VRE places bulls-eye on Nokesville, to expand sprawl into Fauquier

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) managers and board members are not just choo-choo fans.  They are skillful empire-building politicians, concerned about competition from Metrorail and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes.

VRE officials are planning to maximize the government subsidies that might be available for Northern Virginia transportation projects from county, state, and Federal agencies.  As described most clearly in the Aggressive Growth scenario in VRE’s 2004 Strategic Plan, the organization seeks “to induce future increases in travel demand to and from the CBD” (Central Business District).

VRE’s plans to expand into Fauquier are designed primarily to increase ridership, not to spur smart growth.  Transit-oriented development is preferred because it generates the greatest number of riders – but VRE is also happy to stimulate sprawl.  In particular, the rail system seeks to spur growth at Nokesville, using transit services to help bust the Rural Area.

No, VRE does not say in writing “we unite with the build-more-rooftops-and-bust-the-Rural-Area developers; we too fly the flag of support for Any Growth Anytime Anywhere” in Prince William.  Instead, VRE officials just quietly got a new station at Nokesville inserted into the Transportation Chapter (see “Future Transit Alternatives Map,” Trans-68), through a specific request to the Board of County Supervisors on January 29.

At the same time, a station in Haymarket was also added.  The camel’s nose slipped in quietly, while everyone was jabbering about “centers” in the Land Use Chapter update.

VRE did not propose to build a new rail station in Nokesville, a location where that public infrastructure clearly is inconsistent with the current Land Use Chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, out of ignorance.  The commuter rail agency vision is that PW County will approve more houses in the Rural Area, so more riders will hop onto the train at Nokesville.

Despite the transit-oriented development words in its plans, VRE expansion is not integrated with land use planning or smart growth objectives in the DC region.  VRE growth is an end in itself, whatever the cost.

Under all three of  the alternatives in the 2004 Strategic Plan, VRE expects to dominate the suburban transit market in Prince William.  As described in the Strategic Plan, “VRE has the potential to at least double its current ridership by 2025. That implies more trains, longer trains, bigger parking lots and garages at many existing stations, and expansion of VRE to new stations and areas beyond its current service territory…  The increase in peak period service and expansion of VRE service into off-peak hours will require investment in additional railroad infrastructure.”

Taxpayers, not train riders, pay at least 50% of the VRE costs.  VRE relies heavily upon grants to cover the capital costs for new track, rail cars, and locomotives.  Even if you do not ride VRE… you are paying for it.

VRE managers are savvy about the funding of transportation projects.  The 2004 Strategic Plan calculates that if current economic constraints block extension of Metro’s Orange/Blue lines and also block expansion of the HOV network on I-95/I-66, then commuter rail will be the only option for commuting to DC.  (Perhaps because the document was completed in 2004, VRE ignores the potential for Bus Rapid Transit – BRT – and a Potomac River ferry.)

If road and “heavy rail” Metro are expanded, however, VRE will still grow.  It will focus on attracting riders from Spottsylvania and Fauquier counties, while reducing services to commuters living closer to DC:

“[I]f plans were to be advanced to extend Metrorail westward to Centreville and southward to Woodbridge, and HOV lanes also were extended westward to Haymarket and southward into Stafford County, then VRE’s long-term share of the commuter market to the central business district would be smaller and more focused on the outer portions of the network.”

What might stop the sprawl of VRE?  If the US Congress determines that it can not subsidize Metrorail extensions, and the state General Assembly decides not to subsidize HOT lanes on I-66, then there is not an automatic guarantee that VRE will get funded.  Even the Obama Administration focus on rail transit is constrained by limited funding, compared to requests for that funding.   Efforts to reduce the Federal deficit might constrain the “edifice complex” of many commuter rail systems, including the expansion plans of VRE.

In that case, VRE managers might be forced to focus on improving service at existing stations.  VRE managers might be forced to focus on inducing transit-oriented development to increase ridership at existing stations, rather than inducing further sprawl in Northern Virginia by trying to expand to Nokesville and Fauquier.


1 comment so far

  1. John on

    I’m always amazed at the lengths NIMBYs will go to in order to stop all development instead of trying to plan for smart growth. As Nokesville and other rural areas in Northern Virginia develop, as they will do no matter how many times you jump up and down, isn’t it much better for everyone that that growth is centered on mass transit instead of more vehicular traffic? I’m not saying that VRE’s and Virginia’s motives are pure, but it doesn’t mean that the project is not worthwhile.

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