Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Connection to Less Congestion

This post by RCA President Colin Mills was originally published in Reston Patch.

As the opening of the Silver Line draws ever closer, Reston’s citizens are keeping a close eye on traffic. How will our roads be affected by the new Wiehle Metro station? What is being done (or not being done) to alleviate congestion and ensure that Restonians will be able to access our own station?

After the activism on this issue by RCA and others, Supervisor Hudgins has begun taking action to improve access in the station area. (Last week, I sent a letter to her on behalf of RCA thanking her for her efforts.) One of the keys to reducing congestion around the station, the Supervisor and most Restonians agree, is additional crossings of the Dulles Toll Road.

The north-south roads that pass over the Toll Road are Reston’s biggest traffic choke points. (I can attest to this, as I sit in backups every evening on Reston Parkway traveling to pick up my daughter after work.) The congestion will only get worse as thousands of people from inside and outside of Reston try to get to the station. With only a handful of crossings to carry all that demand, we’re going to need additional outlets to keep Reston moving.

The top priority for a new crossing is what’s known as the “Soapstone Connector.” This would start around the current end of Soapstone Drive and connect Sunrise Valley with Sunset Hills, passing over the Toll Road near the Wiehle station. This would not only provide an alternate route for people accessing the station from south Reston, but it would also serve as a relief valve for cross-town traffic seeking to avoid the backups at Wiehle or Reston Parkway.

Supervisor Hudgins has called for making the Soapstone Connector a priority, and the County is studying several possible alignment options. RCA’s Reston 20/20 Committee looked at the options and last week, we issued a paper, The Soapstone Connection: A Bridge to Reston’s Future, outlining our recommendations.

Reston 20/20’s paper, written by the hard-working Dick Rogers, doesn’t just pick a favorite of the options on the table. It also looks at the criteria being used to evaluate the options, and suggests a few new criteria to ensure that the Connector provides the greatest possible benefit to Reston.

The County’s evaluation criteria are pretty broad, like “Connect Sunrise Hills and Sunrise Valley” and “Reduce traffic impact on Wiehle.” These are good goals, but by themselves, they might not lead us to the best solution. We suggested adding several criteria for a more thorough evaluation. I’ll describe some of them here.

Expedite Construction

The Wiehle station is supposed to open at the end of this year. There’s not a lot of time! The Soapstone Connector won’t be ready for the station opening, but we should aim to complete it as quickly as possible, in keeping with Supervisor Hudgins’ recommendation.

One way to speed construction is to reduce the land acquisition and demolition needed. Acquiring buildings and land costs money and takes time, and both are at a premium. Unfortunately, most of the proposed alignments would require either demolishing buildings or buying up much developable land on the south side of the Toll Road.

As an alternative, 20/20 suggests routing the Connector along existing Association Drive. The road would need to be improved, but since there’s already an existing right-of-way, land acquisition costs would be minimized and construction could move much faster.

Consider a “Bridge Diet”

The current plan under consideration for the Connector includes four lanes for vehicles, two bike lanes, a sidewalk and a 17-foor-wide “shared use path.” That seems like overkill. I understand that the County is looking at a “worst-case scenario” for the amount of land required, but we should be looking at what we’re actually going to need.

For one thing, one bike lane is probably enough. And if the bikes have a dedicated lane, we probably don’t need the shared-use path either. Also, it might be worth considering a two-lane bridge. After all, Soapstone is a two-lane road. We’ll need a four-lane bridge eventually, but might it save time and money to build two lanes now and include footings for future expansion? Something to think about.

Give Higher Priority to Reducing Wiehle Avenue Congestion and Providing Access to the Station

If a prime goal of the Connector is to get people to the station, wouldn’t it make sense to run it as close to the station as possible? When the Reston Metrorail Access Group originally called for the Soapstone Connector in 2009, they recommended running it right next to the station. That turned out not to be feasible, but we should still keep it as close as possible.

Some of the proposed alignments run well west of the station. Routing the Connector there would serve Plaza America much better than it would the station. Wherever the Connector is routed, there will need to be another street connecting it to the station. The farther away the Connector is, the longer it will take for that street to be built. And if the Connector just winds up taking the traffic jam from Wiehle and dumping it on Sunset Hills, we’re not helping ourselves.

Require a Direct Connection to Soapstone Drive

Several of the proposed alignments of the so-called “Soapstone Connector” don’t connect to Soapstone at all! One starts as far east as Commerce Park Drive (smack in the middle of the existing backups on Sunrise Valley), while another starts way to the west at Indian Ridge Drive (which doesn’t serve anyone, unless they plan to develop Reston National). Soapstone is a natural collector for the roads from South Reston. Providing a direct connection will provide the smoothest possible traffic flow. Adding another traffic light on Sunrise Valley will just make things worse.

I know some of the residents along Soapstone don’t want a direct connection, for fear of turning the road into an expressway. The recent road diet on Soapstone will help keep speeds down. Also, no matter where the Connector is built, people will use Soapstone to get there. A direct connection will reduce the possibility of major backups.

These are only some of the recommendations we made. If you want to see more, you can read the paper on Reston 20/20’s blog. I hope that the County will take a serious look at our criteria, and that we can work together to select an alignment that provides the most possible relief for our traffic woes.

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