Using a simple shuttle bus to reshape land use and transportation

As reported by the Washington Post, Fairfax County is exploring how to move commuters from the Silver Line stations that open in 2012 to office complexes and shopping malls.   New Federal grants “give priority to transit projects that support the redevelopment of communities into mixed-use, high-density areas.”

Fairfax recognizes that Metrorail at Tysons Corner is only a part of the solution.  Few people walk more than 1/4 mile (about four football fields…) to a transit station, especially in rain, snow, or August heat.   Shoppers carrying bags, and parents with children, are even less inclined to hike a long distance.   A shuttle bus can move people beyond the rail corridor, expanding the economic advantages of the transit system and increasing property tax revenues for Fairfax County.

Hmmm… where could we do the same in Prince William?

There are lots of shopping centers scattered across the county.  Taxpayers could finance a shuttle system, expanding on the current Omni-Link bus system, to move more customers from subdivisions to retail stores at Potomac Town Center, Virginia Gateway, etc… but it’s not right for taxpayers to subsidize transportation improvements primarily to increase profits for private companies.

Here’s another option: find a single spot in Prince William County where taxpayers are already investing heavily in educational and cultural infrastructure, near concentrated housing and shopping, with excellent road and transit rail access – and where land use plans already call for a town center.   Wouldn’t it make sense to expand the “draw” of that site through a shuttle bus, pulling in people from perhaps 3-5 miles away as well as those willing to walk 1/4 mile?

There is one place identified by Prince William’s long-range planning where a shuttle bus could make sense: the proposed University Town Center, planned at Innovation.

Taxpayer-funded infrastructure there is well underway.  Route 234 Bypass offers easy access to county residents driving from the east as well as the west, and Virginia Railway Express has proposed a commuter rail station nearby.   Stormwater protection is already constructed.  The first stage of the Prince William campus of George Mason University (GMU) is open, as is the Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center.  The Hylton Performing Arts Center will start up soon.

Sadly, the county has failed to attract private development to build the residential and retail/commercial components of a town center there.  You can count the number of people who live within walking distance of the GMU campus on one hand.  When the Hylton center opens, there won’t be a restaurant anywhere close.  People who want to have dinner before a show, or drinks after a show, will have to drive from downtown Manassas.

Still, there’s potential.  A few years from now, the Vulcan Quarry behind Stonewall Jackson High School will cease operation.  The quarry property could be converted into a lake-centered park, with ballfields that are easily accessible to county residents.  It’s a good location for more high-density development, expanding on the multi-story residences to the west.  Just across Ashton Avenue from the site is the Manassas Mall and a major retail shopping strip along Sudley Road.

Realistically, the distance between the GMU campus and Sudley Road is too far for most people to walk.  That makes University Town Center a candidate  for a shuttle bus transit project, to support the development of a mixed-use, high-density area.  Even the City of Manassas might be interested in a shuttle/circulator bus, in order to link businesses in the downtown restaurant/entertainment district with events at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors has a clear opportunity to incentivize developers to create retail/office/housing at the proposed University Town Center, when the board approves new Land Use and Transportation chapters in the Comprehensive Plan in 2010.

If the supervisors identify in those two chapters a few (1-3) places where the county will support concentrated growth, and commit to offering enhanced transit services to incentivize growth at those places, then we’ll know the “smart growth” talk of our officials is finally real.  However, if the supervisors gives developers a blank check to build lots of “centers” all across the county, with the county’s only plans for transit services to those centers being “when you build it, we might schedule another Omni-Link bus,” then our elected officials will just be repeating the pattern of sprawl that we’ve followed since the 1950’s.

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