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County Previews VRE Garage Plan

Public hearing on VRE garage highlights community concerns.

Only a handful of citizens turned out to the public hearing on the new Virginia Railway Express (VRE) parking garage Thursday, Oct. 20. But for the few that were there, pedestrian access and train capacity proved to be the main concerns.

The new garage came about as the result of a 2002 VRE study, which predicted that by 2025, the station would need about 1,700 parking spaces. The consultants hired by VRE suggested a five-level parking garage to hold that many spaces.

According to Ken Lim, project manager with the Planning and Design Division of the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES), the immediate reaction of the community was less than enthusiastic.

"We presented [the plan] to the citizens for the first time and they were concerned the garage was probably too big," said Lim. Most community concerns centered around the appearance of the garage, he said, that it was "monolithic" and not as environmentally friendly as it could be. Citizens also had questions about pedestrian access to the VRE station, and parking for train riders while the new garage was built.

In 2003, Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) convened a citizens' task force to make recommendations on operation, design and pedestrian access to the new garage. The end result was a parking area with 1,550 total spaces: 1,300 in the garage and 250 outside it. The building itself will be brick, said Lim, with a clock tower rising above the top garage level so it would fit in with the houses nearby. The building will be a "green" building, said Lim, with rain gardens, planters on every level and green space around the building.

"What you see here is the result of the community working on something they thought would be acceptable," said Bulova at the meeting. "Essentially, they got a facility that was a little bit smaller than first proposed."

The supervisor's office addressed the question of parking during construction by coordinating the building schedules of the garage and the new Burke Centre Library so that commuters can park in the library lot and ride a shuttle to the VRE station, said Karyn Moreland of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. Commuters will most likely also be able to park in the lot at St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church in Fairfax Station, she said.

The garage will be attractive, with less impervious area than the current garage and no relocations of houses or businesses, said Lim. The county met 99 percent of the community's recommendations, said Lim.

Burke Centre resident Kemp Skudin was not so sure.

Skudin, whose main concern at the meeting was making sure pedestrians had access to the train tracks, worried that the county had not adequately planned for this access. As the plan for the new facility stands, he said, it is difficult for VRE riders walking or being dropped off on the north side of the station to get to the tracks.

"We need a bridge over the tracks," said Skudin.

But a pedestrian flyover bridge requires a great deal more approval, work and money, said Lim, and is not in the plans at this time.

"We cannot do anything other than a conceptual plan, simply because we know it is more involved, and a lot more expensive," he said. "A lot more issues need to be addressed before we put it there."

"We would all like to see a pedestrian overpass over the railroad tracks," said Bulova. "We weren't sure of the ownership of the land." The land where the overpass would be built is part of a VDOT easement and is owned by Target Corporation, said Lim. Unless Target donated the land to the county, he said, the county could not build on it.

Also, said Lim, when the Virginia Department of Transportation built Roberts Parkway, it rebuilt wetlands on the north side of the station. The process for building upon wetlands is far more involved, he said.

The county will improve two other pedestrian trails coming from the Burke Centre neighborhood to the south of the station, but not until after the garage is finished, said Moreland.

"We're trying to get trail connections going," said Moreland. Bulova agreed, adding that pedestrian access was a "priority," and funding for those improvements will come in phases.

VRE commuter Gary Smith catches the 6:45 a.m. train every morning, and wondered whether the train would be large enough to accommodate all the riders parking in the new garage.

VRE representative Jennifer Straub outlined VRE's plan to increase train capacity, which involved making all cars double-decker, adding new cars to trains, and in the next five years, adding whole new trains to the railway.

"I think [a new garage] is necessary, as long as VRE increases capacity of their trains," said Smith.