Washington-area counties pursue mix of roads, rail
ROCKVILLE, Md. - Passenger rail lines crisscross Montgomery County, an affluent fast-growing part of the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Riders can travel into "the District," as the nation's capital is known, on a MARC commuter train or on the Metro, an above-ground train that becomes a subway inside Washington. In each case, they have 11 stations to choose from.
With so much rail, what's on the front burner for transportation planners in the county of 930,000? An inter county highway connector.
Across the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Va., commuters have easier highway access into Washington via two interstate highways, and a massive multiyear interchange overhaul is two years from scheduled completion. What's next for that county of just more than 1 million residents? Extending the Metro rail system to Dulles International Airport. Whether you're talking to planners, business leaders or transportation administrators in Montgomery or Fairfax, the key to building the future is the same.
"The only solution is a balanced approach, transit where transit makes sense and roads where roads make sense," said Rich Parsons, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in downtown Rockville. "There's always going to be a need for a mix."
That mix is notably absent in Gwinnett County. With a population of 700,000, Gwinnett is about two decades behind the two suburban Washington counties on the growth chart. But some argue it's lagging even further in transportation planning.
Gwinnett started a bus system several years ago, running six express routes along Interstate 85 - often with standing room only - and five local routes. It is dwarfed, however, by the 115 routes operated by two bus systems in Montgomery County and the 150 routes offered by two systems in Fairfax.
And the comparison is even more one-sided when it comes to passenger rail. Stacked up next to Fairfax and Montgomery counties - part of a capital region served by the extensive Metrorail network and two commuter rail lines - is Gwinnett, part of a 13-county Atlanta region with a rail system limited to two counties.
Gwinnett voters rejected bringing the MARTA system into the county in 1971 and again in 1990, part of a public policy debate that has occupied the region for decades.
"The problem that has plagued metro Atlanta, including Gwinnett County, is the fact that the population is so spread out," said David Doss, chairman of the State Transportation Board. "There is not a transit system on the planet designed to accommodate the lower density numbers in metro Atlanta."
On the other side are those who say a comprehensive passenger rail network must be part of Gwinnett's future if the county is to continue to thrive. "At current rates of auto use in Gwinnett County, you simply will not be able to build roads fast enough to meet the demand," said Chris Nelson, director of urban affairs and planning for Virginia Tech's Alexandria Center, who knows the Atlanta area from having spent 15 years at Georgia Tech. "You're guaranteed a future of congestion and gridlock."
Planning and construction of Washington's Metro and Atlanta's MARTA systems began at about the same time - in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But planners in the Washington region were looking at much steeper population growth projections at the time and reacted accordingly.
"Very early on, there was strong leadership that recognized the need, in the nation's capital, to be able to move people quickly and efficiently," said Nat Ford, general manager of MARTA. "With MARTA, you had that same initial visionary leadership. ... Unfortunately, somewhere between then and now, that same strong leadership hasn't evolved."
Construction of the Washington's Metro system as originally designed was finally completed just a few years ago. The network boasts five color-coded lines, stretching from Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland throughout Washington, then into Alexandria, Va., Arlington County and well into Fairfax. Next, starting in the early 1990s, the region took passenger rail service to the next level with Maryland's MARC commuter rail system and its Virginia counterpart, the Virginia Railway Express.
For a steeper price but with a bit more comfort, commuters can travel into Washington from as far away as Fredericksburg, Va., some 50 miles south, and even from Martinsburg, W.Va., 90 miles west of the capital.
E.H. Culpepper, of Athens, a member of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, has long been a leading proponent of a commuter rail line connecting Atlanta with Athens via Gwinnett County. He sees the line as a way to connect two of Georgia's top research universities, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University.
"The toll issue on (Ga. Highway) 316 has muddied the water on how that road is going to be upgraded," Culpepper said, referring to the strong opposition to financing those highway improvements with tolls on existing lanes. "We've got this passenger-rail corridor that ... has certain economic development and land-use planning opportunities that are unique. "Backers of the Atlanta-to-Athens line now are keeping a close eye on plans to launch a commuter rail line next year linking Atlanta and Lovejoy, the first leg of a planned route to Macon.
There's $86 million in federal funds and $12 million from the state available for the project. But the Federal Highway Administration has made it clear that it wants its money back if the Lovejoy line doesn't make enough money to stay in business.
"What you're looking at is an $86 million gamble," said Doss.
Just last week, the City Council in Hampton, which is located along the planned line, voted to reject building a train station there.
Officials in Fairfax County also are unhappy with passenger rail but for a different reason. They can't get enough of it. The county's business recruiters are frustrated because the system still doesn't serve rapidly growing western Fairfax, including the major office and retail center of Tysons Corner and Dulles airport.
"To build a Metro system without connecting to Tysons Corner, Reston and the airport is stupid with a capital S,'" said Gerry Gordon, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. "You can't go from Washington to the Washington airport on the subway. How ridiculous is that?" To remedy the situation, construction is under way on an expansion of the Metro system from Falls Church to Dulles. The work is being funded in part by a toll increase on the nearby Dulles Toll Road, which connects the airport to the Capital Beltway. It's a mixing of highway and transit funds that likely would prove a difficult sell politically in the Atlanta region. But the first phase of the rail expansion to Reston isn't due to be completed until 2012, with the extension to the airport coming later, in 2018.
Of more immediate impact in Fairfax will be the planned completion in 2007 of the Mixing Bowl, a massive restructuring of the interchange at Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway in Springfield, a larger version of Spaghetti Junction in DeKalb County just south of the Gwinnett line. Because I-95 was never extended all the way through Washington into Maryland as planned decades ago, the interchange has been forced to funnel a much larger load of traffic onto the Beltway than it was designed to handle.
"The Springfield interchange was a huge safety issue," said Kathy Ichter, deputy director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. "We had some horrific accidents there. "Fixing it, however, has been time consuming, involving the construction of high-flying ramps and even rebuilding local streets in the area. With the project now in its sixth year of work, Ichter said the availability of rail as an alternative has been a "godsend" to harried commuters.
Elsewhere on the major Fairfax highways, motorists encounter many of the same congestion-busting methods in use in Gwinnett County today or likely to be in its future. The list includes high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and so-called "flex lanes," the use of paved shoulders as an extra lane of traffic during rush hours. After experiencing flex lanes on a trip to the Washington area, Georgia House leaders steered a bill through the General Assembly this year asking the state Department of Transportation to explore the concept. Ichter said a private company also is proposing to build high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, an idea that also is part of road-improvement plans for the Atlanta region.
While they're frequently referred to as "Lexus lanes" because they charge single motorists a toll for driving in a high-occupancy lane, Ichter envisions anyone in a hurry using them from time to time.
"With young children to be picked up or an appointment to keep, your time becomes more valuable than your money in certain situations," she said.
The failure to run I-95 through Washington into Maryland is part of the capital region's history of major road projects that never got off the drawing table. At one time, there were visions of two outer beltways to join the one that actually got built.
Also falling by the wayside were plans for a second Potomac River crossing west of the heavily traveled American Legion Bridge, which takes the Capital Beltway across the river a few miles west of Washington. Parsons, the Montgomery County chamber leader, said the lack of adequate highways is particularly acute on the Maryland side of the river. He said no amount of rail service can make up for that road shortfall because, even in the region with the second highest use of public transit in the nation, only 7 percent to 8 percent of daily trips in the Washington area are on transit.
Parsons said well-heeled local opposition sank the second Potomac bridge, the same fate that deep-sixed the Northern Arc project, the plan to link I-85 in Gwinnett County with I-75 in Bartow County. "The only way highways get built is when traffic gets so bad that people can't stand it any longer," he said. Now, the Montgomery chamber is supporting the Inter-County Connector, in effect a piece of one of the outer beltways that didn't get built. It would be comparable to the proposed cross-county connector from Sugar Hill to Dacula, an extension of what would have been the Northern Arc.
According to the case laid out by Parsons, the ICC and a second Potomac bridge would take traffic off of the American Legion Bridge, which was built for 175,000 cars a day but now carries 210,000. Unless something is done, he says, 310,000 cars a day will be crawling across the bottlenecked bridge by 2020. "This kind of congestion will cripple the local economy. People will leave," Parsons said. "It has to happen because the area's economy won't remain viable without it."
Like Parsons, transportation planners in the Atlanta region lean toward highway improvements rather than rail as the road to congestion relief. Doss pointed to preliminary results from a study of converting HOV lanes to truck-only lanes that predicted it would reduce traffic congestion by 38 percent. "We've got a network (of HOV lanes) already started," he said. "We're talking years away on other things."
Steve Stancil, executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, likes the idea of running buses down HOV lanes that would be separated by barriers from the rest of traffic. "It's much less expensive than heavy rail ... (and) you can have the flexibility to make changes to go where people want to go," he said.
But David Edgerley, director of economic development in transit-heavy Montgomery County, said planners can't afford to focus solely on highways and ignore passenger rail.
"I was an old-schooler myself for many years," he said. "(But) if you look at modern new urban concepts of development, (rail) is fundamental to building the community of tomorrow. ... Don't close your eyes to it or you may get bypassed."