Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Parking Problem at Wiehle Station

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

I hope you didn’t miss me too much; I didn’t post in this space last week.  I had a very good reason for not posting: I got married on September 21st, and I was busy honeymooning when I would normally have been writing.  Happily, my time away was relaxing and refreshing, and my new wife and I are very excited to start our life together.

I may have been off duty last week, but the RCA Board was in session and working hard as always for the citizens of Reston.  The Board met on Monday the 23rd, and they passed a couple of resolutions on planning and transportation matters.  This week, I’d like to talk about our resolution concerning the Sunset Hills Park and Ride.

In case you’re not familiar, the Sunset Hills Park and Ride is the long, narrow lot that runs between Sunset Hills Road and the W&OD trail near Wiehle Avenue.  It’s been an important and well-used commuter lot in Reston for decades.  And it’s located directly across the street from the Comstock development at the Wiehle station, which is to open soon.

As you may have read recently in Patch, Comstock and Fairfax County are lobbying VDOT, which operates the lot, to close it and turn it into a park.  This would eliminate what is likely to be the only free parking option close to the station for commuters, driving people into the paid parking at the Comstock development.

RCA thinks that’s a bad idea for Restonians, and we passed a resolution saying so.  We believe that during the 5 years that Wiehle is the end of the line, we’re going to need all the parking we can get.  Wiehle is the only Silver Line stop during the first phase that will have parking, so we’ll be drawing commuters from all directions, looking to get on the train.  Closing a lot with 300-plus spaces, especially a free lot, is exactly the wrong thing to be doing right now.

Let’s look at some of the claims put forth by proponents of closing the lot, and why RCA thinks they don’t hold water.  First, the proponents claim that having pedestrians cross Sunset Hills to get to the station represents a major safety issue.  Oh, really?  Granted, Sunset Hills is a busy road, and it will get even busier once the Wiehle station opens.  But there are already two signal-controlled intersections between the lot and the station (at Wiehle and at Metro Center Drive), and both of those intersections have crosswalks with pedestrian signals.  You might need to add some barriers along the lot to steer people toward the crosswalks, but the idea that there’s no way for people to cross safely is absurd.

Also, both the Reston Metrorail Access Group and the Master Plan Task Force have placed a priority on pedestrian access in the vicinity of the stations.  If we can’t even get people safely across the street to the station, then we have a much bigger planning failure on our hands.

The proponents of closing the lot also point to the lot’s proximity to the W&OD trail.  The trail poses both a challenge and an opportunity: the trail’s location makes the lot too narrow to be developed, but it also turns the lot into a natural location for a park.  As RCA’s Terry Maynard has noted, we’re definitely going to need park space in the station areas.

We think that turning the lot into a park makes sense – eventually.  Once development starts picking up and many new residents are added near the station, we agree that the lot’s best use will be as a park.  But right now?  With development just getting started and cars coming from all sides looking for a spot?  Right now, we need those spaces.  That’s why our resolution supports turning the lot into a park only after Phase 2 of the Silver Line is completed.

So if the safety issue is overstated and the need for parkland is a more long-term concern than the need for parking spaces, what’s the reason for closing the lot?  Well, because the free lot will compete with the Comstock lot.  Now we’re getting down to it. 

It makes perfect sense for Comstock to want the lot closed.  The 2,300-space garage they built in public-private partnership with the County has a fixed parking rate, but Comstock is making 1,100 additional spaces available, and they will apparently be able to charge what the market will bear.  Having a free lot across the street will likely drag down the rate Comstock could command.  So shutting down the lot makes sense for them.  But not for Restonians.

Some of you might wonder how we at RCA square our stance on the lot with our frequently-expressed concerns about traffic in the station areas.  If the lot stays open, you might reason, the additional spaces will just attract more cars to the area.  Isn’t that exactly what we don’t want?

The truth is that the cars are going to come whether we like it or not.  Hopefully, some folks will park farther out (at Herndon-Monroe, for instance) and take a bus to the station.  But a lot of people are going to drive, and if there aren’t convenient and affordable spaces for them to park in, they’re going to try parking in our neighborhoods or wherever else they can.  Moreover, we could actually use the Sunset Hills lot to encourage fewer cars; for instance, we could make limit parking in the lot to those who carpool.

The Sunset Hills Park and Ride is an essential piece of the parking puzzle during the years that Wiehle is the end of the Silver Line.  Shutting down the lot just doesn’t make sense for our community.  That’s why we felt it was important to speak up.  RCA is doing its part to help Reston deal with the challenges the Silver Line will bring.

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