Last year, when Virginia’s VRE commuter rail system opened a new extension to Spotyslvania, the agency completely redesigned its map. The new version follows a trend for VRE: Every iteration gets more and more like a subway diagram, and less like a true geographic map.
VRE’s system map over time. Original images by VRE, compilation by the author.
The new map is at least the third completely different version VRE has tried since its launch in the 1990s. The original map was purely geographic, and oh-so ’90s. The second map was a hybrid with simplified geography. The newest is a pure diagram, with equally-spaced station symbols and only the barest nods to geographic context.
It generally makes a lot of sense for transit agencies, and particularly rail providers, to use diagrams instead of geographic maps. Features like the Potomac River’s many inlets, or minor curves on the rail lines, aren’t information that riders need to know, but they clutter the original map, making it hard to discern the information that does matter. On the other hand, it’s useful to know that the Fredericksburg line roughly parallels I-95 and that the Manassas line roughly parallels I-66.
Cameron Booth, the internet’s foremost expert on transit maps and author of TransitMap.net, reviewed VRE’s new map in December, calling it a “solid” but “unremarkable” effort.
MD & VA commuter rail look great together on one map
Maryland’s MARC train and Virginia’s VRE are very similar regional rail systems. This map shows what they might look like as a single integrated regional network.
Map from Peter Dovak at Transit Oriented.
Although MARC and VRE are so similar, they operate totally independently of each other. Riders on one may not even be aware the other exists. This map would help solve that.
The two agencies will probably never merge, but it might someday be possible to integrate their operations to work more like a single system. MARC trains might run across the Potomac into Virginia, and VRE trains might one day continue north into Maryland. It would be difficult but possible.
In the meantime, this map from Peter Dovak at Transit Oriented is a nice unofficial first step. And it’s easier on the eyes than the current official MARC or VRE maps.
The website boasts of “rugged beauty,” an on-site 18-hole golf course, and miles of recreational trails. There’s no doubt that Potomac Shores is sprawl.
But it’s a new kind of sprawl. At its center, a new urbanist town center complete with a new commuter rail station.
Developer SunCal is building the station. When it opens in 2017, and if the town center has enough amenities, Potomac Shores could legitimately be a lot less car-dependent than the typical outer suburban subdivision.
That’s great news, even if it’s still true that Potomac Shores won’t be as urban, diverse, or dense as DC.
New urbanism marries TOD
For decades now, new urbanist communities have used mixed-use and good design to make for better suburbs. Nobody would call Kentlands a true city, for example, but it’s a marked improvement over most of west Gaithersburg. And since we’ll never fit all the growth in the entire metropolitan region into DC, getting suburbs right is hugely important.
By building around a VRE station, Potomac Shores takes 20th Century new urbanism to the next level. It’s not just a traditional neighborhood development; it’s a transit-oriented development.
There are other transit-oriented new urbanist communities popping up around the region. But they’re mostly in closer-in places like Montgomery County or Fairfax, and nobody has ever built a new VRE station as the centerpiece of one.
Potomac Shores is an experiment. It’s obviously sprawl, but maybe it’ll prove to be a more sustainable and livable kind of sprawl. Time will tell.
It’s going to be an exciting 6 months for DC area transit
When the new Rosslyn Metro entrance opened earlier this week, it became the first in what will be an exciting string of big transit projects opening in the DC region. Still to come: Metro, MARC, streetcars, and BRT.
From left to right: Alexandria’s BRT, MARC, Silver Line, DC streetcar. BRT and Metro photos from Alexandria and Fairfax County. MARC and streetcar photos from BeyondDC.
The next big event will be on December 7, when MARC trains begin running on weekends between DC and Baltimore. MARC’s transition from a commuter railroad to a more general-purpose transit system will open up Baltimore and other parts of Maryland like never before.
After that come streetcars. Sometime in late December, or possibly January, DDOT expects to start running streetcars along H Street.
Then in February the Silver Line will open, and begin carrying passengers to Tysons Corner and Wiehle Avenue.
Finally, sometime in the spring of 2014 Alexandria will open its Route 1 transitway, marking the beginning of the first bona fide bus rapid transit line in the region.
All together, it’s the most exciting time for transit openings in the DC area since the early 1980s, when Metrorail was opening new segments every few months.
Denver proves Purple Line private funding can work
Denver is expanding its light rail system using private partners.
Maryland Governor O’Malley is expected to announce today that the federal government has approved the Purple Line’s planning, and that Maryland will seek a private company to help pay for construction.
The idea is that a private company would pool its money together with state and federal funding to construct the Purple Line. The same company would then operate the line. In exchange, they would keep the fares, and Maryland would pay an annual contract fee.
With limited federal funds available, this type of public-private partnership is becoming common nationwide. DC is considering it for streetcars, but Denver offers a more instructive example.
In 2004, voters in Colorado passed a referendum for 122 miles of new rail transit in the Denver area. But the funding approved as part of that vote wasn’t adequate to build everything, so the transit agency had to find an alternate strategy. They’ve since approved two public-private partnerships, and are in the process of contracting a third.
All in all, Denver has or will soon have private partnerships to build almost 70 miles of new rail.
These deals do come with a cost. Typically the annual fee the state has to pay the partner is higher than the typical operating subsidy would be. So in essence, the operating cost is higher. But in exchange, the partner builds the line more quickly and sometimes more cheaply than the government could on its own.
Update: As expected, O’Malley announced the plan to use a partnership this afternoon. He also announced $680 million in state funds for the Purple Line, plus millions more for the Corridor Cities Transitway, Montgomery County Ride-On, and road projects.
Northern Virginia picks transportation projects to fund
Almost $20 million will go to new VRE railcars.
For years, leaders in Northern Virginia have been asking Richmond to let Northern Virginia raise its own money to spend on its own transportation priorities. They are finally getting the chance.
When the Virginia General Assembly passed a broad new transportation funding bill earlier this year, it included a section for Northern Virginia to raise and allocate hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Those new taxes began rolling in on July 1, with the beginning of Virginia fiscal year 2014.
On Wednesday night, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) officially approved its first set of projects. The authority allocated about $210 million, split roughly evenly between transit and roads.
The largest projects include the Silver Line’s Innovation Center Metro station, new VRE railcars, and widenings along Route 28.
NVTA also approved a bond validation lawsuit that will preemptively ask Virginia courts to rule on NVTA’s legality. That process should take 6-9 months, and NVTA will have to wait until it’s over to actually start spending money. Taking the suit to court now means NVTA won’t have to spend years fending off other legal challenges.
If you live in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, you can hop onto a commuter rail train any summer weekend and travel to the beach. But not if you live in DC. Here we have no train, and the buses are impractical and expensive.
Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority recently launched its Cape Flyer service, from Boston South Station to Cape Cod. A round trip ticket to Hyannis is $35.
New Jersey Transit runs trains from Philadelphia 30th Street Station to Atlantic City for $20 round trip, and from New York Penn Station to the Jersey Shore for $25 round trip. New Yorkers can also take Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to Montauk for about $40 round trip.
For DC, there is no train, much less an affordable one. There are no tracks directly between DC and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The only track connection is at the very top of Chesapeake Bay, near Wilmington, DE. Amtrak does offer service to Ocean City, but you have to connect to an Amtrak bus at BWI, and it’s $120 for a round trip.
Greyhound also runs buses from DC to Ocean City, but it’s $50-$100 per round trip, depending on how far in advance you buy tickets online.
Building a new rail bridge across Chesapeake Bay is probably not practical. Even if it were, that’s surely not the top priority for limited transit funding. But why not better bus service? Ocean City is a natural transit destination; it’s compact and urban, at least near the boardwalk.
As summer rolls by and Washingtonians head out for weekend jaunts to the beach, how many of us wish we didn’t have to rent a car to get there?
Overall, that’s a huge net gain for transit in Maryland.
The new BRT and light rail lines are still years away, but weekend MARC service could start as soon as this winter. The MARC news alone is a bigger win for transit than the ICC buses are a loss.
Not that there’s actually any trade here. MARC isn’t expanding service because ICC buses are going away. The two are unrelated. Just that, as a transit user, if I were given the choice between those two things, I’d definitely pick weekend MARC.
And although Maryland is deservedly criticized for the ICC, it’s also worth noting that the ICC is in the past, and the state’s current plans are extremely progressive.
Most of the new state’s new transportation money is going to transit instead of roads, and most of the road projects are relatively reasonable. There are plenty of proposed interchange improvements and widenings, but there’s no sprawl-inducing, traffic-generating outer beltway.