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Column: High Density Without Infrastructure Not a Problem

I was reminded recently that here in Reston we still have citizens with the courage to speak up for the community to government that seems unresponsive, incompetent or worse. The context was a key meeting of Fairfax Supervisor Hudgins’ Reston Master Plan Special Study Task Force (affectionately, the RMPSSTF). The name alone suggests they have something to hide.

This august body of twenty-some developers and assorted others is in year three of a two-part study. When established, the study was to be completed in one year, yielding recommendations to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for a new master plan for future development of Reston. On June 12, the Task Force convened to receive a vital transportation analysis (due 18 months earlier). The analysis was to be a framework for part one of the Task Force’s work within which to shape future land uses and limits for the areas around three new rail stations. Instead, it was presented in a preliminary, incomplete state well after the Task Force has formulated, but still not adopted, high density land-use plans for the Dulles Corridor/rail line area. It is a classic case of building a cart—sort of—to precede a horse with two bad legs.

The fundamental conclusions of the half-baked analysis are that if all of the transportation infrastructure conceived of by planners were in fact completely built and ready to go within the 20-year time horizon of a new Master Plan with visions of high density sugar plums, it would be insufficient to support the massive new construction. That is, traffic would be congested at levels the staff could not adequately express. And there’s another catch! As the transportation and planning staffs of the county were forced to admit, the bulk of the infrastructure is not likely to be even approved for funding much less built within the planning horizon. The infrastructure envisioned but not likely within 20 years includes four more crossings of the Dulles Access Road/rail line at South Lakes Drive, Soapstone Drive, Town Center, and Rock Hill Road.

The best planner in the room, Lake Anne’s own John Carter, asked the obvious question: Will the land use plan the Task Force is contemplating be in balance with the infrastructure expected within the timeframe? The answer was clearly no, but no one on the county staff was willing to say. Jerry Volloy, former chief staffer at Reston Association, put it more bluntly. He said that Tysons Corner is already dysfunctional. What is being proposed will make Reston dysfunctional just like Tysons. Terry Maynard, of RCA’s Reston 2020 Committee, pointed out flaws in the transportation data and glaring inconsistencies with the Task Force’s preliminary findings. Task Force member Judith Pew added common sense suggestions to the mix.

Through it all, County staff and those sympathetic to developer interests refused to accept the implications of conflict between too much construction and too little infrastructure. Since the negative context for public investment such as transport infrastructure is unlikely to change in conservative Virginia any time soon, the only way to bring land use and infrastructure into some semblance of equilibrium is to reduce the densities commensurate with realistic expectations for infrastructure. The County’s refusal to listen to concerned citizens or confront the obvious reinforces my own view that we are unlikely to get it right for Reston’s future until we can make these choices for ourselves. Surely we can do better. Think town or city!