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Density Triggers

August 8, 2002

At a Glance

Much of the debate surrounding the project to bring public transit from the West Falls Church Metro station to Dulles Airport centers around the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) which was released in June.

It outlines four possible options for transit projects and describes their cost and impact.

This fall, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board will select the locally preferred alternative (LPA). Once the LPA is selected, officials will draft a final Environmental Impact Statement and forward it to several federal agencies. After that, the Federal Transportation Agency will give its final decision and the design process on the project can begin.

The options are:

• Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) alternative: Rapid buses would run in a designated lane along the Toll Road. The DEIS lays out several different routes for BRT with stops in Tysons Corner, Reston and Herndon. Construction would cost between $342 million and $481 million depending on the route chosen. Operating costs during the opening year would run from $20.7 million to $26.8 million.

• Metrorail alternative: Metro would operate trains along the corridor. As in the BRT alternative, there are several different routes the Metro could take and several possible station locations. Construction would cost between $2.9 billion and $3.1 billion. Operating costs during the opening year would run from $106.7 million to $110.8 million.

• Combined BRT/Metrorail alternative: Metro would run trains to Tysons Corner and a BRT system would run from Tysons Corner out to Dulles Airport. Construction costs for this project are estimated at $1.45 billion. Operating costs during the opening year are estimated at $53.7 million.

• Phased Implementation alternative: Under this alternative, public transit would be brought to Dulles Airport in three phases. The first phase would place a BRT system from the West Falls Church station to Dulles Airport. The second phase would replace the segment from West Falls Church station to Tysons Corner with rail. The third phase would extend rail to the airport and discontinue the BRT system. Construction costs for all three phases would be $3.3 billion. Operating costs the first year of complete metrorail implementation would be between $106.7 million and $110.8 million.

The federal government would pay 60 percent of BRT construction costs and 50 percent of rail construction costs.

Officials expect the project to be completed by 2010.

But U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) said that even if full funding is approved next year, the project will not see the first substantial sum of federal money until 2006. Wolf added that in the past 10 years, the federal government has not funded any one major transit project at more than $100 million per year.

Joe Stowers, chairman of the Reston Association transportation committee, is looking forward to the day when office towers and apartment buildings are clustered around a potential new rail station in Reston Town Center.

“My hope is that we start getting mixed-use transit-oriented development at a moderate scale of density during the process,” he said.

TO ENCOURAGE both residential and commercial development in the vicinity of planned transit stations, Fairfax County has written in provisions, known as “density triggers,” into its Comprehensive Plan. The provisions state that as soon as one of the several transit options outlined in the Environmental Impact Statement is selected, and as soon as funding for transit is secured, developers will be able to petition the county to increase the density along the Dulles corridor.

This means that developers could start building in Tysons Corner, Reston or Herndon before mass transit arrives in the corridor. The Fairfax County Planning Commission would have to approve the developers’ plans and recommend that the Board of Supervisors sign off on the construction projects. The board has the authority to approve or reject development projects.

The additional density is unlikely to cause gridlock on the road before mass transit is in place to absorb some of the new trips, Stowers said. He said that he trusts the Planning Commission and the board to make sure that the pace of development did not get out of hand.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the county board on this,” he said.

Development will not get out of hand in the Dulles corridor before mass transit is well on the way, vowed members of the Planning Commission.

“The triggers don’t really get triggered until the rail is either there or definitely on the way,” said Frank de la Fe, Hunter Mill District planning commissioner. But he added that there was a considerable amount of additional development that could take place in the corridor under the current density regulations.

“It’s a question of coordination, of timing,” said At Large Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn. “We don’t want to see anyone gain the [density-trigger] system before rail is there.”

The Planning Commission will not rubber-stamp development applications once the density triggers are in effect, Alcorn said. Even after the triggers are in place, he said, the commission will review each application on a case by case basis to make sure that it won’t cause undue congestion.

“The density would not be allowed until rail was clearly imminent or well on the way,” he said.

According to Alcorn, once the Planning Commission approves a project, it usually takes at least 12 to 18 months to finish construction. Allowing construction to begin before transit is in place would ensure that transit would tap into a large pool of potential users as soon as it opens. Since both residential and commercial developments are planned, the stations in the Dulles Corridor would be both destination and origin stops.

But reviewing applications on a case-by-case basis would prevent the Planning Commission from seeing the broader implications of their decisions on traffic congestion, said Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville).

"You look at [applications] one at a time," he said. "In this case you need to look at them collectively."

THE PLANNING COMMISSION’S watchdog role has reassured the business community as well as the Washington D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“I don’t think there’s a problem in Fairfax,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which has long called for increased density around transit stations. “Fairfax has almost been too reticent to approve higher density near transit.”

Mark Looney, a land-use attorney with the firm of Cooley Godward who represents several landowners in the corridor agreed with Schwartz. “The buzzwords today are ‘smart growth,’” he said. “Up until now, this county has had a pretty much suburban zoning scheme, with low density development serviced by the automobile.”

Looney also called increased density near transit stations as “enabler” of the county’s new smart growth goals.

Both Schwartz and Looney declared themselves in favor of the rail alternative mentioned in the Environmental Impact Statement. Other options include a Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) or a combination of the two.

According to the Comprehensive Plan, the rail option would allow higher density than a BRT option. Looney said the business community welcomed the opportunity of higher density and noted that businesses in the corridor were even willing to raise their taxes to help finance the rail.

“It’s not as though they’re only getting benefits from it,” he said. “It’s a public-private partnership in the truest sense of the word.”

NOT EVERYONE agrees, however.

“The developers’ interest always is to maximize the developability of the parcel they have,” said Paul Hughes, president of the Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth, a local organization. “What’s surprising is that the Fairfax County supervisors are willing to go along with something like that and allow something to be developed almost in the closet without some kind of visibility about what the public-private partnership would be about.”

Because they would be putting up the money for the local share of the project, Hughes said, they would be able to exert a considerable amount of influence on questions of density in the corridor. Local officials will have a hard time containing developers’ ambitions, he added.

“Each of the supervisors is going to be under a lot of pressure,” he said. “I find it hard to believe they’re going to be able to hold their finger in the dike.”

Hughes said there was a definite rift in the smart growth community over the issue of the density triggers. He criticized Schwartz, saying that the D.C.-based organization “does not represent the grassroots smart growth community in this county.”

The Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth has come out against transit in the Dulles corridor, saying that any transit option ought to serve the existing Reston and Herndon town centers.

“Smart growth is not always for rail,” he said. “It doesn’t mean every time you put in rail it’s necessarily a good project.”

Hughes has found an ally in Jack Herrity, former Board of Supervisors chairman who is considering a run to recover his old seat in 2003.

Herrity called the public-private partnership creating the special tax district along the Dulles corridor “a quid pro quo.”

Developers are not interested in relieving congestion, he said, but in adding density to Tysons Corner or Reston Town Center, through the transit project.

“If these [density triggers] are not granted, there’s no tax district,” he said. “It’s about money, it’s about land use.”

For his part, Alcorn rejected those concerns, calling them “a red herring.”

“If there’s a concern about timing we’ll deal with it,” he said. “We’re the stewards of the Comprehensive Plan.”