What Should Be the “Locally Preferred Alternative” for Expanding Service on the VRE?

leapThe Virginia Railway Express (VRE) proposed expansion to Gainesville/Haymarket requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to analyze the alternatives.  (NOTE:  VRE has responded to this post, asking for an update because: “A determination has not been made as to the federal environmental review process required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). VRE is working with the Federal Transit Administration to determine the federally required NEPA class of action.“)

VRE announced at its Community Meeting on April 17, 2016 that it hoped to identify a Locally Preferred Alternative *before* that analysis is completed.

Asking local officials to choose one alternative, without knowing the benefits/costs of the different choices, is a premature, “leap before you look” approach.

An EIS is not intended to justify a pre-determined choice.  Failure to complete an honest assessment of all reasonable choices could put at risk VRE’s hopes to get Federal funding.  One reason the Bi-County Parkway project never received Federal approval was debate over whether a key alternative had been included in the EIS process.

(NOTE: VRE also responded with “It is not uncommon for projects to identify an LPA before starting the Federal environmental review process; that decision can also be deferred until the environmental review process is underway.  To inform the decision on the LPA, VRE will continue to develop more detailed information regarding the smaller subset of alternatives presented at the April community meeting, including service plans and station locations.”  That would suggest there is no plan to analyze one obvious alternative discussed below: build an end-of-line station at Innovation)

If local officials proceeded anyway, what should they chose?

“Do nothing” is an option, but a poor one.  Northern Virginia has a great opportunity now to convert VRE from a commuter rail system, running only a few trips a day during rush hours, into a transit system that would offer regular service throughout the day.

The best way to stimulate local jobs, reducing the need to commute and reducing traffic congestion over time, is to enhance the transportation link between Manassas Park/Manassas/Prince William .  If VRE expanded service to become a transit system, employers could locate offices near VRE stations and recruit skilled workers from the urban core as well as from subdivisions south of the Occoquan River.

All other choices in the future EIS will probably include increasing the number of trains from the current eight (8) in the morning to eleven (11) in the morning, and increasing the number of trains returning home by the same number.

The option being advertised most heavily by VRE is to build three new train stations at Innovation. Gainesville, and Haymarket, plus additional lines of track and a new railyard.

vre.png

That would be the most expensive choice.  It was priced at $468 million when submitted to the Commonwealth Transportation Board in 2016.  The net benefit of that big investment is small, however.  In 2025 it would remove only 100 more cars/day from I-66, compared to the “stay at Broad Run and add three new trains there” option.

Even before completion of all the analysis for the EIS, it is clear that two other choices offer more benefits at lower cost.  Both include building just one new station, which would obviously be less expensive than building three new stations.

The best combination of low costs/high benefits appears to be the option of building a new end-of-line station at Godwin Road.  Replacing the current Broad Run station with an expanded railyard for maintenance/train storage would allow VRE to add the additional trains already planned.

(An expanded railyard is required for VRE to evolve into a transit system with hourly service to Alexandria. Using the existing facilities at Broad Run obviously would be far less expensive than buying 25 acres and building a brand new railyard west of Haymarket.)

Moving the end-of-line station 1.5 miles north to Godwin Road offers the greatest opportunity to increase economic benefits from transit-oriented development.  Broad Run is under the flight path for Manassas Airport, but the City of Manassas has already planned for a “gateway” to the city with new development at Godwin Road.

broadrun.pngBroad Run Station is too close to the airport flight path
to allow transit-oriented development

One other option could be a competitor for “locally preferred alternative.”  The end-of-line station could be moved to Innovation, where Prince William County is seeking to create a job center with a mix of housing and office buildings, the George Mason University Science and Technology campus, and the Hylton Performing Arts Center.

Annual operating costs at Innovation would be higher that building an end-of-line station at Godwin Road.  Trains based at Broad Run would have to travel further at the start/end of day, and payments to CSX Railroad for using their tracks would be higher.

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