.

The ferry would solve the wrong problem, servicing only commuters to DC.  Prince William needs to attract businesses inside the county, and reduce the number of commuters leaving the county for jobs in other jurisdictions.  We need to improve transportation within Prince William.  Any Prince William money spent to facilitate commuting to DC via the river is a subsidy to the DC government, supporting commercial development and increasing property values in DC rather than Prince William.

If your goal is to move workers in and out of Prince William twice a day, then a ferry is a solution for you.  If you want to see a change in congestion over time, however, so residents of Prince William commute to jobs located in Prince William, then the “new and different” ferry is just another same ol’ bandaid, no better than widening the interstate yet once again.

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