Tag: sprawl

Bi-County Parkway Means Traffic Solution or Fresh Mess

outer beltway 3A new route through some of Prince William County’s rural north is pitched as pro-business and part of the area’s transportation solution, but critics have lined up to push back on a new run of pavement through a part of the region happy to be away from gridlock.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board recently approved a master-plan study for what’s become known as the “Bi-County Parkway,” a 10-mile road that would connect I-66 in Prince William County with Route 50 in Loudon County.

“This parkway would make people’s lives better,” said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “It provides faster, safer transportation, and takes people off local roads.”

The road’s purpose is to ease the horrendous traffic that currently plagues the area, while also providing easier access to the Washington Dulles International Airport for residents of these counties. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that the road could carry nearly 42,000 vehicles a day by 2020 to combat the area’s exploding population.

“We see this as a vital north-south link for Prince William and Loudon,” Chase said. “It’s a common sense solution that makes employment centers accessible and takes traffic off existing roads.”

The parkway is also seen as an economic boon for the region.

“Not only will the road reduce traffic congestion between the counties, but it will also help the region connect with the airport,” said Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force. “The airport’s an economic engine for the area, and better access to it helps encourage businesses to locate nearby.”

The road also has the potential to benefit the airport itself by increasing the number of passengers and encouraging more cargo to pass through Dulles.

“It would allow for a better flow of passengers and information through the airport, and cargo is a part of that,” said Christopher Paolino, media relations manager for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. “That would be a net positive for everyone, since as the airport grows, the region grows, and vice versa.”

But critics of the parkway are worried that road may harm the nearby Manassas Battlefield and Prince William’s Rural Crescent.

“This road could forever harm the landscape and the acres of historic sites it would cut through,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “Residents have real concerns about the damage that this could cause to the community.”

Schwartz’s coalition has worked with other groups in developing a study finding that the parkway will only add traffic to the area, not ease it.

“If you build it, people will try to use it, and that creates congestion,” Schwartz said. “It’s also likely that this will bring pressure from developers to convert the Rural Crescent, and that will bring even more traffic.”

The group has also developed an alternative plan aimed at dispersing traffic by improving the interchange between Route 28 and I-66 and extending Metrorail service to Centreville, avoiding the need for the parkway.

“Our best hope is to improve our existing transit options and to build compact, walkable neighborhoods with public transportation,” Schwartz said.

Some local politicians echo the road rage, particularly Del. Tim Hugo (R-Centreville).

Transportation officials were trying to get the road done quietly, Hugo said. “But people woke up.”

The fight over the road has sent longtime political allies in Prince William County to opposing corners. Hugo argues support for the project is developer-driven.

“This is the wrong project at the wrong time, and the response from the people has been overwhelmingly in opposition,” Hugo said. “This road could create a commuter crisis from Fauquier to Fairfax.”

Proponents argue the goal is to get cars from one end of this rural area to the other, not increasing development within these communities. Shefer said the parkway can include easements around the road and limits on the number of exits to restrict development.

“If it’s designed the right way, then the parkway won’t harm the rural presence, but preserve it,” Schefer said.

Some changes have already been made to resolve some concerns about access and impacts on historical sites. As the project continues to take shape, Schefer and others are hopeful that the final product is controversy-free.

“The key is for everyone to work together, in order to help improve connectivity and save people time,” Schefer said. “There’s no reason this can’t be a win-win for everyone.”

Photo courtesy of VDOT.

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Bi-County Parkway in Virginia will add congestion, groups argue

A coalition of groups critical of the proposed Bi-County Parkway has released a report it says bolsters its case that the roadway could worsen traffic congestion in Loudoun and Prince William counties.

Norman L. Marshall, president of Smart Mobility, which conducted the analysis using data from the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the north-south roadway would create new bottlenecks.

“Building the [Bi-County Parkway] would generate more overall traffic — and more north-south travel — in the study area than would be the case if the [Bi-County Parkway] is not built,” the report said.

The study, released last week, is the latest in the back-and-forth battle over the proposed parkway, which would provide a north-south connection between Loudoun and Prince William counties. Supporters of the roadway say it is needed to accommodate future population growth and promote economic development.

“We’re not just talking about the present, we’re talking about the future,” said Bob Chase, head of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which backs the road. “The best way to ensure that more people in this region have shorter commutes is to provide more jobs closer to where people live and have a grid that gives them a chance to move north, south, east and west.”

But opponents argue that state officials need to focus on improving existing roadways — particularly east-west connections, such as Interstate 66 — before investing in new roads.

“We believe that their case just doesn’t hold up, from speculative cargo claims, to congestion, to impact on the historic resource and Rural Crescent, to their failure to invest in the many critical projects residents and commuters need today,’’ said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, one of the groups that commissioned the $12,000 study.

In a conference call with reporters, leaders of those groups said Marshall’s analysis found that a package of alternative roadway improvements they have proposed would do more to relieve congestion and preserve the historic Manassas Civil War battlefield than the Bi-County Parkway.

The coalition’s plan “addresses a broader set of goals and better protects a historic resource,” Schwartz said.

The Piedmont Environmental Council, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Conservation Association also sponsored the study.

Earlier this year, VDOT conducted its own analysis of the proposed parkway and the list of projects proposed by the coalition. That study showed that if the parkway is built, traffic at many key points along the north-south route would improve.

VDOT’s “thorough” analysis indicates that the Bi-County Parkway is needed, said Tom Fahrney, the department’s project director for the parkway. The study recognizes that traditional commuting patterns have changed in Northern Virginia, he said.

“The jobs are starting to be located outside of the Beltway, and there’s a need for facilities like the Bi-County Parkway to get folks from Prince William to Loudoun,” Fahrney said. “If this road is not implemented, rural roads that are not safe will carry much more traffic than they are today, and we’ll have congestion and safety problems.”

Virginia transportation officials said the coalition’s study assumed that less development would take place in the area — a major difference between the two reports.

VDOT’s study also looked at the project alternatives proposed by the advocacy groups. Transportation officials said those proposals, which include improvements to the Route 28 and I-66 interchange, building interchanges on the Route 234 Bypass south of I-66 and extending Metrorail service from Vienna to Centreville, would cost more than $6 billion and take decades to complete. Coalition groups argue that VDOT’s analysis is misleading because their approach is far more comprehensive.

The coalition’s report comes at a time when some senior elected officials, including Del. Tim Hugo (R-Centreville) and Rep. Frank Wolf (D-Va.), say additional study is needed before the project moves forward.

In June, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, a state body, voted to advance plans tobuild the parkway. But an additional agreement in principle to build the road must be signed by VDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, the state Historic Resources Department and the National Park Service before the project can more forward. State transportation officials hope that will be completed by this fall.

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PG planners propose bold new smart growth future

Prince George’s County has diverged from its smart growth goals, says the county Planning Board in a searing assessment. The board says residents have a choice: push for more transit-oriented development and walkable communities, or “be resigned to business as usual.”

Largo Town Center. Photo by the author.The board released a policy paper called How and Where We Grow as part of an update of the county’s 20-year plan for growth and development. It offers aggressive proposals to tame sprawling, scattered development and focus public resources at Metro stations and priority urban centers.

While official plans and rhetoric say transit-oriented development is important, land use trends show a different story on the ground. The county must recommit to managing its growth in a sustainable way by preserving open space and focusing development around Metro stations, says the board. Otherwise, the county will remain a place known for bedroom communities, underutilized Metro stations, and weak job growth.

Members of the public can offer their input on the county’s future at a day-long town meeting next month.

Prince George’s is at a crossroads

“Prince George’s County is at a crossroads,” the Planning Board states. “Will we choose bold action or business as usual?”

The document recounts how the 2002 General Plan vision for growth and land use fell short of its original goals over the years. Without commitment to a new direction, the county can expect more spread out development, continued failure to capitalize on the promise of transit-oriented development, and lagging investment to spark revitalization of communities inside the Beltway.

Tier boundaries from the Prince George’s County General Plan.Between 2002 and 2010, residential growth in the county departed from the General Plan by spreading out into over 6,400 acres of the “Developing Tier,” a rapidly suburbanizing area outside the Beltway. The lion’s share of the county’s development occurred there, including 73% of residential and 60% of commercial growth.

In the “Developed Tier,” inside the Beltway, growth lagged. It fell short of goals by capturing 25% rather the hoped-for 33% goal. However, what was built there consumed just 5% of the county’s land area.

Development in the pipeline, which has been approved but not yet built, promises more of the same. More than 79% of residential units in the development pipeline are single-family detached houses in the Developing Tier. Yet according to the Planning Board, demand forecasts show that more than 60% of the new housing units to be built should be multifamily units located in walkable communities at transit-accessible locations.

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.How and Where We Grow points to the costs of these growth patterns: spread-out development at densities that are difficult to support with quality transit or retail services, long commutes, and a future as a bedroom community to the region. Over the past 40 years, a third of the county’s open space, agricultural, and forested land were converted to low-density residential development. The loss of open space has fragmented natural areas and undermined the agricultural economy.

Furthermore, the board notes that the county has attracted the fewest number of new residents of an area jurisdiction from 2000 to 2010. “Without recalibration of county priorities and policies that promote TOD [transit-oriented development] and high-quality, mixed-use development,” the paper says, “it is likely that the county will be at a continued disadvantage to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide.”

The county needs a unified vision

The board notes that the structure of county government undermines unity and fosters internal competition through the lack of at-large council members on the county council. “While the County Executive can focus and coordinate resources, the nine different Council members, oftentimes with nine different priorities, it is difficult to agree upon a single vision for the county,” says the paper. “In practice this means that public dollars get spread across the county, instead of being concentrated in a few places to make a truly significant impact.”

A “clear mismatch in stated goals and actual infrastructure investment” emerges when assessing the county’s transportation spending priorities, the board finds. There’s also far more commercial and mixed-use zoning than the market can support. The paper notes that the county’s weak commercial tax base makes it a challenge to compete for employers or have the financial resources to address community needs, like crime and poor schools.

Given these tough observations, the planners put forth a realistic agenda for the future with this set of specific recommendations aimed at leveraging existing infrastructure:

  • Define density targets and growth goals for the tiers to shift the focus of development to the centers and the Developed Tier.
  • Make a stronger commitment by targeting new growth to the Developed Tier and increase the growth objectives for the tier.
  • Locate the new hospital center and key government functions at a transit-oriented development location.
  • Reduce the backlog pipeline development (which can linger for decades). Prioritize and phase development by requiring bonding for infrastructure improvements. Also use the water and sewer process to more aggressively discourage greenfield development.
  • Prioritize and fast track building permits in targeted areas (County Council is currently advancing a bill to do this).
  • Revise surcharge fees for schools and public safety, encourage development in the Centers and Developed Tier by reducing fees, and phase growth in the Developing Tier through fee increases.
  • Adopt new zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations. Ensure they are supportive of the General Plan goals, including encouraging transit-oriented development.

The planning board’s honest, stern assessment of the county’s challenges and practical list of reforms offer the chance for Prince George’s County to change its ways. County leadership has shown some appetite for meaningful reforms. At the request of the county council and executive, the state delegation enabled the county to reduce fees for developments around Metro stations during the last Maryland legislative session.

The County Council is also advancing a bill to expedite development review for projects close to Metro stations. Meanwhile, the debate over where to locate the proposed Regional Medical Center has shifted away from expansive open sites to parcels around the Largo Town Center Metro station.

However, the county’s spending priorities still reflect business as usual, with a focus on building costly intersections for new communities like National Harbor and Konterra instead of investments to enhance access to transit stations or improve bus service. Expensive sprawl-supporting highway projects remain high on the county’s wish list for state funding, such as roads to support the 6,000-acre greenfield Westphalia development located outside the Capital Beltway and miles from the nearest Metro station.

Despite the mixed and sometimes contradictory priorities pursued by the county, the Planning Board and staff are making waves by pointing out the costs of continuing old ways that will allow the county to fall further behind.

Check out the Plan Prince George’s 2035 website, and plan to attend the half day town meeting on June 15 beginning at 9:30 am at the University of Maryland College Park.

Photos courtesy of Greater Greater Washington.

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Montgomery County: Gaithersburg West

We urge you to oppose the Gaithersburg West Plan. We believe that the major expansion in planned employment proposed in the Plan is detrimental to county residents and poses a serious threat to smart growth in the region. We urge the county to refocus efforts to ensure a quality growth plan for the White Flint Metro station area, and fostering employment growth at existing underutilized Metro stations and along transit corridors in down and east county locations. The Life Sciences Center (LSC) portions of the Gaithersburg West Plan proposes excessive density for the location–far from a Metro station, which will exacerbate the housing-jobs imbalance, and induce sprawl and unnecessary car traffic.

REGIONAL – Urban Land Institute’s “Beltway Burden”

REGIONAL – Urban Land Institute’s “Beltway Burden”

To find affordable homes, many in the workforce have followed the popular advice to “drive till you qualify” by moving to remote suburbs such as Warren and Fauquier counties, VA, in the west; Spotsylvania County, VA, and Charles County, MD, in the south; Frederick County in the north; and Calvert County, MD, in the east.  As reflected in this report, however, efforts to save on housing expenses often lead to higher transportation costs, with the result that an even larger portion of household budgets are consumed by the combined burden of housing and transportation costs.

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