Prince William Freezes VRE Expansion In Its Tracks
In December, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) completed Phase 1 of the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension study.
Despite the clear preference of VRE at the start of the study to extend the commuter ail system 11 miles west to beyond Haymarket, the analysis in Phase 1 demonstrated that a different alternative was far better.
The staff recommended the VRE Operations Board adopt the”Relocated Broad Run Terminus” option. It would add three new commuter runs in the morning and evening, expand the existing railyard at Broad Run to handle additional trains, and move the displaced Broad Run platform to a new site closer to Manassas.
Prince William officials asked for delay. The high costs of building to Haymarket and subsidizing service from that location had created sticker-shock. The Board of County Supervisors declined to endorse the planned 11-mile extension, and was at risk of allowing the project to simply die.
“No action” would block VRE expansion of the Broad Run railyard, and block the addition of new trains. Existing trains, already crowded with commuters, could be expanded by adding extra cars, but more trains are required to handle the increasing demand for transit.
The VRE Operations Board took a straw vote in December, and support for the Relocated Broad Run Terminus option was overwhelming. However, since Prince William County had failed to identify a locally-preferred alternative, the VRE Operations Board took no official action to advance a preferred alternative to a Phase II study.
Earlier in 2016, VRE had submitted the project to expand service on the Manassas Line to the Commonwealth Transportation Board for the SmartScale ranking process. That review is required obtain state funding in 2017 – but VRE withdrew its submission in January 2017.
Since the next cycle for SmartScale ranking will not occur until 2019, the delay means that new state funding for expanding service on the Manassas Line will be postponed for at least two years.
In the 2019 SmartScale process, funding maintenance to keep existing infrastructure in a State of Good Repair will e the #1 priority. For new projects, any expansion on the VRE Manassas Line will be competing against plans to build a new tunnel and widen I-64 at Hampton Roads. That will dramatically reduce congestion, and could rank so high in SmartScale review that it sucks up all the available funding for new construction.
At the January 2017 meeting of the VRE Operations Board, Prince William officials again explained that they had not reached a decision on their preferred alternative.
Representatives from other jurisdictions expressed their frustration at the delay, noting that Prince William’s failure to expand transit capacity would result in more cars clogging the highways of Fairfax County and other jurisdictions. One member commented with tension in his voice “You’re not just holding up yourself, you’re holding up the rest of us too.”
To make matters worse, Prince William officials announced that the planned B-1 site for a relocated Broad Run station was no longer available. The parcel where the rail line crosses Godwin Road has just been purchased by a private company for an economic development project. Site B-2 was still available, but City of Manassas officials were not endorsing it yet.
The county representative also suggested that Prince William may not endorse the Relocated Broad Run Terminus alternative, the one with the highest benefit/cost ratio.
Instead, the county may propose building new track west to a new station at Gainesville, even though that choice would not be eligible for Federal funding and operations would require a greater annual subsidy by local taxpayers.
Perhaps not coincidentally, developers have been looking for government-subsidized transportation projects that might stimulate new use at the old Atlantic Research site.The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) could help fund both extension of VRE to Gainesville and construction of the Bi-County Parkway there.
At the end of the January 27, 2017 meeting, the VRE Operations Board members had made clear that Prince William County had to “get its act together,” but county officials had made no commitments regarding when they might adopt a locally preferred alternative.