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Votes

Debating Metro

Impact of planned rail extension through Tysons is still a controversial issue.

Will a series of Metro stops in Tysons Corner be a brilliant way to create walkable communities and revitalize the area, or a $3.5 billion bad idea?

During the McLean Citizens Association's annual membership meeting Thursday night, approximately 75 residents heard representatives from both sides of the debate get a chance to discuss the Rail to Dulles project, which some say could breathe life into the Tysons Corner area after the close of the work day, while others say the Metro extension will do nothing to help ease congestion in a rapidly growing area.

"Tysons is the economic engine that drives the county," said Gerald Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "We know that over the next 25 years, two million more people will be coming into the area. Our choice is whether to plan for that and how."

With only 17,000 residents, most of the people who work in Tysons Corner do not live there, Connolly said. "The advent of the Rail to Tysons will provide people with another option for how to get to work," he said.

The original countywide comprehensive plan provides for a rail station to be built in Tysons Corner, he said, along with more dense development.

"Commercial office space generates the most traffic," he said, adding that the Tysons Corner area is the 15th largest office market in the nation and second only to Washington, D.C., in the region for business and commerce. "If we can get the rail up and running it will be an option for people who live here to use rail transit" to travel throughout the area, Connolly said, reducing the congestion on major thoroughfares.

ADDITIONALLY, CONNOLLY said that "no local tax dollars will be used" to fund the portion of the Metro extension that would run from the West Falls Church station to the planned Wiehle Avenue station. "We'll use commercial money" to build the railway, he said.

When the railway comes in, it will open the Tysons area to possibly expand what entertainment is available there, he said. "Right now, it closes for business at 6 p.m. Everyone leaves. I'd like to see more people live here, more pedestrian connectors, more open space and more park space," Connolly said.

The first phase of the project would extend from the West Falls Church station, out along the Dulles Connector Road into the Reston/Herndon area, said Richard Stevens, project manager for the Dulles Rail project through the Fairfax County department of transportation.

"There would be four stations in Tysons," he said: one near the Capital One complex, another between the two gallerias on Route 123, a third near the Tysons Pike 7 Mall and the fourth between Spring Hill and Tyco Roads.

"The project is now entering the preliminary engineering stage, with construction hopefully to begin by 2006 or 2007," he said, and would be operational by 2011.

The second phase of the railway would be under construction by 2011 and operational by 2015, Stevens said, although funding for that portion is not yet completed.

"Half of the $1.5 billion in funding for this extension comes from the Federal Transit Administration, and the other half comes from a 25 percent increase on tolls on the Dulles Toll Road and from a special Transportation Improvement District in the county," he said.

However, despite any inconveniences the construction will cause, "we will have the same, if not increased, traffic capacity in Tysons Corner," Stevens pledged.

A focus of the design study has been what the local community wants the future of Tysons Corner to look like, what life will be like for residents, he said.

"The current plan is to create a sense of place — with parks, sidewalks — that's walker friendly," he said. "We want to bring a more pedestrian area into Tysons," which was developed at a time when "not much was here, before people had places to walk to."

AS A REGULAR Metro rider, Bill Vincent, a representative from Breakthrough Technologies Institute, is not setting out "to bash Metro. I personally think Metro is a great system. I've been riding it for 19 years," he said. "I live and preach the smart growth lifestyle."

However, he calls the Rail to Dulles project "misguided, too expensive, and not only will it not do much to help ease traffic congestion, it might actually make things worse."

The basic concept of "getting people out of their cars and into mass transit is a good idea," Vincent said. "Everyone knows we have a regional mobility crisis."

He suggests considering building more roads and putting more funding into the Virginia Rail Express system, but he feels the county's decision to make the Metro extension a "high priority" is not the right one.

"If we do nothing, the congestion on Route 66, the Dulles Connector Road, the toll roads, Route 50 and the Dulles Greenway — it will get worse," Vincent said. "After we build the railway, it will be exactly the same."

He showed a portion of the Environment Impact Study that predicted that the traffic on those major byways, currently with an "F" grade for ease in mobility, will retain their failing status after the railway is built.

"Intersections around the Tysons East station will be worse than they currently are," he continued. "Where's the congestion relief? The level of service stays the same."

Citing a 1997 study from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Vincent said the "effectiveness of the extension of Metro services to the Dulles airport will be less than projected," and proclaimed the project "a publicly financed real estate scheme."

Tysons Corner is lacking a grid traffic plan which would make it easier to drive around the area, he said. "Even the four rail stations would only serve a small portion of Tysons. It's a pipe dream. There's no sidewalks, it's not pedestrian friendly and it's still geared towards auto traffic," he said.

The $4.2 billion dedicated to funding the rail project could purchase 4,000 BRT vehicles, he said, which run on compressed natural gas or hydrogen. "If the County had approved a BRT system in 1997 when it was looking at the system in comparison to the rail extension, it would've been operational three years ago."

THERE ARE CURRENTLY 100 BRT systems operational, mostly overseas, Vincent said, but the Los Angeles County citizens recently voted to forbid any more rail transit funding in order to create a BRT system. "Cities like Chicago and Las Vegas are looking into incorporating a BRT system in their cities," he said. "You can move more riders at one-sixth the cost of the Metro extension," he said.

As the founder of Landowners Opposing Wasteful Expenditure on Rail, Christopher Walker feels the extension of Metro through Tysons Corner and up to the Dulles Airport is "a complete waste of money."

Citing many of the same studies used to back up the proposed rail, Walker pointed out that the traffic congestion the rail is supposed to lessen will not be impacted in any great way.

Building railways "takes money away from roads and increases the amount of congestion," he said. "An additional pair of toll lanes would cost about $100 million, saving the county money and providing greater traffic capacity," he added.

Walker called the current Metro system "a nice experiment," but if it were not already in place, "it would not be replicated today."

Saying the extension would operate at a $3 million cost deficit each year, he asked those in attendance why tax dollars should be used to subsidize the commutes of "richer taxpayers who don't live in the area."

"It would be much cheaper to give all of the predicted new riders a brand new Lexus," Walker said.

There is still time to talk to county legislators, he said. "These people are not leveling with us," Walker said. "They are not telling us the truth. The original Metro plan was put to a public vote. This should be as well. It's not too late. The project is far from done."

Another meeting sponsored by the McLean Citizens Association to discuss development and the future of Tysons Corner will be held on Tuesday, June 21 at the McLean Community Center, said Susan Turner, president of the Association.