Tysons, VA

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) hosted a virtual public meeting on Tuesday (Jan. 12), with transportation leaders from Virginia and Maryland to address questions and comments about its transit and transportation demand management study for Interstate 495 and the American Legion Bridge.

The study’s focus is to “develop and prioritize transit options and travel demand management for bistate travel across the bridge,” DRPT Northern Virginia Transit Planning Manager Ciara Williams says.

Tuesday’s meeting specifically focused on proposed recommendations to expand bus service through the corridor that the study team first unveiled in November.

Williams presented three investment packages divided into baseline, medium and high designations based on their ability to improve productivity, equity and connectivity.

The baseline package focuses on two main route connections that would provide peak-period service from Tysons to Gaithersburg and Bethesda in Maryland.

The medium package features additional routes, increased frequency, and a Bethesda-Tysons route with off-peak service. It also adds service to Silver Spring, Germantown, Frederick, L’Enfant, and Arlington.

The high package offers all-day bus service, additional route connections, and even more frequency. It has an expanded scope that includes Dunn Loring, Reston, and Dulles.

DRPT Chief of Public Transportation Jennifer DeBruhl emphasized that the study is being conducted in coordination with partners at the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Maryland Transit Association.

“This study is really about the art of the possible,” DeBruhl said. “…We’re looking forward to continuing to work with them…to put together a really seamless network that we can develop and enhance as funding resources become available to do that.”

During a question-and-answer portion of the meeting, community members questioned the exclusion of a Dulles route from the baseline and medium packages.

According to DeBruhl, there wasn’t “much demand” seen in a connection to Dulles, but transportation leaders can reevaluate the possibility, either as part of the current study or in the future.

“This evaluation of transit options in the corridor doesn’t end with this study,” she said.

Members of the public also asked about the ability to accurately predict the potential traffic patterns that transit may create over the American Legion Bridge when transit currently does not exist there.

“This is, in a lot of ways, a very technical modeling effort to try to assess and predict the demand and willingness of individuals to shift from that single-occupant vehicle to a transit option if it’s made available and competitive from a time perspective,” DeBruhl said.

With DRPT now working to finalize its recommendations, Williams noted that no decisions have been made yet on which transit agencies would operate the proposed routes.

The public comment period for the study will be open through Feb. 1. DeBruhl anticipates that a final study report will be published in March.

“This study has covered a lot of ground in a relatively short period of time, but it is our goal to bring this study process to a conclusion before we get to far into the spring,” DeBruhl said.

Comments on the study may be made online, by phone at 703-253-3324, or by sending a letter addressed to Ms. Ciara Williams at DRPT, 1725 Duke Street, Suite 675 Alexandria, VA 22314.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott; slide via Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation

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The Virginia Department of Transportation published its final report on ways to improve the safety of Shreve Road in Falls Church yesterday (Monday).

Now available to view online, the Shreve Road Corridor Study report focuses on two miles of roadway between Route 29 (Lee Highway) and Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) that have had recurring issues with pedestrian and bicyclist safety, including a fatal crash involving a pedestrian and an impaired driver in 2019.

After that crash, local residents formed the Shreve Road Community Working Group to advocate for improvements to address speeding, safety, visibility, and drainage concerns.

The group identified the curve southwest of Oldewood Drive, Shrevewood Elementary School, the Washington & Old Dominion Trail crossings, and the curve between Chestnut and Hickory Streets as areas of particular concern on Shreve Road.

VDOT officially launched its study in March and presented some preliminary recommendations at a virtual public meeting on Oct. 7 that it says was attended by approximately 70 people.

Based on feedback from the community, VDOT’s study team has issued four short-term and six long-term final recommendations, which are listed in order from highest to lowest priority:

Short Term

  • Add pedestrian beacons to W&OD Trail crossings
  • Incorporate pedestrian median at Fairwood Lane into Safe Routes to School project
  • Add and upgrade Shreve Road pedestrian connections
  • Install optical speed bars and implement vegetation management

Long Term

  • Advance roundabout alternative near Shrevewood Elementary
  • Advance chicane design at Pioneer Lane
  • Coordinate potential bicycle speed treatments for the W&OD Trail
  • Develop a neighborhood gateway near Route 29
  • Consider an urban cross-section between Route 7 and Gordons Road
  • Potentially revisit mini-roundabouts at Pinecastle Road and Buckelew Drive

VDOT says its team received the most comments about recommendations related to Shrevewood Elementary and the Pinecastle/Buckelew intersection. The reactions to its roundabout proposals were roughly evenly split between people felt favorably and people who opposed the ideas. Read More

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What if Lincoln Avenue looked more like George Mason Drive?

Falls Church Planning Director Paul Stoddard posed that query to the city planning commission when it met on Dec. 16 to demonstrate how a “green streets” concept could improve the look and safety of Falls Church’s roadways.

“It’s a proposal to improve quality of life through urban design,” Stoddard said.

Citing North George Mason Drive in Arlington and MacArthur Boulevard in Washington, D.C., as examples, Stoddard presented rudimentary renderings of what Lincoln Avenue might look like with trees planted in a median and in planters placed at intervals along the sides of the road.

According to Falls Church City planners, Lincoln could accommodate a median with 43 trees that would provide 13,000 square feet of tree canopy when the plants reach maturity.

The avenue also has enough space for 23 trees in planters on the side of the road, which Stoddard says would encourage slower vehicle speeds without interfering with the availability of parking.

As part of his “green-ing” Lincoln Avenue proposal, Stoddard also suggested installing six new marked crosswalks to make it easier and safer for residents to get to the existing sidewalk.

A rendering developed by a planning consultant shows two crosswalks each at Lincoln Avenue’s three-way intersections with Meridian Street, Walden Court, and North Yucatan Street.

“When you put in crosswalks and trees, the expected outcome is you get an improved look of the neighborhood. You get cooler summer air temperatures, talking about climate resilience,” Stoddard said. “You get improved stormwater management, you get increased pedestrian accessibility, and you get safer, slower auto speeds.”

Emphasizing that the concept is just a proposal, not an official project, Stoddard told the Falls Church City Planning Commission that Lincoln Avenue could benefit from a new median and foliage that would address recurring issues with vehicle speeds, pedestrian accessibility, and stormwater management.

Lincoln Avenue is designed for high-speed travel despite passing through residential neighborhoods. Stoddard said that he has heard from residents who avoid using the available on-street parking because passing vehicles go too fast.

Lincoln also only has a sidewalk on its south side right now, even though many of its connecting streets intersect on the north side.

Falls Church added a crosswalk near Yucatan Street in 2017 after residents advocated for more safety measures, and the city had a traffic calming project to update signaling and pavement markings at the N. West Street intersection in 2019.

However, the planning commission seemed to agree with Stoddard that a more expansive approach might be needed at Lincoln Avenue – or potentially other streets in the city.

“This is the kind of thinking you want to see versus speed bumps and bigger storm drains,” Planning Commission Chair Andy Rankin said.

Planning Commissioner Melissa Teates compared the current situation at Lincoln Avenue to what Hillwood Avenue was like before some tree-filled medians were installed there.

“Having that median with the trees, and they kind of bumped out the parking lanes a little bit, it made traffic go a little slower,” Teates said. “…So, I think it would be a good thing for Lincoln to have more trees, to have a median, to have the things that make a street slower and more residential.”

Photo via Google Maps, slide via City of Falls Church Planning Division

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The future of Tysons as a transit-oriented urban district looks bright, but local leaders worry it could be marred by declines in Metro ridership.

During the State of Tysons event that the Tysons Partnership held last Thursday (Dec. 10), local elected officials, business leaders, consultants, and journalists outlined the present conditions and future of the city, touching on both the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and Tysons’ 40-year comprehensive plan.

While 2020 will be remembered for being upended by a once-in-a-century pandemic, for Tysons, it also represents a “decade of accomplishment” since Fairfax County adopted a comprehensive plan that “envisioned and guides transformation of our suburban-edge city to an urban destination,” event emcee Sol Glasner said.

In the past, Tysons was “characterized by regional retail anchors, ringed by acres of low rise office parks, themselves encircled by acres of surface car parking, encased in ribbons of asphalt,” he said.

But participants agreed that Tysons has made strides to becoming a transit-oriented urban district with more mixed-use housing and retail development, and more young families choosing to live in the city.

“We really are making progress. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way,” Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said. “This is a 40-year plan, and we’re 10 years in. We need to stay committed to these goals and applying resources and ideas to help achieve them.”

The primary concern for the State of Tysons speakers and panelists was the future of transit.

Pre-pandemic, the four Tysons Metro stops were clocking the highest-ever Metro ridership rates, according to Palchik.

With low ridership persisting, WMATA cuts looming, and little chance of federal aid in sight, the future looks grim, City Monitor editor Sommer Mathis said.

“If the service cuts that WMATA is proposing come to pass, Tysons is going to have to be more than agile,” she said. “It’s a huge potential blow to the ability of folks who were pleased to get to Tysons easily via Metro. We’re starting to track a death spiral for public transportation in a number of cities.”

Ridership declines due to COVID-19 could become semi-permanent when prices increase to make up for lost revenue, she said, adding that it will be difficult to get federal aid if the makeup of the U.S. Senate doesn’t change.

“Transit is under siege,” Palchik said. “It’s under fire. It’s going to take support from federal partners to make sure we make it through this challenging time and save transportation.”

Fairfax County Deputy County Executive Rachel Flynn said Tysons needs to be agile, checking in on the 40-year plan every few years. She stated that it is important to celebrate successes and identify areas to improve, such as transit, walkability, and equity.

Other focus areas in the coming months will be when companies start returning to their offices after the pandemic, responding to changes to the retail sector, and rebuilding the hospitality sector — particularly for restaurants.

Matthis said that some predictions of the future of remote work are overblown, but Tysons will need to respond to an increased demand for flexible office and meeting spaces as more firms are rethinking the traditional office space.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Toll revenues from the Interstate 66 Express Lanes to the tune of $1 million will fund a second entrance to the McLean Metrorail Station.

The plan is to knock down part of a wall in order to add doors and an entrance, Fairfax County Department of Transportation Special Projects Division Chief Martha Coello said.

“It really enhances the ability for people who live or work north of the station to easily access it,” she said. “Hopefully, that gives them greater incentive to use transit, rather than use their own vehicle.”

Fairfax County aims to start work “in the next year or so,” she said.

Using 66 Inside the Beltway toll revenue, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission awarded money to six “low-cost, low-risk” transit projects as part of its Commuter Choice program for the I-66 corridor, according to an announcement on Thursday (Dec. 10).

“We’re expanding the transportation network now using a conservative strategy focused on low-cost projects and longstanding assets to ensure access to convenient, safe and reliable choices whenever people are ready to commute,” NVTC Executive Director Kate Mattice said in a statement.

Both the scope and timeline of the program are more conservative this year due to a drop in toll revenue caused by the novel coronavirus. Pre-pandemic, Commuter Choice anticipated getting $25 million in grant funding for the 2021-22 fiscal year. Instead, tolled trips dropped by nearly 50%.

The announcement called Fairfax County’s application the strongest out of the six projects, which will receive a total of $3.5 million. Other picks included renewing service for three “existing, high-performing express bus services” and converting parts of one lane of Lee Highway in Arlington into a bus and HOV-only lane.

Staff picked this batch of projects because it “minimizes the risk around the uncertainty of a return to pre-pandemic traffic volumes and makes the best use of the minimal available toll revenues,” NVTC says.

According to Commuter Choice, the program has enough money saved from previous years to continue existing projects and fund new projects.

Coello said the McLean Metro Station project “is a bit unusual” in that it was not formally part of a capital improvements plan, but rather, arose during a rezoning application from Capital One in 2012.

Working with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, a team from Capital One designed the entrance, she said. The county received the exact amount it applied for, but Capital One has pledged to contribute to overages.

Coello says Fairfax County has been waiting for the right time to develop the site. Back in 2012, the change was not urgent enough to justify spending the money.

“Having an opportunity like Commuter Choice, this was kind of a golden opportunity,” she said. “It was a case of the right place, right time, right pieces falling in place.”

Since the Commonwealth of Virginia and NVTC established the program in 2017, Commuter Choice has provided more than $60 million grant funding to 36 projects in Northern Virginia.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Friday Morning Notes

Metro Silver Line Phase 2 Delayed Again — “Metro executive vice president of capital delivery Laura Mason said Thursday based on the latest information from the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority – which is in charge of building Silver Line phase two – fall 2021 appears to be the best estimate for when service can start.” [ABC7-WJLA]

VHSL Issues New Face Mask Requirement for Student Athletes — “Starting tomorrow, winter athletes must wear a face mask at all times. This includes while they are engaged in physical activity. Because of safety concerns the only exceptions would be wrestling, gymnastics and swim & dive (when engaged in activity).” [McLean High School]

Fairfax County Suggests Pause on 495 NEXT — “Fairfax County supervisors approved two letters to the state transportation secretary Dec. 1 urging the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) not to finalize decisions on its 495 Express Lanes Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project until Maryland officials make highway-capacity arrangements on their side of the Potomac River.” [Sun Gazette/Inside NOVA]

Comcast Expands Network in Tysons and Other Parts of Virginia — “Comcast Business today announced it has completed construction in Virginia – expanding the company’s advanced fiber-optic network to more than 2,800 additional businesses.” [Comcast Business/PR Newswire]

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Wednesday Morning Notes

Fairfax County Public Schools Presents Final Options for TJ Admissions — “After months of debate, Fairfax County school officials are proposing final options for reforming admissions at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — either switching to a lottery system or adopting a “holistic review,” revisions meant to boost diversity at the flagship STEM magnet school.” [The Washington Post]

Tex-Mex Restaurant Opens in Mosaic District — “Urbano Mosaic is a spinoff of Urbano116, a similar concept on lower King Street in Alexandria…The menu covers items such as appetizers, ceviches, tacos, salads, fajitas, chimichangas, enchiladas, burritos, entrées and platters.” [Patch]

Virginia Transit Leaders Discuss Post-Pandemic Commute Changes — “Democratic senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner — the latter in a recorded message — expressed optimism that lawmakers would soon pass a COVID-19 relief package. Kaine and Warner reiterated the importance of funding to enable Metro to avoid major service cuts despite its budget shortfalls.” [WTOP]

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors share numerous concerns about the environmental impact of the I-495 Express Lanes Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project.

Based on an environmental assessment released in February, the board’s comments highlight everything from traffic and transit to stormwater management, along with recommendations to minimize the impact on trees, waterways, streams, historic properties and noise.

“The Board requests that VDOT continue to allow time for the public to provide feedback on the project prior to executing a final contract,” Chairman Jeffery McKay said in a letter to Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine that the board is scheduled to approve when it meets today (Tuesday).

The project is intended to add more capacity to I-495 to take some of the cut-through traffic off nearby McLean streets, but without expanding the American Legion Bridge and I-495 on the Maryland side, some are concerned the express lanes will only push the bottleneck further north.

A traffic analysis found that generally, travel time along the Capital Beltway corridor will improve in both 2025 and 2045 once Maryland completes their managed lane system.

Until Maryland completes its improvements, the analysis predicted delays along general purpose lanes going north on I-495. In response, the board urged the Virginia Department of Transportation to shorten the time between the opening of the two projects.

“It is critical that VDOT address the temporary impacts of opening prior to Maryland’s managed lanes,” they said.

As part of the 495 NEXT project, VDOT has committed to building a major regional trail in accordance with Fairfax County’s Comprehensive Plan. The Board of Supervisors is requesting that the trail continue through Tysons instead of ending at Lewinsville Road.

They also urged VDOT to find money to promote transit access along the corridor, which will help reduce single-occupancy vehicle ridership and encourage sustainable transportation system.

Stormwater management ranks among Fairfax County’s top environmental concerns for 495 NEXT. Noting that flooding has particularly been an issue in the McLean area, the board wants VDOT to meet county requirements, rather than being grandfathered into lenient state standards.

“If meeting our local stormwater management requirements is not attainable, VDOT should implement requirements to the maximum extent practicable and provide documentation demonstrating that the technical requirements are not fully feasible,” McKay said in the letter. Read More

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The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is currently exploring possibilities for adding more transit routes to Tysons along the Interstate 495 corridor as part of its I-495/American Legion Bridge Transit and Transportation Demand Management Study.

Joined by Virginia Department of Transportation and Maryland Transit Administration officials, DRPT presented some potential options for new connections at a public meeting on Wednesday (Nov. 18) that provided updates on the transit study and VDOT’s I-495 Express Lanes Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project.

DRPT officials have identified Tysons, Dunn Loring, Reston, and Arlington as key destinations in the corridor, noting that there tends to be more demand for travel from Maryland to Virginia than the other way around.

“There is significant travel between activity centers on the Maryland 355 corridor and Silver Spring to destinations like Tysons, Dunn Loring, and the Virginia Route 7 corridor,” DRPT Northern Virginia Transit Planning Manager Ciara Williams said. “A great deal of transit services operate in the study area. However, there are no transit services today that directly link the major activity centers.”

After looking at a variety of potential transit connections between Virginia and Maryland on 495, DRPT singled out eight possibilities that merited further study and ranked them based on their ability to add ridership relative to their cost, the service they would provide to low-income and minority populations, and the number of people and jobs to which they would improve access.

Five out of the eight preliminary possible transit routes go to Tysons. A sixth route – and the one that received the highest score – goes through Tysons to connect Bethesda and Dunn Loring.

A proposed transit route that would go from Gaithersburg, Md., to Tysons during the morning peak period and in the other direction during the evening peak period is the only one that got a top score for productivity, equity, and connectivity.

However, the Bethesda-Dunn Loring and Bethesda-Tysons routes ranked higher, because a trips-per-day metric included in the productivity score was weighted higher to prioritize routes with the potential to yield the highest ridership levels, according to Williams.

The other routes that DRPT is considering evaluating further are Germantown to Tysons, Silver Spring to Tysons, Frederick to Arlington, Bethesda to Reston, and Frederick to Tysons.

The American Legion Bridge transit study started in December 2019 after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced an agreement to fund the $1 billion project to replace and widen the bridge, which is part of the Capital Beltway and currently the only way to travel between Maryland and Virginia without going through Washington, D.C.

“495 is one of the most congested roadways in all of Maryland and Virginia, and traffic is forecasted to increase in the future,” Williams said. “…We see that there’s a need for transit and TDM solutions in conjunction with the planned and managed Express Lanes to efficiently and effectively serve travel across the bridge.”

The transit study is being conducted in parallel with the proposed 495 NEXT project, which extends the existing 495 Express Lanes roughly three miles from the Dulles Toll Road and I-495 interchange to the George Washington Memorial Parkway near the American Legion Bridge.

DPRT Transportation Chief Jennifer Debruhl says the study team anticipates releasing its draft recommendations for public comment in early December before finalizing the study early next year.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott, slides via Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation

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Metrorail and Metrobus users in Fairfax County may be seeing service changes next year.

Proposed by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority staff to help close a $176.5 million-gap in the budget for this fiscal year, the changes span management actions to service changes to deferred capital projects. WMATA staff say the Silver Line expansion will not be impacted.

The proposed budget revisions are currently under review and will be voted on by the WMATA Board of Directors this Thursday (Nov. 19).

This deficit is mostly a result of an 80% reduction in revenue from ridership, WMATA Virginia Government Relations Officer Gregory Potts told the Greater Tysons Citizens Coalition during a meeting on Nov. 12.

The Metro saw a 90% drop in ridership across the board, including Tysons, Potts said. The declines in train and bus usage began in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they persist today.

Nine months into the pandemic, Metrobus ridership is down by 60%, a slight recovery from the 80% drop seen earlier in the year. That change can be partly attributed to the number of essential workers who may not be able to afford a car but still need to get to their jobs, Potts said.

“It’s been pretty eye-opening to us how important the bus is to the region,” Potts said. “Sometimes rail gets all the attention, but the bus system is really important to a lot of individuals. It’s an equity issue for us.”

WMATA staff are recommending Board members vote to authorize management actions and save $30.5 million, to defer non-safety related capital projects and save $30 million, and to make service reductions amounting to $116 million in savings.

The cuts could have been worse. A first draft of the plan released in September had more changes and cuts, because the deficit was projected to be $212 million. The plan was revised after WMATA opened up the plan for public comment, pushed its CARES Act money further, and found additional savings in operating costs.

WMATA initially projected the $546 million it received from the CARES Act would only last through 2020, but the agency now says it will stretch until March 2021. It also saved $35.5 million that would have paid for overtime, fuel, utilities and other costs.

Despite public objection to some reductions in services, a few bus lines that have been suspended in Fairfax County will remain on hold under WMATA’s updated budget plan.

It is hard to pinpoint when transit rates could return, Potts said.

“If you’re talking about pre-COVID-19 rates or more generally, some talk of ‘normalcy,’ where there are people wearing masks but more people riding, for transit, there will be an impact for longer than we want to imagine right now,” Potts said.

Currently, WMATA cleans buses, trains, and high touch-points daily, and it disinfects on demand with an electrostatic fogger machine, he said. Staff are providing riders with masks. Bus riders board from the back and the operators are protected by plastic shields.

Earlier this year, the Metro board approved a six-month deferral of the fare changes that will last through November.

To eliminate contact with employees, WMATA launched a SmartTrip app for Apple in September that enables contactless mobile fare payment. An Android app will be available by the end of the year, according to Potts.

“That’s good for convenience and safety,” he said.

Despite initial concerns about people contracting the novel coronavirus while using public transit, some preliminary studies internationally have demonstrated that “transit has not been known to be a transmitter in the way that other facilities may be,” Potts said.

Another positive development is that platform renovations to improve safety and accessibility at the Metrorail stations in Vienna, Dunn Loring, East Falls Church, and West Falls Church were completed on time.

“We’ve finished 10 platforms in the last year and a half,” Potts said. “It’s really moving along well. With the pandemic, they could actually maintain their schedule.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott, slides via WMATA

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