The $22 million dead end parking lot

End-of-the-line transit rail stations are magnets for cars.  The Broad Run station of the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) has more cars than parking spaces; commuters drive all the way from Culpeper County to park there.  Now, VRE wants to invest $22 million to build a parking deck there.

It will be a parking deck for commuters only.  The VRE station is so close to the Manassas Regional Airport runway, it is not safe to develop a mixed use community or “center” at Broad Run.  No new housing, office space, or retail development will be able to take advantage of any parking deck at Broad Run.

The VRE proposal shows how Prince William’s transportation planners live in a totally different world from the land use planners.  It’s hard to believe they ever talk to each other, based on the projects they recommend.  The Broad Run parking deck proposal also contrasts clearly with the integrated land use/transportation planning used in the City of Manassas, when VRE proposed a parking expansion at the Manassas station.

In 2008, VRE and Manassas opened a five-story parking deck, with 532 spaces, built for $about $13  million.  The city partnered with VRE and paid 40% of the construction cost.  In exchange, Manassas got 40% of the parking spaces (the top two floors) for free public parking.

In addition, parking for downtown shoppers and restaurant customers is available on the entire 5 floors after 6:00pm and on weekends/holidays.  With the parking deck, Manassas solved its problem of “where will customers park, in order to spend money downtown?”  Since then, Manassas has revamped a portion of Battle Street, building on the city’s commitment to create a tax-generating arts and entertainment district.

Prince William, on the other hand, continues to support spending public money for dead ends.  Broad Run will never stimulate private sector, tax-generating development.  There’s no two-fer opportunity to use any parking structure there for any other purpose, due to airport safety restrictions.  Any parking deck at Broad Run will sit empty on nights and weekends, just like the planned Cushing Road park-and-ride lot.

If VRE charges for parking at Broad Run, it will take 20-30 years to recover the cost of building the deck.  If VRE offers free parking, then the investment is a sunk cost from the beginning.

A return-on-investment analysis of the Broad Run garage would reveal a high risk that the new parking deck’s benefits will be short-term.  If VRE extends its rail service as planned westward to Gainesville/Haymarket (or south to Nokesville and points beyond), then the Broad Run garage could become a white-elephant, an orphan, after just a decade of use.  If VRE expands, most commuters will drive to the next end-of-the-line station to get a seat, and Broad Run’s garage will sit empty.

VRE is a narrow-minded organization, focused on expansion in order to increase the number of riders.  VRE’s board and executive leadership  ignore the financial burdens that expansion will impose on the jurisdictions that fund VRE.  VRE’s leaders operate like Gordon Gecko in the 1987 movie Wall Street, and push for expanding VRE for the sake of growth.  Politicians seek to satisfy the VRE commuters with promises of “more, more, more” and seek construction grants without paying attention to potential long-term costs, or potential long-term land use benefits.

Still, according to the VRE Operations Board minutes for February 19, 2010, VRE recognizes intellectually how transportation improvements could shape land use changes: “The Gainesville station represents one of the smart growth proposals that all of Northern Virginia strives for.”

Transportation upgrades could be centered on Innovation, where government agencies have already invested heavily in the Hylton Performing Arts Center, a George Mason University campus, and roads/utilities/stormwater improvements to attract various employers.  Better transit could spur development of a town center, attracting tax-generating private sector development by offering better VRE access and better bus services along I-66.

Investing in Broad Run, on the other hand, offers benefits to just… commuters in cars, including commuters who pay no Prince William taxes.  Broad Run is a dead end for VRE trains, and a dead end for using transportation infrastructure to trigger any tax-generating growth.

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1 comment so far

  1. Ed on

    It is obvious you are not a commuter with VRE. I have been a passenger with VRE for going on 3 years now and I can tell you that your hypotheses were wrong. First off is the fact that Broad Run station does serve Prince William County residents. Yes it does serve passengers from other counties but all the better for them to utilize VRE than add extra traffic to an already congested I-66. The other flaw in your logic is the parking situation at their Manassas Station, or the rest of VRE’s Manassas line stations for that matter. With the exception of Burke Center which proudly boasts a large parking structure for VRE commuters, all the parking lots are at or nearing capacity. This includes Manassas Station. The congestion problems at both Broad Run and Manassas Park have forced those commuters to Manassas. Broad Run will continue to be useful since VRE can only expand from Broad Run if Norfolk Southern agrees to the expansion of their line. Even in a decade it will have been a great use at reducing carbon emissions and congestion on I-66.


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