Regional Activity Centers

The Region Forward: Greater Washington 2050 draft says
Over the next 40 years the region is expected to grow, adding nearly two million more people. The majority of this growth will be located in emerging and existing Regional Activity Centers scattered throughout the region. These Activity Centers will be home to desirable, compact neighborhoods with parks and mixed-use development, such as shops, workplaces, and other destinations where people live, work and play. Each Activity Center will be connected by transit…

The target is “Beginning in 2012, the region will capture 75% of new commercial construction square feet and 50% of new households in Regional Activity Centers every year.

Oh really?  Prince William County might meet that 2012 target in the plan, but only if it starts directing growth and investing in transit services at specific Regional Activity Centers.  We need to change what we’ve done for the last 50 years, if we expect something different than “more sprawl.”   If we continue business as usual in Prince William, developers will continue to build everywhere, even pushing subdivisions such as Avendale into the county’s defined Rural Area.

As the Region Forward: Greater Washington 2050 draft declares at the end, “business as usual on our part will not be enough to achieve these goals.

For the last two years, developers have hijacked the land use planning process, and fought all efforts to revise the current Comprehensive Plan so it would steer growth to a realistic number of Regional Activity Centers.  The Land Use Advisory Committee (LUAC) drafted a new Land Use Chapter that scattered so enough “centers” across the county to accommodate a population waaaaaay higher than anyone predicts will occur by 2030.  Those words in that draft about smart growth, mixed use walkable community, and transit-oriented development are just part of a “say one thing, but really plan to do nothing different” strategy.

The various proposals for transportation improvements presented in the last election campaign are equally pie in the sky.  The difference between political promises to “solve transportation” and hot air: hot air is useful in the winter.

There are promises and proposals for Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Orange Line Metrorail to Haymarket, Blue Line to Potomac Mills, a light rail line from Manassas to Dulles, Bus Rapid Transit all along I-66 and I-95, grade-separated interchanges on Prince William Parkway, 700 new lanemiles of roads in Prince William County – even a new bridge across the Potomac River at Dumfries (“Southbridge”). Who do you expect to pay for that network?

Who do you think will provide the $$$ for Prince William to implement Metrorail, light rail, bus rapid transit, ferries, or other transit services for every location in the county?  Think developers will build all that infrastructure, and one by one the proffers will cure our current congestion?

No such luck.  Proffers for turn lanes and other road improvements at new subdivisions may mitigate some impacts of new housing – on a mile or two of existing roads.  Proffers expand the road network about as fast as new subdivisions add more congestion.  Proffers don’t fix the current problem; they just perpetuate the current level of congestion (at close to a failing grade, Level of Service or LOS D).

We can “fix transportation,” but only if we “fix land use” at the same time.  It’s after an election cycle now; maybe some officials might think realistically for a moment.  They can’t find $10 billion for new transportation infrastructure for every place in Prince William, but what can they do?

Money is tight right now, but if we focus new development at a few Regional Activity Centers, we could afford to build a few transit projects over the next 40 years.  How?
– define where we will invest in transportation infrastructure
– commit to steer new development to the new transit centers
– calculate the costs
– explain the alternatives, including the costs of adding additional centers with new transit services (and why a Metrorail station for every subdivision is too expensive)
– communicate realistic choices to Prince William residents
– finally (the hard part):  raise taxes/establish tolls to fund transit services to those new Regional Activity Centers that we need and can afford

Now is the time to act.  The revision of the county’s Land Use and Transportation chapters in the Comprehensive Plan offers the appropriate vehicle for determining where to locate Regional Activity Centers, and how we will finance the transit capabilities for each one.

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