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Coalition Promotes Rapid Bus System

Local groups struggle to stop state's drive towards a rail system to Dulles.

With signs reading, "No New Tolls" and "No New Taxes," an alliance of citizen and business groups on Thursday urged state officials to dump the train and jump on the bus. Thomson Hirst, president of the Rapid Transit Action Committee, a Reston-based anti-rail group, launched a public relations campaign to convince Gov. Mark Warner (D) and the Commonwealth Transportation Board to halt further studies of Dulles rail. Instead, anti-rail advocates urged officials to adopt an action plan to provide congestion and air quality relief to Northern Virginia by throwing their support behind a bus rapid transit.

Hirst, a critic of the proposed rail plans to Dulles and Tysons Corner, called the press conference in Reston to urge the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the state's arbiter for major transportation projects, to endorse a bus rapid transit system for the Dulles corridor at its Dec. 19 meeting in Richmond.

"After the failure of the sales tax referendum in November, there is essentially a leadership void on this issue. Now, we no longer have any more time to wait," said Bill Vincent, general counsel of Breakthrough Technologies Institute, a Washington-based think tank and a supporter of bus rapid transit systems. "The time is now."

On Nov. 21, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) endorsed a locally preferred alternative that, if enacted, would expand metro to Tysons Corner, Dulles Airport and into parts of Loudoun County. Baring an unforeseen change in heart, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, at its Thursday meeting, is expected follow WMATA's lead and endorse the rail-to-Dulles project as its locally preferred alternative. Fairfax and Loudoun counties have also endorsed, and are lobbying for, the rail alternative.

<b>LOOKING TO CAPITALIZE</b> on and build upon last month's defeat of the transportation sales tax referendum, Hirst questioned the estimated $4 billion price tag for the proposed Dulles rail line. Hirst also said he wanted to draw attention to the Dec. 19 meeting. He acknowledged, however, that he is not confident that the metropolitan area's transportation board will turn its back on the rail plan.

Hirst said he was pleading with state and Fairfax County officials to "quit wasting time on studies on something that cannot become a reality."

Del. Kenneth Plum (D-36), chairman of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association, a coalition of pro-rail advocates, said state and county officials are committed to the rail-to-Dulles alternative. "We need to look in the long term for an ultimate solution," Plum said. "Bus systems will only serve short term needs. It does not meet the long-term investment needs of Northern Virginia."

A bus rapid transit option would be cheaper, more user friendly and better for the environment, Vincent argued. Popular in Europe and South America, bus rapid transit systems, or BRT as they are called, have begun to gain a foothold in the United States, in cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. The anti-rail advocate said bus systems are more flexible because they are not confined to fixed schedules, like metrorail. "You can use express service plus local service, so there are obvious speed advantages," Vincent said. "In city after city, there is essentially nothing BRT can't do that rails can do and BRT does it cheaper.

"Northern Virginia has an historic opportunity to build a world-class BRT system that will be a global showcase for smart, cost-effective transportation," Vincent said. "Communities around the globe are choosing BRT because it works better and costs less."

<b>ACKNOWLEDGING THAT </b>bus systems lack the high-voltage reputation like rail, supporters said BRT systems are, in many ways, similar to traditional rail systems. Advocates argued that a rapid bus system would take less time to build and would cost only about $400 million. "We have an image problem, no doubt about it, but this is a new concept in mass transit," said Vincent. "It has all the benefits of rail but it is run on a roadway."

Plum said it would be "foolish" to overlook the fact that there exists "a cultural preference for rail over bus." In a survey conducted by his group, the delegate said commuters were two to three times more likely to ride trains than buses.

Hirst compared the rail-to-Dulles plan to similar controversial projects like the Springfield mixing bowl and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, where actual costs have been many times more than the original estimates. Both of those projects are over budget and expected to take longer than previously believed, a fate, Hirst says, is destined for any rail-to-Dulles project. "This is a pattern of misconduct," Hirst said, referring to the other Northern Virginia transportation projects. "It simply must change."

Last Thursday's press conference came, not coincidentally, a little more than one week after the Federal Transit Administration told state officials that the rail-to-Dulles plan might not receive federal approval. At a Dec. 4 meeting, Jennifer Dorn, the FTA administrator, advised officials to only extend rail to Tysons Corner and not to Dulles or Loudoun County in order to secure federal government approval. As a time and cost saving measure, Dorn also advocated the use of bus rapid transit lines to Dulles from Tysons Corner.

Plum downplayed the significance of Dorn's statement. "All that said was that rail needed to meet specific qualifications," Plum said. "It puts everything in perspective. We agree with that and we were not surprised by that."

Anti-rail groups are taking an emphasis from the FTA's statement that serves their own purpose, Plum said.

"Despite the FTA's warning last week, we remain concerned that the state may authorize millions of additional dollars for yet more rail-to-Dulles studies," Hirst said. "We think this would be a complete waste of money. We are hopeful that our fears will be unfounded."

<b>JODY BENNETT</b>, a member of the Hunter Mill Defense League and a Reston resident, spoke at the press conference against the proposed rail plan. "I am concerned about traffic," Bennett said. "Any increase in tolls to pay for the rail and I fear people will take other community roads and our small residential streets are not designed for such increases."

Bennett said she attended each draft environmental impact statement hearings on the proposed rail plan. "I questioned the analysis," she said. "The impact on the community is simply not there to the degree that I felt it should be."

Plum disagreed. "The Draft Environmental Impact Study speaks for itself and it offers a clear case for rail," he said. "Of the 2,500 people who came to the public hearings, 78 percent said they preferred the rail alternative."