Improving Transportation in Northern Virginia and Lee DistrictOctober 28, 2003
SUMMARY: As part of an urban area, Northern Virginia will never be free of traffic problems, and money will never be available to build all the projects we would like. Nevertheless, we can make great progress on transportation problems by using the following strategies: 1) Making inexpensive spot improvements; 2) Raising money locally from the sale of transportation bonds; 3) Pursuing other local initiatives; 4) Fixing transportation funding at the state level; 5) Enforcing the traffic rules we have; and 6) Really reforming VDOT.
Let's start with some basic assumptions about transportation in Northern Virginia:
1) We're an urban area. Urban areas have traffic congestion. New York City, with the best subway system in North America (runs 24 hours a day, goes everywhere, trains run every few minutes during rush hour), has terrible rush hour traffic. Until we all telecommute, living in an urban area means traffic problems.
2) Money for transportation will never come close to meeting all the wants and needs. Transportation projects compete with other worthy goals. We have to prioritize and be creative with the money we have.
3) Transportation projects in urban areas have proponents and opponents. Building a major road (or expanding a secondary street) may destroy bucolic suburban communities. Ultimately, politics decides. Desirable projects may never get built. Or the cost of building them may entail the huge expense of buying out a lot of landowners.
I think it's safe to say that all of these assumptions apply to Northern Virginia in spades. Moreover, Northern Virginia currently does receive its fair share of state funding due to the reconstruction of the Mixing Bowl and the Wilson Bridge. Although this has historically not been the case, what's past is past. We therefore need strategies for transportation improvements that won't cost a lot, won't raise opposition in the communities, and will make small and medium fixes that will cumulatively produce large improvements in traffic flow. Ultimately, transportation strategy needs to be tied to a local, less-permissive growth policy and major regional improvements (such as an Eastern or Western Bypass).
Strategy 1: Pick the Low Hanging Fruit (Spot Improvements)
Given the lack of funding, we need to start doing the projects that will solve small problems in particular places without major expenditures. These are often called "spot improvements."
The cheapest of these is correcting road marking problems. When, at an intersection, two lanes are provided for vehicles turning left, going straight, and turning right, the straight and left should be combined so that cars can make right turns on red, sight lines permitting. I know of two locations in Lee District where straight and right are combined, forcing those turning right to sit behind those going straight until the light changes. These are at Memorial Street and Richmond Highway and at Brandon Ave. and Commerce Street. A similar problem occurs where two lanes in one direction intersect with another road, but the lanes aren't marked at all. This occurs at Fairhaven Avenue and Richmond Highway and at Kingstowne Village Parkway and Hayfield Road. The cost to fix these is a gallon of paint and a sign.
It's worth noting that a number of our older streets can accommodate two cars side by side at intersections, even if the street doesn't meet formal VDOT requirements for lane width. Striping the road for left/straight and right turn lanes will prevent the occasional clueless driver from seriously blocking traffic by sitting in the center of the road when making a left turn. Such striping was done at The Parkway and South Kings Highway over initial VDOT objections and has worked out extremely well.
A second problem can be fixed almost as cheaply, for the cost of some signs. Virginia needs to adopt the "alternative merge" law when two lanes narrow to one. This system works well in other countries, vastly speeding up merging situations. It would be especially helpful in the numerous construction locations around our roads.
Speaking of signs, VDOT is notorious for its poor signage. It's hard to fault drivers in the wrong lane at a stop light where there is no sign warning that the two left lanes must turn left or the right lane must turn right, but these drivers cause congestion as they try to undo their error. And we've all seen people cutting across four lanes of traffic on the beltway or the interstate or a major primary road because they didn't know whether their exit or entrance was on the left or the right. For the cost of a few more signs, VDOT could eliminate some very stressful situations and ensure a smoother traffic flow.
Signal timing is also a relatively inexpensive solution that will speed traffic along. Two examples in Lee where this would help come to mind. The light in front of Edison High School on Franconia Road isn't synchronized with the light at Van Dorn Street. Thus, the crush of traffic heading toward Rose Hill on Franconia often backs up to the Van Dorn intersection. This is particularly annoying at 7:00 in the evening when the traffic coming out of Edison amounts to only a single car or two. Another example is at the intersection of South Kings Highway and Harrison Lane where a left turn lane is sorely needed on South Kings and rush hour traffic often backs up to Memorial Street behind the left turners onto Harrison. Until that turn lane can be built, the light at Harrison and South Kings needs to be timed to allow protected left turns before and after the green signal for traffic headed toward Richmond Highway.
Another moderately inexpensive fix is the installation of turn lanes for major intersections on our older two-lane roads. The problem with this, however, is that speeding traffic flow will make it much more difficult for residents of the community to get out onto those roads, and traffic lights will eventually have to be installed. It goes without saying that unless the new lights are timed, the money spent on the turn lanes will have been wasted.
And here's a freebie. The money to complete the Fairfax County Parkway to Fort Belvoir is available, but work isn't projected to end until 2006. Couldn't someone get this schedule advanced?
Congressman Tom Davis has hit on a far less expensive solution to the Army's closing of Woodlawn Road. Don't spend money studying, designing, and building a new road! Move the Defense CEETA building! They get a brand new building and we get the road back.
Strategy 2: Bond Money
It has been far too long since Fairfax County sold bonds for transportation. What could we spend the money on? Bonds are a great way to fund projects that are low priorities on the Northern Virginia 2020 Plan - or not even on the plan - and for which state money just won't be available any time soon.
A prime candidate is the construction of entrance and exit ramps on the Fairfax County Parkway and the elimination of traffic lights - as was originally intended. It made sense at the time to get the Parkway underway before the money for exits was available, but now those lights cause major delays and occasionally backups, and few of the many intersections are on the 2020 plan. The construction priorities should set the major access points first and re-time the signals at low density cross streets to decrease access until those intersections can be rebuilt later.
Locally, a flyover for Franconia Road at Van Dorn would help move traffic across Lee District. I've heard the figure of $80 million for such a flyover, and perhaps we should see if it could be built more cheaply. Still, it would do wonders for traffic on Franconia Road.
Metro parking. The original theory was that Metro riders would take the bus to Metro stations. That hasn't happened much for many reasons: the infrequency of bus service, the lack of service on many lines outside rush hour, the lack of bus shelters, etc. Every Metro station built outside the District needs to have much more parking built in its proximity, and parking fees should only go to fund parking facility maintenance, keeping the fees low to encourage people to use Metro. There is no reason that the County couldn't build parking facilities near the stations and run them itself, just as it found that it was cheaper to run the Fairfax Connector rather than Metro buses.
Strategy 3: Other Local Initiatives
HOT stands for High Occupancy Toll. The idea is that drivers not having sufficient passengers in the car to get on HOV lanes could pay to use the HOT lane, speeding their trip at a price and reducing traffic in the normal lanes. It is argued that this is unfair to low income drivers who cannot afford to pay to escape traffic. On the other hand, the paying drivers would be paying to reduce congestion in the lanes the low income drivers putatively use. In fact, we don't know very much about how area drivers would react to HOT lanes, and at a minimum we should build one as a test. In theory, the tolls pay for HOT lane maintenance and pay off the bonds used to construct them.
Express Bus to Dulles
Amidst the clamor for Metro (considered heavy rail) or light rail to Dulles, the fact that we currently have a high speed access to Dulles gets forgotten. That of course is the Dulles Access Road. Estimates of 50,000 riders per year to Dulles were offered up in last year's transportation debate, and at that level, both light rail and Metro will produce gargantuan losses. A bus, on the other hand, runs free on the Access road, costing in capital only what it takes to buy the buses and build a terminal or two. And there's the key point. Some proponents of the bus have suggested a series of terminals from the Vienna Metro Station to Dulles. Then, of course, the "express" bus is no longer express and becomes far less desirable. The express bus needs to be fast and run frequently, let's say every 15-20 minutes during the day.
Sidewalks and Bike Paths
The less convenient it is to ride or walk, the more likely it is that people will be in their cars. There are a number of major roads in Lee District where there are just no sidewalks, Telegraph Road and Richmond Highway being two of the biggest offenders. These aren't inexpensive fixes, but would certainly make walking easier.
Bike paths are gaining a bit of ground, most recently the path between Richmond Highway and Beulah Street on Telegraph Road. It is, however, a path that goes nowhere, really, and cyclists are protected from high speed motor vehicles by only a white line on the pavement. What the County really needs are good bike paths to major shopping areas and to all Metro stations. These are also expensive, but would certainly take a number of cars off the road.
Finally, it's worth noting that where sidewalks and bike paths exist, the County rarely requires adjacent property owners to keep them free of overhanging brush or to shovel the snow. The County seems to have a huge tolerance for contractors who close off sidewalks without permission and don't provide an alternate route for pedestrians and cyclists. A little enforcement would go a long way to make walking or cycling safer, easier, and more pleasant.
Strategy 4: Transportation Funding At the State Level
In the 2003 legislative session, Senator Jay O'Brien sponsored two pieces of legislation that would have fundamentally reformed transportation.
The first, SJR 301, (incorporated into HJ 645) was a constitutional amendment that would have limited the use of Commonwealth's Transportation Trust Fund moneys (from user fees and gasoline tax) to highway construction, reconstruction, maintenance, and improvements, public transportation, railways, seaports, and airports. The General Assembly would have been able to borrow from the Fund for other purposes or reduce the level of required appropriations to the Fund only by a two-thirds-plus-one vote of members in each house and the loan or reduction would have be repaid within four years. This would have stopped the raiding of the Fund for non-transportation related purposes.
HJ 645 passed in the House of Delegates by a 96-0 vote. Unfortunately, the Senate Finance Committee failed to report it out of Committee by a 5-9 vote. The nine votes keeping the resolution from a floor vote were provided by all but one of the Democrats on the Finance Committee, Republicans from rural counties, and the Chairman. Unbelievably, local senators Colgan (D-29, Manassas), Saslaw (D-35, Springfield and Alexandria), and Chichester (R-28, Stafford and parts of Prince William County) were part of the coalition that killed the resolution.
The General Assembly must reconsider and pass this constitutional amendment in 2004 so it can go before the voters!
O'Brien's second initiative dealt with the funding formula for the secondary road system. Currently, funds are allocated to Virginia counties on the basis of population (weighted 80%) and area in square miles (20%). This formula disadvantages those areas with the worst traffic problems, Northern Virginia, Richmond, and to some extent Tidewater, that are smaller in size, but have more vehicles on the road. Senator O'Brien's bill, SB 1271, died in the Senate Transportation Committee, 13-2. A similar coalition lined up against this bill: all Democrats on the Committee but one; rural Republicans; and Republicans from Tidewater. It's interesting to note that only one Northern Virginian, Senator Mims, sits on the Transportation Committee. Mims supported reporting out this bill.
This will clearly be a tougher fight than the constitutional amendment for the Transportation Trust fund, but it also must be continued.
Priorities for major state construction funds in Northern Virginia after the Wilson Bridge and the Mixing Bowl: rebuilding the Beltway interchange with I-66 and widening I-95 south of Dale City (perhaps eventually all the way to Fredericksburg). As part of this latter project, extend the HOV lanes further south.
Strategy 5: Traffic Enforcement
We constantly hear about a lack of traffic enforcement. Of particular annoyance are single drivers using HOV lanes which, according to some, is at epidemic proportions. We are bombarded with stories of road rage and aggressive driving. The simple solution is a combination of higher fines and more enforcement by more state and local police. No one doubts that a police officer running traffic enforcement can more than earn his salary in a day. The problem is that the fines are not dedicated to fund the police, but go to funding for the courts, or into one or another general revenue pot to be used for anything our legislators want. What needs to happen is that more police need to be hired and the amount of traffic enforcement increased to pay their way, with legislators making sure the money to pay them does not get diverted. The side benefit is that these extra officers are available to assist with any emergency such as a terror situation or last fall's sniper situation.
Strategy 6: Reforming VDOT
The Governor's claim that VDOT was reformed was belied by the recent mess in Hampton where known drainage problems went uncorrected on a 2.5 mile stretch of newly reconstructed I-64 and now must be fixed at an additional cost of $2.7 million. If anyone believes that VDOT is more responsive now to citizen concerns, they're living in a different Virginia than the rest of us.
Solving Northern Virginia's traffic problems won't be easy, but there are substantial improvements that can and should be made. This is clearly a case of working smarter and stretching the dollars we have. And we must have reasonable expectations. Drivers must understand that some traffic problems are inherent in high density urban/suburban areas, one of the prices we pay for the amenities we get. And the developer community must realize that the citizens of Northern Virginia won't tolerate the paving over of the region and the loss of our suburban lifestyle to accommodate their need to make money.
Copyright Doug Boulter, 2003