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Traffic, Development Changes Transform Area

Number of cars that pass through Vienna on an average day is more than twice the town’s population.

Maple Avenue, the section of state Route 123 that slices through the Town of Vienna, was given its name from the lines of large maple trees that shaded the once quiet, two-lane road of small town Vienna.

After World War II, the area began to grow, but it was largely rural and did not see many commuters, according to now Mayor of Vienna, M. Jane Seeman, who moved to Vienna with her husband in the early 1960s.

But in time, more development came, and with that, more cars. Seeman remembers noticing the increasing influx of traffic through the town coming down past her home on Lawyers Road. Before long, the number of commuters began to increase.

The first measure to address traffic congestion before it became a larger problem involved removing the maple trees that once lined the town’s main thoroughfare and widening Maple Avenue to its current four lanes in the 1950s, according to town records.

But neither the development nor the traffic stopped there.

"When it’s gradual, it’s hard to notice how much it affects the area until you look around and there are cars everywhere," she said. "So it didn’t hit us overnight."

WHEN INTERSTATE 66, which runs past Vienna’s southern borders, was extended past the town in the 1970s, Vienna and its main artery of Maple Avenue became a favorite route for motorists looking for easy access to Washington, D.C.

The volume continued to compound with the development of the nearby commercial and residential hubs of Reston and Tysons Corner in the 1980s and the addition of the final stop on the Metrorail orange line in 1986. Vienna, with its central location in Fairfax County and its easy access to the Metro, major highways and commercial epicenters, was fast becoming a favorite commuter route for the ballooning Fairfax County population.

The original infrastructure planning of the region did not match up to the realities and necessities of how Fairfax County was developing, said state Del. Steve Shannon (D-35), whose district includes most of the Town of Vienna.

"When you look at our history here, a lot of the [transportation] planning decisions were focused on east to west … getting traffic flowing more efficiently to Washington, D.C.," Shannon said. "A lot of the traffic that we’re seeing now is going in ways that our transportation infrastructure was just not designed to handle."

And most of that traffic that used Vienna roads has been cut-through traffic, according to officials. Since the 1990s the number of cars that pass through Vienna on an average day is equal to more than twice the total population of the town, according to VDOT records on file with the Town of Vienna.

WHEN IT BECAME clear that there needed to be a plan to relieve pressure on Maple Avenue, realistic options were in short supply, according to Seeman.

"We just don’t have any more room to widen Maple Avenue," said Seeman, noting that the town’s long-established infrastructure and buildings prevented further modification of most of its streets.

In the mid-1970s, a plan to create an Abbotsford Road bypass to connect Beulah and Lawyers roads that would have eliminated some of the traffic flow on Maple Avenue failed due to a desire for further development, Seeman added.

"Over the last 25 years, [Vienna traffic management] has really been limited to light synchronization and the addition of some turn lanes," to Maple Avenue, she said. "At this point, bypasses are out, widening roads is out, all we can do is to make sure that we find some way to get some of these cars off the streets."

AS FURTHER DEVELOPMENT increases throughout the area, especially that which follows the expansion of Metrorail through Tysons Corner and out to Dulles Airport, regional transportation solutions and overall circulation will need to improve to divert some of that traffic off of Route 123, according to Seeman.

And while the Town of Vienna is trying to find some way to incorporate shuttle routes to Tysons Corner to offer extra options for residents other than putting an extra car onto the already overloaded streets, the real solutions will rest on how the infrastructure adjusts in the surrounding area.

During the coming construction in Tysons Corner, set to begin with preparatory utility adjustments in Spring of 2008, the county and state will be working to increase awareness of conditions and delays, according to Marcia McAllister, communications manager for the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project. The worst of which, she added, will most likely come with the 2009 rebuilding and widening of Route 7, the site of one of the four future Tysons Corner Metrorail stops.

"Our congestion management plan … is going to be a targeted information campaign," using email alerts and frequently updating web site information, McAllister said. "This won't just be a resource for Vienna drivers but for anyone coming into the area."

While project officials are working with Fairfax County to set up Vienna to Tysons shuttles that will operate during the worst of the construction, there is still increased congestion expected in that time, she added.

"There is not a whole lot of ways around the town … Maple Avenue is what it is," McAllister said. "The [construction] is just going to affect about everyone the same. If you use [Route] 123 or Route 7, you're going to have the same pain as the rest of us."

TO FACILITATE SMART development that takes into consideration transportation effect, the state is in the process of putting together VDOT studies that will provide local politicians with predicted traffic impact so that they can make more informed decisions during development approvals, according to Shannon. But in the end, mending the flow of traffic will come down to how development is met with infrastructure improvements, he added.

"We can give local elected officials the tools to make good land-use decisions and help to provide them with the funds for projects that they normally aren’t able to do," Shannon said. "The key is to enable VDOT to have what they need to provide the local officials with the resources for workable solutions."

Still, Seeman isn’t convinced that there is any light at the end of the tunnel for Vienna’s traffic congestion issues, despite all of the talk about regional transportation solutions.

"It’s scary. With all the meetings we go to and all the questions we ask, there still doesn’t seem to be any plan in place," she said. "All we can do is work with the county and see if we can come to some solutions, but at the end of the day this is a Northern Virginia problem and it can only be solved regionally."

THERE IS STILL some irony in the fact that the traffic that has long flowed so heavily through Vienna and the nearby development has been a boon for the town, said Seeman.

And while increasing traffic, particularly in recent years, has hurt sales at Vienna's Allworld Groceries on Maple Avenue, the coming developments to Tysons Corner is likely to be a benefit, according to store manager Dhanashan Thakkaekara.

"When more people live [in Tysons Corner] there are going to be more people coming here," Thakkaekara said.

It is that same mentality that has given Vienna businesses a sometimes love-hate relationship with the traffic, Seeman noted.

"It's funny, because in a way, traffic is the lifeblood of our business district," she said. "People drive through, they see our restaurants, they see our shops, and they stop or they come back."

"It's great exposure for them."