by Matthew Butram
Sep. 9, 2006 was an unhappy day for many advocates of urbanization in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Even as plans moved forward on the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed extension out to Dulles International Airport (popularly referred to as the “Silver Line”), the federal government flexed its financial muscle and bent the state to its will. Contrary to the expressed desire of Gov. Tim Kaine and many local officials, parts of Northern Virginia are likely to resemble downtown Chicago ten years from now, with trains running on an elevated track above — rather than in a tunnel below — the tangled streets of Tysons Corner.
After flirting with the tunnel option for most of the summer, state officials in Richmond officially came out in favor of an elevated track when it became clear that the Federal Transit Administration, which is expected to cover at least a quarter of the cost of the Silver Line project, would not warm to the idea of the more time-consuming and expensive tunnel. Many urban planners worry, however, that elevated tracks through downtown Tysons will discourage exactly the sort of dense, high-rising development that some thought bringing mass transit to the area was intended to encourage. After all, who wants to look out the window of a fancy new condo and see a train car full of commuters staring back at them?
All of the major players in the Silver Line plan – Gov. Kaine, Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Tom Davis (R-VA), and Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer -agree in principle that a tunnel through Tysons Corner would be the least disruptive and most aesthetically pleasing plan for the light rail line. Wolf and Davis, however, oppose the tunnel option because the costs will be much higher than for elevated tracks – how much higher is still not definitively known.
Reps. Wolf and Davis, the Silver Line’s most ardent federal supporters, sent a sharply-worded letter to Gov. Kaine in late July reminding him that the increased costs, and delays associated with building a subway tunnel under Tysons, would seriously jeopardize federal funding for the project. Although a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers showed the tunnel plan would be much less disruptive to the Tysons Corner commercial and traffic environments, even its supporters admitted that it would have higher direct costs than an elevated track. The Federal Transit Administration has very strict cost-benefit standards for all projects to which it provides grants. Wolf and Davis argued that the tunnel under Tysons would almost assuredly cause the entire Silver Line project to fail this test, even if it were paid for completely with state and local funds.
Tysons Corner, overwhelmingly rural as recently as the 1950s, has expanded explosively over the last half century, first as an outer-ring suburb, then as a retail hotspot (featuring two of the country’s largest shopping malls) and more recently as a home to many technology companies. It is now a classic example of an “edge city:” a formerly rural area near an established metropolis, which has become densely developed but has more jobs than residents. Tysons Corner is so strangled by traffic that it may have reached its current critical mass. Many local officials believe that the best way to encourage further growth in the suburb is to transform it into an urban area that attracts residents as well as businesses.
Because it is not historically urban, Tysons Corner lacks traits traditionally associated with urbanized areas: a well-defined downtown street grid, buildings built right up to the sidewalk, and pedestrian-friendly commercial districts. Officials, eager to reinvent Tysons as Washington’s next commuter haven, had seized on the Silver Line extension as a chance to shape the suburb for future development by transforming its downtown streets into a grid-like pattern and encouraging new buildings to be built closer to the street. Downtown Tysons is currently bisected by a heavily congested multi-lane road, above which the Silver Line track is planned to run. The tracks will not only disrupt the sort of orderly grid that some Tysons urbanizers had envisioned, but its height will also likely discourage developers from building tall buildings too close to the track (and thus the sidewalk) because of privacy and noise concerns.
Essentially, tunnel and elevated track advocates are fundamentally split by their visions of the purpose of the Silver Line project. If its purpose is simply to remove commuters from Northern Virginia’s overcrowded highways and make traveling to and from Dulles Airport more convenient, then an elevated track through Tysons Corner is the best option because it is the cheapest one. If, however, the Silver Line is also meant to create the sort of dense and pedestrian-friendly urban area that Virginia has successfully developed along Metro’s Orange and Yellow Lines in Arlington County, then the benefits of a tunnel under Tysons become clear.
The issue comes down to a matter of priorities. Clearly, Gov. Kaine made the most prudent choice for Northern Virginia by bending to federal will and ensuring funding for the project. The Silver Line will be a vital artery that removes Washington commuters from Virginia’s highways and gets them into the city in a quick, clean, and efficient manner. Losing the project’s funding from the Federal Transit Authority would have been a disastrous failure. In twenty years, though, what sort of community will Tysons Corner be? Will it be a densely developed and populated mini-city? Or will it be the same traffic-choked suburban area, only now with a subway line running above it? The Tysons Corner subway tunnel might have been a risk, but Silver Line’s elevated track is definitely a missed opportunity.
Email Matthew Butram at firstname.lastname@example.org