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Metrorail and Bus Steer Potomac Yard Planning

Transit alternatives could lead way for entire city.

At a recent public work session regarding future development at Potomac Yard, planning commissioners were told by one speaker, "To not plan for a future Metro station was inconceivable." But, is a Potomac Yard Metro station the best intraurban transit solution?

That has been just one of the focal points of the "Ad Hoc Transportation Policy and Program Task Force" in analyzing the various alternative mass transportation modes to be incorporated into the Potomac Yard design. The others have been Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail Rapid Transit.

Each has its advantages and disadvantages, in terms of costs, ridership, accessibility, and in attempting to reduce that area's future residents, visitors and workers' dependency on private vehicles.

The results, thus far, of a projected 20-year analysis point away from a Metro station as the mode of choice to best serve the Potomac Yard constituency.

As part of the Potomac Green development, the city has property for a future Metro rail station. And the guidelines for Potomac Yard/Potomac Green state that development "shall not preclude the possible future construction of a Metro station," said Thomas H. Culpepper, deputy director, Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.

"In fact, WMATA has told both Alexandria and Arlington that if they have the money to build the station, go right ahead. They have also said they do not have the money and don't foresee having any for that project in the near future," Culpepper said during a recent interview concerning the Potomac Yard Transit Plan.

"We were ready to start pursuing funding under the federal government's New Starts Program but we were told money from that program for this region will be dedicated almost entirely to the Dulles corridor project for the foreseeable future," he said.

THE STUDY ALSO recognizes that Metrorail is a regional transportation system. It is not particularly structured to be the most efficient and effective mass transit mode within a given area or corridor. "We started looking at both Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail Rapid Transit," Culpepper said

"But, we don't have a project in the city's Master Plan to implement either of these. And, in order to get federal transportation dollars we have to be part of the Council of Governments' Long Range Plan. To qualify the transit plan must be part of the city's Master Plan," according to Culpepper. COG is the designated agency to coordinate all area projects receiving federal transportation funds.

"The question becomes: Does the Task Force want to make a recommendation to the Planning Commission to add a project to the existing transportation plan? The answer is yes," he said.

The Crystal City/Potomac Yard Corridor Transit Alternatives Analysis concentrated on looking at comparing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Light Rail Rapid Transit (LRT) while not excluding a future Metro Rail station.

"Tying into the regional transit system is the ultimate goal. But, having a high capacity transit system is very important to this entire site. We think this is a very high priority for Potomac Yard. And Metro would require a whole new approach economically," said J. Lawrence Robinson, Task Force chair and member of the Alexandria Planning Commission.

To compare the pros and cons of BRT and LRT service to the combined Alexandria/Arlington Potomac Yard corridor it was essential to factor in the ultimate development of the total site. Upon completion, it is anticipated to contain five million square feet of office space, 232,000 square feet of retail space, 2,477 hotel units, and 3,300 residential units.

"The developer wants to put in all the infrastructure first before they start any vertical development," Culpepper said. That requires determining what mode of mass transit is contemplated.

ORIGINALLY, Potomac Yard plans called for three density concepts, high, medium and low. The former two envisioned a Metro station. However, the city decided to opt for modified low density, according to Culpepper. "The guidelines described Potomac Yard as a pedestrian-oriented development," he said.

With this in mind the BRT alternative proved to be the one best suited to achieve the goal of serving a "pedestrian-oriented development" for the following reasons:

* It produces the greatest transit ridership.

* Capital costs are significantly lower than either LRT or Metrorail making it the most cost-effective alternative.

As for comparative 20-year costs at present value they broke down as follows: BRT - $160 million; LRT - $340 million; Metrorail - $190 million. These costs include both initial investment and operating projections.

A BRT system also forecasts the greatest ridership compared to LRT. According to the study, new transit riders on the former would range between 7,300 and 11,100 per day while the latter would account for 5,300 to 5,800 per day. Total daily ridership for the three alternatives is projected at: BRT - 36,000; LRT - 33,000; Metrorail - 31,000.

"A light rail alternative is going to be the most costly and the least attractive in terms of performance projections," Culpepper said. "Both bus and rail need the same amount of right-of-way, 26 feet curb to curb. This allows for a change in the future."

Eric Wagner, chairman, Alexandria Planning Commission and a member of the Task Force, sees the BRT alternative as offering more "bang for the buck. It makes more sense that either metrorail or light rail."

He also noted, "WMATA's position on metrorail for the Potomac Yard development is the same as it was 15 years ago. To my knowledge they have never had that station in their capital budget plan."

George Foote, another Task Force member, agrees that, "A Metro station is not a good idea. The concept is old and doesn't really serve as an area transit system.

"We need something more Alexandria focused in Potomac Yard. Whatever is done there must be in the context of a total view of transit for Alexandria."

ARLINGTON'S ADVANCED planning was verified by Culpepper. "Arlington needs to have some type of improved local service by the beginning of 2006 because of development in that part of the corridor. Alexandria is not at that point in our portion of the Potomac Yard development," he said.

Alexandria's increased emphasis on transit needs was welcomed by former City Council member Lois Walker who serves on the Task Force. "I'm really glad to see Alexandria finally getting its act together on the transit study for Potomac Yard. Arlington is so far ahead of us on this," she said.

"But, I'm a real advocate of light rail. I'm not sure bus transit really does it. My first choice would be a light rail system on Main Street in Potomac Yard development or on either side of Route 1. My last choice would be to place it in the center of Route 1," Walker said.

Her preference for a LRT system was echoed by Foote. "We need to explore a track system. Arlington is way ahead of us on this," he said.

According to Foote, he and Paul Hertel, another Task Force member, have proposed a "street car" concept for Alexandria, not just Potomac Yard. "Trying to alleviate traffic congestion is futile. No matter what is done we will still have traffic congestion," Hertel said.

"It's important that Alexandria look 30 years ahead. Not just around the corner. We should have dedicated rights-of-way now for mass transit systems," he said.

TO EMPHASIZE his point Hertel submitted a paper to the Task Force entitled, "Still Stuck in Traffic." In it he stated, "Viewing congestion as a legitimate solution to a real problem is the first step toward recognizing the reality of the situation we face. In doing so, the need for alternative modes for moving people will become clear."

Foote pointed out, "The big question is where to put whatever system is decided upon. The most user friendly is to put it right into Potomac Yard. We don't have to put the rails in right now. Modern technology allows us to put them in later with little disruption to the existing streets."

He also noted, "This would be the first dedicated commitment to transit in Alexandria. It's a real opportunity to tie together all the various areas from Potomac Yard to Crystal City to Landmark to Shirlington."

Wagner views the Potomac Yard transit opportunity as a "modular" approach. "We can do individual pieces at different times. It allows us to develop an area as if grows," he said.

An integral part of the Potomac Yard Transit Study is the Route 1 Transitway which includes the so-called "straightening" of the Monroe Avenue bridge. This takes into consideration a variety of travel lane configurations for both individual vehicles and mass transit carriers.

The Crystal City/Potomac Yard Corridor Interim Transit Implementation Strategy developed by the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services cites as its purpose: "Prepare a plan for implementing and developing high-capacity transit in the Pentagon, Crystal City, Potomac Yard Corridor."

There are three Route 1 configurations under consideration: (1) A two-way median location requiring a right-of-way 85 feet to 123 feet curb to curb; (2) Two-way adjacent to either curb requiring a right-of-way 86 feet to 116 feet; and (3) One-way adjacent to each curb requiring a right-of-way 78 feet to 110 feet.

As stated in that March 2003 study, "The purpose is to investigate transit options for the five mile corridor, immediately west of the Potomac River, which runs from the Pentagon in Arlington to the Braddock Road Metrorail Station in Alexandria."

Hertel stated in his paper, "The expansion of transit gives the residents of Alexandria alternative modes of travel. Alexandria needs to insure long-term mobility of its residents while maintaining the quality of life. By emphasizing long-term investments in dedicated transit movements, and not through traffic, goes a long way towards ensuring that."

According to Culpepper, "The broad mission is to prepare an update to the City's transportation plan which is an element of the master plan. Alexandria is seen as very heavily transit oriented in the future. We haven't built any new roads and don't intend to."