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As County Grows, Transit Options Set to Expand

Officials emphasize decreasing residents' dependence on cars in new transportation plan.

The county unveiled last week a wide-ranging draft Master Transportation Plan, which provides a framework for how Arlington's street network and public transit system should develop over the next 25 years.

The new guidelines aim to upgrade streets to ease congestion, enhance pedestrian safety and improve the efficiency of the bus and rail systems.

The county hopes to reduce gridlock on major avenues by encouraging more Arlingtonians to ditch their vehicles in favor of carpooling, walking, biking and using Metro and Metrobus services, officials said.

"This [plan] focuses on providing residents with greater transportation choices so that there is more than one way to get around the county," said Ritch Viola, an Arlington transportation project manager.

YET ARLINGTON FACES serious transportation challenges in the future, as the county's population is expected to swell by 25 percent in the coming quarter century. Additionally, the county may gain as many as 75,000 new jobs over that span.

Such rapid growth will undoubtedly put a strain on the road system, county officials said. Further compounding the problem is that the street network is built to capacity, and space in the county is at a premium.

"We don't have land to expand the streets beyond what we have today," said Viola, during a June 19 public hearing at the Central Library.

To ensure that county streets do not become inundated by new vehicles, the transportation plan emphasizes the necessity of expanding public transportation options and, in the words of Director of Transportation Dennis Leach, "moving more people not more cars."

"We have to give people maximum transit choices so they are not solely reliant on driving for all their trips," Leach said.

Included in the new plan are two lofty goals: increasing non-vehicular trips through the county by 2 percent annually, and keeping the amount of total car mileage in Arlington close to its current level, despite the increase in population.

The easiest way to accomplish this feat is to increase ridership on the 22 major Metrobus lines and 11 local ART bus routes.

County officials admit that they need to ensure more reliable bus service during weekends and off-peak hours, and expand north-south routes, if they want residents to leave their cars at home when they go shopping or eat out at a restaurant.

A streetcar system planned for Columbia Pike, scheduled to run from Bailey’s Crossroads to Pentagon City, should also cut down the number of car trips across Arlington, officials said.

In recent years the county has touted its transit-oriented development philosophy, which seeks to cluster high-density buildings around Metro stations in the Rosslyn-Ballston and Jefferson Davis corridors.

The drawback to this approach is that Metro lines have become overcrowded during rush hour, and residents often have to wait for two or three cars to pass before they can board. The problem will only be exacerbated by the extension of Metro to Tysons Corner, and new development in Vienna.

“Arlington commuters are likely to be inconvenienced by increased ridership,” said Audrey Clemens during the June 19 meeting.

To alleviate the overcrowding, county officials are lobbying their regional counterparts for larger trains and more frequent service.

MOST OF ARLINGTON'S road infrastructure was built between the 1920s and 1950s and streets are starting to decay after decades of wear-and-tear.

With the high price of land, the county cannot afford to buy property to widen streets.

Instead, it will have to invest in improvements within the existing rights-of-way to help traffic flow better. County officials said they intend to enhance 20 roadways per year.

The county is looking at creating another major North-South throughway near Ballston to alleviate congestion on Glebe Road, Viola said. Either 9th or 11th streets, parallel to Columbia Pike, could be expanded, and new streets will be added in Pentagon City and near Potomac Yard.

“There will be a fair amount of county investment … but we have to prioritize what corridors get funding,” Viola said.

Another critical aspect of the plan is making Arlington’s streets more pedestrian-friendly and bike accessible. To ensure greater safety for those on foot, the county will add more sidewalks and widen others.

Additionally, the county would like to raise the number of bicyclists so that half of Arlington residents travel by bike occasionally.

“Pedestrian access is a key element of a successful transportation system,” said Tammy Sufi, a consultant with Toole Design Group.

The county began crafting the Master Transportation Plan in the fall of 2004 with the aid of a 25-person Plenary Group, consisting of representatives from citizen associations, business partnerships and advocacy organizations. The group has held two public forums to gauge the public’s transit concerns and recommendations.

“A lot of input has been heard from the community about what has been done had how to plan for the next generation of transit in Arlington,” said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman.