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County Fumbles Plan for Rail, Reston Future-Part 1

Next year rail service will finally arrive. It will drive a transformation of our community from suburban to urban, from a population of 60,000 to twice that in twenty years. But neither the infrastructure to support the transformation nor a land-use plan to assure an orderly transition or attractive outcome for residents is in place. Fairfax County and the Virginia Commonwealth are inexplicably unprepared for this transition despite having had many years to plan for it.

Three years ago, County Supervisor Catherine Hudgins appointed the Reston Master Plan Task Force, consisting of community organization reps, non-resident developers and supporters, to draw up in two phases a plan for urban Reston. She stressed the work’s urgency, especially its first phase, a plan for development around the three future rail stations. The goal was to have it approved by the board of supervisors within a year, well before rail’s arrival. Then, the task force would turn to Phase 2, a revised plan for other areas of Reston, especially around our five original “village centers.”

Today, rail construction overseen by the embattled Airports Authority, MWAA, is indeed on schedule, but the task force has ground to a halt. Nor have the combined efforts (or lack thereof) by Fairfax County and the Republican-controlled Commonwealth of Virginia advanced, to my knowledge, plans—much less the commitment of funding for any of the roads, bridges or other essential infrastructure to underpin the coming growth in Reston.

Frustration is growing on the Hudgins’ Task Force reaching even the eternally optimistic Chairman Nicoson. Members realize the Wiehle Station will open in a year, that it will be the final station until completion of Phase 2 to Dulles Airport in 4-5 years, and it will bring thousands of additional cars daily into Reston which already has many intersections rated as failing by the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

Task force subcommittees have in fact prepared draft plans for the development of the areas around each planned rail station. Those drafts, done two years ago, still await action by the full task force. Why the delay?

Try this. The station area draft plans call for massive increases in density, especially nearest the stations per the County’s Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) philosophy. The high densities reflect the pressure of developer interests. While the TOD framework makes sense, many argue that imbalances between residential and commercial building on the one hand, and between high levels of total development proposed and existing plans for roads, bridges and other essential infrastructure on the other, does not. (Staff have a new corridor growth study that suggests re-examining the levels. For now only further delay is assured.) Critics believe as I do, that the imbalances will lead to gridlock, a community that no longer functions. Rather than confront developers by taking the obvious action to resolve the imbalances, i.e., reduce commercial and overall building levels, the County is telling developers on the task force that the County will accept new building proposals without a new master plan.