Could Virginia Railway Express serve as a second Metro?

August 13, 2021 12:01 am

(Virginia Railway Express)

Commuters who drive I-95 between Fredericksburg and D.C. will not be surprised to hear that they face the consistently worst traffic in the nation. After decades of lane widening have only worsened congestion due to induced demand, Governor Ralph Northam’s administration has doubled down on increased train service as a faster, cheaper, and greener way to reduce traffic. 

However, with ridership down 90 percent on the state’s flagship commuter rail system — Virginia Railway Express — due to the ongoing pandemic and resultant shift to teleworking, some regional leaders are questioning whether the future of VRE should continue to center the 9 to 5 commute. With higher frequencies, faster service, and smarter land use around stations, could VRE grow its ridership beyond the commuting class and serve as something of a second Metro?

Convenient commutes for whomst?

Since their inception, America’s commuter rail systems have focused on shuttling white-collar workers from the suburbs to the city center and back again. A total lack of weekend, nighttime, and even off-peak daytime service prevented many other potential riders from taking the train. With more than 20,000 paying passengers per day pre-pandemic, VRE was able to make this rather exclusive business model viable. Now that remote work may become the new modus operandi for thousands of former commuters, the reliance upon one type of traveler seems less like a strength and more like a liability for Virginia’s sole commuter rail network.

“Transportation demand is coming back, it’s just shifting,” said Joe McAndrew — vice president of regional mobility and infrastructure at the Greater Washington Partnership. “Rail is going to be needed, but the current service pattern of catering to commuters may be inadequate and in need of being retooled. Our service may need to be expanded to suit more travel types like service and retail workers’ schedules.”

The media attention lavished on employees who may never return to the office obscures the more likely “new normal” for white-collar workers: a hybrid model of a few days from home and a couple in the office. Any scenario in which VRE’s regular riders cut their commuting by several days a week could prove financially devastating for the system. That’s why from Boston to Chicago to Philadelphia, other commuter rail providers have already begun adapting their service to survive by trying to accommodate those with less standard work schedules.

Michelle Maldonado thinks something similar could work in Virginia. “VRE currently serves people who work 9 to 5, but it doesn’t serve them well when they have to work late or don’t follow that exact schedule,” said the Democratic candidate running for a Manassas-area seat in the House of Delegates this fall. Expanding VRE service to meet the needs of those beyond white-collar commuters is a policy proposal she’s discussed with voters across Prince William County while campaigning.

“Right now rail isn’t really viable for caregivers, servers in restaurants and people who are doing shift work,” Maldonado said. “We need to adjust the schedules because if you’re trying to get in or out of D.C. during off-peak times, you are out of luck. I would love for Metro to be extended to Manassas, but we should definitely look at tracks already laid. How do we use the current infrastructure we have to meet not just our current transportation needs but also those for the coming decades? VRE already has the capacity to do that for us.”

Timeline 2040

Fifteen minute peak service into D.C., trains headed back south every 30 minutes, and hourly off-peak service in both directions aren’t the pillars of a campaign platform but rather the basis of VRE’s own System Plan 2040

“VRE shouldn’t just be about 9-5 commuters,” said Katie Cristol — a VRE board member and vice chair of the Arlington County board of supervisors. “It should unlock the economic potential for someone who lives in Prince William to go to the Virginia Tech campus [being built in Alexandria]. It should enable me to take my kid to a minor league baseball game in Fredericksburg on a Saturday. We need to take lanes of traffic off the highway all week.”

The biggest hurdle to such a future is the completion of the Long Bridge project which will double train capacity into D.C. and to points further north. As soon as 2025 twice as many northbound VRE and Amtrak passenger trains could be in service. If such service does materialize, VRE expects to grow its ridership from 20,000 annual passengers before the pandemic to over 50,000 riders by 2040.

“The question is how do you ramp up service?” McAndrew said. “We’re looking at moving from a capital intensive program to an operational intensive program. VRE is going to have to grow up and mature to serve a different type of trip for a different type of traveler. We have the opportunity to lean in on transit-oriented development and to provide frequent, reliable train service.”

Train-oriented Development

The idea that dense housing and vibrant retail should surround train stations and transit stops is the bread and butter of Europe’s and East Asia’s car-light lifestyles. In the States, where nearly all of our transportation infrastructure prioritizes the convenience of drivers over all else, transit oriented-development is less of a common sense growth strategy and more of a mythical land use North Star that never seems to materialize.

“It’s not a lack of political will but really a dance between local leaders and developers,” said Cristol. “Counterparts of mine would love nothing more than large towers completely surrounding Metro’s Silver Line stops, but developers can only envision rows of townhouses.

It’s always a chicken-and-egg issue of what comes first: the transit or the housing. Extensive or even incremental expansions of train service are going to make it more appealing for developers to build denser communities around VRE stations.”

Virginia’s newest commuter rail station in Spotsylvania County proves just how far away the commonwealth is from the more affordable, sustainable and walkable communities that are commonplace in the rest of the developed world. Housing has sprung up thanks to the rail line extension, but those who choose to live in the apartments by the station must grapple with a total lack of retail, restaurant and grocery options — not to mention crossing the 1,500 space parking lot anytime they wish to access the station.

“In Virginia, there hasn’t been any attempt to create TOD zones around train stations,” said Ian Ollis, administrator of the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. “If you don’t have the appropriate zoning, builders can’t come along and do mixed-use development. Do we want to force people to commute to and from the train with cars and surround stations with parking lots or do we want to allow more dense living with amenities around our train stations so people can live, work and play in that one zone?”

Currently Ollis is working on TOD growth plans for three stations in Stafford, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania. By allowing more housing and retail options around VRE, his team aims to revitalize the region’s urban communities without putting more cars on the road. The success of such plans depends upon the localities’ willingness to provide safe, convenient and comfortable alternatives to driving.

“We’re looking at the potential for new rapid transit options locally so we can get people from downtown Fredericksburg to the train station,” Ollis said. “You can’t just have more north-south train service. You also need bike paths, sidewalks and the feeder transit systems that help people get around and make a community an actual community.”

Some see train-oriented development well underway in Prince William County’s upcoming Potomac Shores development. The project features 4,000 townhouses, a walkable street grid, and a new VRE station to help residents leave their single-occupancy vehicles at home. Although the project is far from a perfect example of the kind of infill development that enables low-carbon lifestyles, Cristol believes the development is a step in the right direction and could serve as a model for suburban communities to switch from car traffic to trains.

“Trying to reverse engineer vibrant urban communities from expansive urban sprawl is incredibly difficult, but we are better positioned than other communities that are trying to build out TOD around brand new light rail lines,” said Cristol. “In order to meet our climate goals, we need to look at our funding and have a carrot for jurisdictions that want to do more TOD and a stick for those that want to double down on sprawling, unsustainable development models.”

CORRECTION: This column has been updated to correct the reference to the new Virginia Tech campus being developed in Alexandria.

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.