Archive for the ‘Land Use’ Category

Changing the VRE Manassas Line: Exploring the Godwin Road Station Alternative

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is exploring if it should extend the line that runs from Broad Run through Manassas to Union Station, as well as add three new trains to carry commuters into DC each morning.

The “full bore” expansion option is to build new stations at Innovation, Gainesville, and Haymarket, while closing the existing Broad Run station and the end of the Manassas Line  That would require adding a second (and potentially a third) railroad track for the 11 miles to Haymarket, plus construction of a new railyard west of that town.

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Compared to the “minimal change” alternative of adding the three new trains but maintaining the existing station at Broad Run,  constructing a new 11-mile extension to Haymarket would cost an additional $250-$350 million.  Despite the expense for the additional infrastructure, VRE would carry only an additional 300 daily commuters each way in 2025 compared to the “minimal change” alternative.

Adding additional trains but still using the Broad Run station would provide a better benefit/cost ratio  than the alternative of building three new stations, new tracks, and a new railyard near Haymarket.   However, retaining the Broad Run station would create a major problem with train storage.

The railyard at Broad Run is limited in size.  The current passenger platform blocks addition of the extra storage tracks that would be necessary, if VRE added three additional trains in each direction.

A third alternative, costing perhaps $10 million more than the “minimal change” option, is to build a new station where the railroad crosses Godwin Road in Manassas.

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Godwin Road would become the end-of-line station and the platform at Broad Run would be closed.  The Godwin Road alternative would allow expansion of the existing railyard.

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It would cost far less to implement the Godwin Road alternative, compared to the high costs of building an extension to Haymarket with three new stations and a new railyard .  A Godwin Road end-of-line station would also minimize annual operating costs, since the trains in the yard would be located just 1.5 miles away from the location where service starts/ends each day.

Most significantly, a station at Godwin Road is not underneath the flight path of Manassas Airport.  Unlike Broad Run, the new end-of-line station could trigger transit-oriented development and create economic benefits consistent with the City of Manassas Comprehensive Plan.

The Manassas Landing area is described as a “gateway” for development.  Placing a VRE station there could result in high-tech companies choosing to locate there.  Adding more trains to VRE would offer the potential for skilled workers living within the urban core to commute to jobs in Manassas without using a car.

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Planning for growth at Godwin Road provides a clear contrast to the planning by Prince William County for the land west of Haymarket.  VRE has proposed a new station located west of Route 15, but at that site the station would be located within the Rural Area.

The Rural Area is supposed to be a zone of low density development. Unless current land use planning is ignored in order to speculate on rezonings that would transform the area, there would be few (if any) economic benefits for a new VRE station located west of Haymarket.

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Additional Trains Coming on the Manassas Line… Will Transit-Oriented Development Follow?

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is planning to build three new stations and additional miles of track to extend commuter rail service to Haymarket.   VRE plans to submit a request for Federal funding, and therefore must study alternatives as well as its preferred plan.

Built into almost all alternatives is an expansion of service.  VRE currently operates 16 daily trains, eight inbound to Union Station in DC and eight returning home to the end of the line at Broad Run, next to Manassas Airport.

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Between 5:00-8:00am on workdays, six morning trains with a capacity of about 100 people/rail car take commuters into DC.  One mid-day train goes into Union Station at 2:45pm.  One of the afternoon commuter trains returns into DC at 5:10pm to make a second run home at the end of the workday.

VRE is a commuter rail system, designed to carry passengers from Prince William, Manassas, and Manassas Park to jobs in the urban core in the morning and to bring those workers home each evening.

VRE is not a transit system like Metrorail.  VRE shuts down on weekends and major holidays.  VRE  offers only one train going into DC in the late afternoon, and anyone using it would have to spend the night.  There is no evening service that would allow passengers to take the train into DC for an event and then return.

The trains run on freight rail tracks owned by Norfolk Southern between Manassas and Alexandria, and owned by CSX between Alexandria and Union Station.  The contract with CSX allows a maximum of 22 trains/day north of Alexandria.

CSX makes a profit running freight trains on those tracks.  The private railroad company is reluctant to lease additional slots of time to VRE because the current two-track railroad bridge over the Potomac River is a major bottleneck.  Until that bridge is replaced, VRE expects to be constrained to 22 daily trains north of Alexandria.

VRE offers only 16 trains carrying customers now, but uses all 22 slots allowed by CSX.  Two slots are used to bring empty trains back from DC for storage, because the yard near Union Station is too crowded.  VRE has “loaned” four slots/day to Amtrak, helping that long-distance passenger rail system and the state-supported regional rail version to offer additional service through Northern Virginia.

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Whether or not VRE expands to Haymarket, the commuter rail system plans to add at least three trains in each direction.  That would increase current commuter rail service from 16 to the maximum of 22 daily trains carrying passengers.

How will VRE gain six slots?

New track for train storage will be constructed near L’Enfant Plaza.  The additional “parking spaces” for empty trains will allow VRE to convert the two slots used now to move empty trains so they carry paying passengers.

The four slots loaned to Amtrak will be reclaimed after new track is constructed on the Fredericksburg line.  Relieving congestion there will benefit CSX’s freight rail operations as well as passenger rail operations.   Amtrak will then negotiate for additional slots on its own, and release the four borrowed slots back to VRE.

Additional service will cost additional money.  VRE will have to purchase additional locomotives and rail cars to offer the additional three trains daily into DC, and three more back.  Federal and state grants may cover most or all of the one-time costs for capital equipment, but local governments will have to pay for the extra annual operations costs.  The tickets purchased by passengers cover 50-55% of the cost of each trip, and local governments subsidize the remainder.

In addition to the three additional trains to carry commuters in the morning and evening, VRE is considering expanding service throughout the day, adding 14 more train trips.

VRE could run one train/hour on the Manassas Line between rush hours, with trains stopping in Alexandria.  By stopping in Alexandria, VRE avoids the bridge bottleneck that blocks additional trains from going across the Potomac River.

Customers could switch to Metrorail at Alexandria.  People living in the DC area could use Yellow/Blue Line trains to get to Alexandria, then catch VRE to get as far as Broad Run.

Adding train service every hour on workdays could have a long-term but dramatic effect on job creation in Manassas Park, Manassas, and Prince William County.

High-tech firms are reluctant to open an office on the periphery of the urban core, even though costs for space are lower and skilled workers are readily available (and potentially willing to demand less money, in order to eliminate the long commute to Tysons Corner, Arlington, or DC).  The number of workers with a car and willing to commute outward to the edge of the urban region is limited.

If VRE offered consistent, reliable train access throughout the day, employers located south of the Occoquan River could tap into the pool of expertise, including the millenials with cybersecurity or other specialized training who have chosen to live “downtown.”

The best way to measure if that scenario is coming true will be to measure demand for office space within walking distance of a VRE station (about ¼ mile).  Rents are at a premium near Metrorail stations.  If the same pattern develops near VRE stations, then the additional train service could be credited with spurring Transit Oriented Development.

fostersredevelopment of buildings next to the Manassas train station
demonstrates the potential impact of converting VRE
from a commuter rail system into a transit system 

 

March 15, 2016 Vote on Bi-County Parkway

repeatUpdate: The Board of County Supervisors voted 4-3 on March 15 to remove the Bi-County Parkway from the Comprehensive Plan.
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Look closely – can you see how the Bi-County Parkway will spur economic development in Prince William County?

Prince William would get the traffic, from I-95 to I-66 and then north through the supposedly-protected Rural Area. If any business activity is generated by the road, it would be next to Dulles International Airport – far away in Loudoun County.

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors vote on March 15.  The 8 supervisors have the opportunity on March 15 to delete this taxpayer-funded subsidy for business development in Loudoun County.

The county should focus public investment, especially state funding for transportation, on projects that will spur economic development in Prince William.   In Arlington County, homeowners and commercial property owners each pay about 50% of property taxes. In Prince William, homeowners pay about 80%.

Supervisors who say they want to limit property tax increases on homeowners know that the best long-tern strategy is to spur commercial development in Innovation, especially on Route 1 and at Innovation.  Such development benefits homeowners who live on both the eastern and western halves of the county.

Prince William could grow local jobs at Innovation – but the Bi-County Parkway won’t make that happen.

The region won’t benefit either.  Northern Virginia needs transportation projects that reduce congestion.  Supervisors need to plan transportation solutions to fix what’s broke, rather than waste tax dollars on the Bi-County Parkway.
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Madera Farm – The Backstory

January 20, 2016 UPDATE:  The Board of County Supervisors approved the addition of Madera to the Agricultural and Forestal District on January 19 in a 7-0 vote, but only after the landowner committed to cancel the request for a Special Use Permit.  

The Gainesville District supervisor negotiated that in advance.  The Prince William Conservation Alliance spoke at the public hearing in support of commercial agriculture, rather than industrial operations, in the Rural Area. 


Normally, adding a farm in western Prince William’s Rural Area to an Agricultural and Forestal District would be a routine event. The county established that land use classification in 1973 to facilitate preservation of farms and forests.

However, Madera “Farm” is not a normal agricultural operation. It resembles more closely an industrial operation, grinding mulch and processing construction and demolition debris.

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Adding Madera to an adjacent Agricultural and Forestal District would undercut efforts to maintain commercial agricultural operations in Prince William County. It would reduce the credibility of actual farmers working to preserve farmland, and open the door to increased housing and retail strip shopping districts in the county’s Rural Area. Continue reading

VRE to Haymarket… Who Benefits?

VREVRE Community Meeting!
Update: at the meeting, VRE displayed but did not highlight its exhibit on the number of trains per day.  The exhibit was used to create the inaccurate impression that a Haymarket extension would somehow increase the number of trains using the Manassas Line.  If anything, spending money to build new track would reduce the capital funding available to buy new trains.

Tonight… Tuesday, Nov. 10, 6-8 p.m. at Gainesville Middle School, 8001 Limestone Drive.

Bottom Line: VRE appears to be seeking public support for an extension to Gainesville/Haymarket. It’s a bait-and-switch sales pitch – make people think an extension to Haymarket will increase the number of trains per day.

If anything, spending capital funding on new track instead of buying new trainsets would reduce the potential for increasing the number of VRE trains running daily on Manassas Line.

A legitimate alternatives analysis should include:

  • not building any extension of track, and instead investing in new trainset.
  • not building any station at Haymarket that will induce additional demand from Culpeper, Fauquier, Warren, and Page counties.
  • not building a large parking capacity at any new station, but instead building multiple park-and-shuttle lots nearer to subdivisions so commuters in single occupancy vehicles won’t clog local highways at rush hour.

VRE should consider the alternative of building a new spur track into Innovation Town Center or north of current line, where Vulcan quarry is reaching end of its life and will be converted into water storage bank soon. A new end-of-line station at Innovation/Vulcan quarry could incentivize a high-density town center, and increase TOD potential there!

Prince William County has the opportunity to serve as a 21st century role model for smart transit growth, but the current VDOT plan demonstrates we have a long way to go!

What are conservation easements?

Big trees are hard to find.A conservation easement is a contract involving development of land.    

Landowners can sell or donate their rights to develop a parcel, while retaining ownership of the land itself for remaining purposes (often as farmland, forest or open space). 

Conservation easements are land deeds that transfer some property rights to a qualified non-government agency (land trust) or public agency, such as the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF). 

Typically, landowners sell/donate the rights to develop most or all of the houses permitted by local zoning on their property.  If zoning permits 10 houses to be constructed on a 100-acre parcel, the landowner could retain the right to build one house but sell/donate the development rights to the other 9 houses to a land trust. 

With lower development potential, the value of the 100-acre parcel would drop substantially. Landowners are compensated through payments from Purchase of Development Rights Programs, tax credits, or both so the sale of a conservation easement makes financial sense to the private property owner.

Land trusts have permanent legal authority to enforce the terms of conservation easements.  If a future owner of a parcel with a conservation easement attempts to build an excessive number of houses or violate other terms of the deal (such as preservation of stream buffers), the land trust can go to court to enforce the terms of the deal.

Most conservation easements keep land private, but could be written to authorize public use on trails or even the entire parcel. When the objective is to limit development in order to preserve natural or historical values, a conservation easement may be appropriate.

Rural Preservation Study – First Results of Public Survey

ruralarea2There were 384 responses to the county’s survey on the Rural Area, and whether current policy to preserve that area for agriculture and low-density development should be altered.

Developers propose every year to bust open the zoning and allow more houses.  The Rural Preservation Study now being conducted by the Planning Department could be just a stalking horse to revise existing zoning.

After all, county staff used to refer to the Rural Area as “unzoned,” assuming future rezoning for sprawl was inevitable.

However, county residents have supported the Rural Area planning that has been in effect for the last 15 years.  The boundary line has been modified only once to permit a major development (Avendale).

Here is a clue about public support for keeping the Rural Area rural: in 2013, only 11 out of the 384 responses suggested the Rural Area should metamorphose into future subdivisions:

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How to Preserve the Rural Area (And Keep Property Taxes Low in Prince William County)

by Charlie Grymes

56154814For 15 years, Prince William County has consciously steered most development to the Development Area. Within the Development Area, current planning/zoning will permit development of new houses for the 150,000 new residents expected to arrive by 2030. There is enough undeveloped land within the Development Area, already planned/zoned for new construction, to absorb 20 years of population growth.

Still, some developers are not satisfied. They see an opportunity to bend the rules to their advantage, creating short-term profits while imposing long-term costs on county taxpayers. A few developers want to buy land in the Rural Area, then get county supervisors to rezone the property to permit denser development.

Buying land by the acre and selling it by the square foot could generate a quick profit for a few people. However, scattershot development throughout the Rural Area would require taxpayers to build unplanned schools, fire/police stations, and other public facilities, increasing property taxes forever.

Low-tax advocates want to maintain the logical, planned development in the county, with development steered to the Development Area. Conservationists want to protect open space and streams in the Rural Area, providing wildlife habitat and helping Prince William meet its obligations to send clean water downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. Farmers interested in for-profit agriculture want to preserve opportunities in the Rural Area to lease/acquire enough land to make a farm operation economically viable. Continue reading

Why Do We Have a Rural Crescent?

by Charlie Grymes

23587759_150In 1998, Supervisors revised the 1990 Comprehensive Plan to encourage high-density development on major chunks of land along Linton Hall and Route 15. More than 60% of the private land in the county was designated as the Development Area. In the last 15 years, Braemar, Kingsbrooke, Dominion Valley, Heritage Hunt, and other subdivisions have been completed in this expanded Development Area.

Expansion of the Development Area was intended to stimulate development of high-value “executive” homes. Tax revenues from low-cost townhomes, the dominant way population growth was accommodated in the 1980’s-1990’s, were too low. New residents had moved into those townhomes, crowding schools, congesting roads, and overwhelming the capability of first responders to provide basic public safety services.

By 1998, local elected officials were tired of increasing taxes to fund expansion of public services in Prince William. Voting for an increase in the property tax does not increase the popularity or re-election potential of county supervisors. Continue reading

From the Inside: A Stakeholder’s Experience With the Rural Preservation Study

by Charlie Grymes

Nokesville farmI was invited to participate as a “stakeholder,” at the start of the formal process for developing the Rural Preservation Study.  I was one of 33 stakeholders, from 18 organizations.  I participated on August 2, 2013, one day after the public kickoff meeting for the Rural Preservation Study at Nokesville Elementary School.

I was invited to be a stakeholder because I serve as the chair of the Prince William Conservation Alliance. PWCA is the only environmental organization in Prince William with full-time staff.  For over a decade, the alliance has been a clear voice in the local land use planning process. We speak out regularly about the benefits of smart growth, and how “busting” the Rural Area to permit greater development will inevitably result in higher taxes county-wide.

If you just fell off the back of a turnip truck, you might think the Rural Preservation Study is designed to initiate more protection of open space, to avoid future traffic congestion by steering new housing to be located closer to jobs north/east of Prince William, and to limit increases in the property taxes and sewer/water rates by ensuring future public infrastructure (especially schools/roads) is built in the Development Area.

Yeah, pass me a turnip, please… Continue reading