Blue Line to Potomac Mills? Wait until October for a decision on a real rail opportunity…

In the General Assembly, a Prince William delegate has defined a strategy to finance a Blue Line extension to Woodbridge.  HB1313 proposes to create a “Prince William County Metro Rail Improvement District,” and identifies how to raise the extra $$$ for new commuter rail service.

First step in the strategy: create a new transportation commission with authority to define a transportation district and raise property taxes on commercial/industrial property within that district.   Second step: get Congress to authorize “at least $3 billion for any proposed projects relating to the extension of commuter rail through Prince William County.”

Holding your breath?  Hey, if we never ask, then we’ll never get new funding to extend Metro to Potomac Mills – but it would be irresponsible to authorize any land use rezonings now because, maybe one day, Metrorail might reach Prince William.  Avatars in Pandora will be riding Metrorail before we see it in Woodbridge.

Talk about extending Metro to Prince William is a political slight-of-hand.  That chatter tries to show politicians are visionary, while distracting voters from asking if those politicians are working on more-realistic solutions.

How would HB1313 spur a Blue Line extension to Woodbridge?  The bill would allow a Prince William County Metro Rail Improvement District commission to specify taxing district boundaries, and raise property taxes up to $.40 per $100 in appraised value on commercial/industrial property.  Based on this year’s tax rates, that would be about a 1/3 increase above existing taxes.

Who would get taxed?  Paying extra taxes may not be voluntary for all property owners in the new rail improvement district.  Initial district boundaries must be supported by owners of at least 51 percent of the land area, or of land assessed for at least 51 percent of the real property tax in the district.  Property owners of the other 49% could be included in the district – and taxed, over their objections.

HB1313 does not propose any changes to the existing Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC), which is responsible for Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Omni bus service in Prince William.  PRTC funds its operations not by extra property taxes, but through a 2.1% tax on wholesale gasoline sales, plus fares from customers and various Federal/state grants.  That gas tax is used for funding Metro by jurisdictions inside the beltway, but Prince William steers its gas tax revenues to commuter rail and local bus services.

What transportation solutions are more realistic than envisioning Metro to Potomac Mills?  How about enhancing service on a rail line that already exists in Prince William?

Last week, the US Department of Transportation funded the highest-priority, most shovel-ready rail project in Virginia, to build a third track up to Powell’s Creek paralleling the CSX freight tracks. That $75 million project will speed VRE and Amtrak service upgrades in Prince William.  In the next round of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to be awarded in October, Virginia and the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor could get “big bucks” from the stimulus funding.

If we focused our attention on a rail line that already exists, rather than deluded ourselves with visions of Metro, then Prince William officials and landowners would be talking – now – about defining boundaries for rail improvement districts near VRE stations.

Special transportation tax districts are common; such districts helped fund Route 28 improvements and Metrorail to Dulles in Fairfax/Loudoun.  Extra property taxes, to provide extra transit services, would increase the value of parcels near VRE stations.  Rezoning to permit extra density, due to extra transportation capacity, increases the value of such parcels even more.  That’s why such a high percentage of landowners supported creating the tax districts in Fairfax/Loudoun.

Parcels within walking distance (1/4 mile) of VRE stations are prime candidates for “mixed use” centers to accommodate much of the projected population growth in Prince William.  Sadly, the Planning Commission and Board of County Supervisors have wasted the last two years.  Proposed updates to the Comprehensive Plan chapters for land use and transportation (being considered for adoption on February 2) do little or nothing to concentrate growth enough to stimulate “walkable communities” near transit.

In the next Comprehensive Plan update, maybe we’ll waste less time blathering about smart growth concepts and put more focus on making such growth happen in Prince William, for real.  In the next 20 years, we can’t handle “more of the same” development for 150,000 new residents.  Increasing the current Prince William population by 35% will create new traffic that will overwhelm our highways, unless we move away from sprawl and develop differently.

We need to locate new housing next to new transit, and expanding VRE/Amtrak and local bus services so new residents choose to take transit services.  Focusing new development at VRE stations, and improving rail/bus services at VRE stations soon, would be far more realistic than making hypothetical plans for the Blue Line in the far, far future.


2 comments so far

  1. Al Alborn on

    Why does it feel like we’ve given up on telecommuting? Much of what the folks who commute to Reston, Arlington, Tysons and D.C. do is intellectual work and could be easily done at home. Why are we even talking about more roads, trains, etc. when we have apparently stopped exploring the “less commuters” option? We don’t necessarily need to attract more businesses here (although that’s always a good idea), we simply need to facilitate allowing businesses to let there people work at home. Tax incentives, anyone?

  2. T. Harrison on

    We Need a Potomac Mills Stop Here Because I Just Moved Here And I Live Right Off Of Old Bridge But All My Friends Are Still In DC And Its Tiring To Keep Driving To Springfield

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