Extending a bus rapid transit line along the Route 1 corridor in Prince William County would be more cost-effective than Metrorail to ease traffic congestion, but denser development is needed to drive ridership, according to transportation planners.
Those preliminary conclusions from a year-long study by Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation of enhanced transit options along Route 1 in Fairfax and Prince William counties were presented during a meeting Tuesday night.
The study is exploring five options: extending Metrorail’s Yellow Line from Huntington to Triangle, extending the Blue Line from Franconia-Springfield to Triangle, creating a bus rapid transit (BRT) line from Fort Belvoir to Triangle, increasing express bus service throughout the Route 1 corridor, and slightly increasing Virginia Railway Express service on top of the improvements that are already planned.
A draft report with recommendations will be completed next month, and the final report will be submitted to the General Assembly by Dec. 1.
The BRT option, which planners said was analyzed as an extension of the planned Richmond Highway BRT planned for 2029 in Fairfax, would continue south along Route 1 from Fort Belvoir to Triangle, only diverting west for a series of stops at The Landing at Prince William, Parkway Crossing and the Potomac Mills area.
On balance, the study finds that the Metrorail and BRT alternatives score best on ridership potential, regional accessibility and congestion mitigation. But while BRT scored well on cost-effectiveness – second only to the express bus option – the Metro options were found to be the least cost-effective in terms of dollars spent per new transit riders. Overall ridership would be highest on the BRT alternative, though more new riders would take transit rather than driving with one of the Metro options.
Planners said additional density and different levels of transit-oriented development around all stops would be crucial to supporting the ridership for BRT or Metrorail, especially south of Potomac Mills, where the study shows boardings would be lowest.
The study team recently added a series of “sensitivity tests” to the alternatives, which showed potential impacts of enhanced land use changes in the corridor, varying levels of teleworking and truncated routes on the BRT and Metro options.
“There’s a lot the counties, particularly Prince William County, can do with the land use around potential stations to make Metrorail in the county more feasible, more successful and more cost-effective, if that was the direction that the county decided to go,” said Dalia Leven of Cambridge Systematics, the consulting team on the study.
Tom Harrington, also from Cambridge Systematics, cautioned that before Metro would consider extending into Prince William the rail system’s tunnel capacity under the Potomac River would need to be increased. Additionally, there would be legal hurdles to clear to add Prince William to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's Metro compact.
Planners said increased teleworking would have a much bigger effect on the Metrorail options than on the BRT.
“The [potential] Metrorail trips tend to be longer and they tend to be more office-based work trips, so folks heading into the District, heading up towards the Pentagon and other places like that,” Leven said. She added that BRT trips tend to be for jobs such as retail or education that require in-person attendance or for shopping or other non-work purposes.
Planners said BRT would suffer the biggest ridership drop-off from a shorter route terminating at Potomac Town Center rather than Triangle. Some Metro riders would still probably drive to the nearest station, while many would-be BRT riders on the southern end of the route would be lost.
Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36th), among legislators who pushed to fund the study, joined the presentation remotely.
“If you look around Northern Virginia, all the construction cranes are around Metro stations. It’s where the growth is; it’s where the jobs are going; it’s where the future is,” he said on the call. “We’ve got to get more people off I-95 and we have to keep doing these long-range plans to lay the groundwork so that when we have the money, we’re able to build these types of projects.”
Planners barely discussed the express bus option Tuesday night and said the enhanced VRE service alternative scored low on ridership increases and other metrics because most of the gains were already baked in with the Transforming Rail in Virginia plan. Leven said planners anticipate a roughly 80% increase in ridership because of the already-planned improvements.
The study’s VRE alternative would boost train frequency during peak periods from the already-planned 20-minute headways to 15-minute headways.
After the presentation, Occoquan District Supervisor Kenny Boddye agreed on Twitter that a BRT extension could serve as a good proof-of-concept for Metro, but that those improvements should happen quickly.
“Our traffic corridor is of national importance and has the most congestion in the U.S. 2050 is too late,” he wrote. “With the right state, local, federal, and private partnerships, we can – and must – get it done within the next decade and change.”