The Washington Post

Dr. Gridlock

Apr 25, 2016

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, has a special guest today: Kelley Coyner, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.

Welcome, Kelley. The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission is a well-established player in the D.C. region's transportation scene, but it may still need a little bit of introducing to our readers.

So please start us off by addressing what the commission  does and who's on the commission.

 

The Commission includes 19 elected officials from Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington, City of Fairfax, City of Falls Church and Alexandria and one designee from the Governor.

We are the co-owners of VRE, Virginia's commuter rail, and responsible for overseeing WMATA through our appointment of Virginia's members of the WMATA Board of Directors. 

Our role is to make sure the region has adequate funding for transit and coordinate planning to ensure the region has the transit it needs now and in the future.

In Virginia's HOT lanes program, the commission has a crucial role in picking projects that will let I-66 commuters leave their cars behind for their trips inside the Beltway.

Before we discuss the projects under consideration, and the hearings about them in May, tell us why people who use I-66 should care about having any of these options.

 

The more people use carpools, vanpools, telecommuting and transit, the easier it will be for all commuters on I-66 and the surrounding roadways. We want more people to be able to travel more reliably by transit and cars to and from work each day.

Where will the money come from for these out-of-the-car  alternatives? Some of the programs are supposed to be in place when the HOT lanes tolling starts next year, right?

The Commission will choose projects for new transit service and carpool/vanpool programs, giving priority to those that will be ready to go on toll day one in the summer of 2017. These and future projects will be funded from the toll revenues collected as part of the Transform 66 Inside the Beltway program.

Before I get out of the way and let the readers ask their questions, I want to ask one for the next generation of commuters.

If the commission is doing its job right over the next few years, what will be the impact on the commuters of 2040?

 

By 2040, more commuters will be able to travel more reliably on I-66 and the surrounding roadways as the result of widening, increased travel options -- including transit and carpools/vanpools -- and the full implementation of roadway, transit, express lanes and technology improvements both inside and outside the Beltway.

Hi Kelley, I know that long term, investment in Metro and in other transportation infrastructure pays off (I know that because I work for an economic think tank.) But it seems that this current Congress does not seem to understand that.

I wonder sometimes if a return to earmarks would help. At least then there would be some incentive and some horsetrading. I wonder if those of us who care about good transportation systems that will support a growing economy should actually be arguing to bring back earmarks to give law makers an incentive to do the right thing for our future.

I agree with you. The federal government needs to continue and expand its commitment to Metro by making sure that we have reliable funds to rebuild a safe system that provides reliable service for all riders, every day. A start is to fund the so-called PRIIA funds this year and to work with the region to provide dedicated funding that the system can count on year to year. 

The Transform 66 website state that "in general, traffic volume changes within the I-66 study area are relatively minor for the eastbound AM peak hour and westbound PM peak hour." This statement is nonsensical and contradicted by the daily congestion on local roads, which will increase when tolling begins next year. What data is this statement based on?

The data is based on studies conducted by VDOT, which are posted on the Transform 66 website. With a combination of increased transit ridership and expanded use of carpools and vanpools, we expect more people will  travel on I-66 rather than clogging the roads next to the Interstate. With tolling, those who choose to travel alone will be able to legally drive by themselves on I-66 during peak travel times. 

Transform 66's website states that the $6 per trip toll revenue will "stay in the corridor to benefit I-66." Does that mean that that revenue will be used exclusively for improving I-66 within the Beltway? If not, why not?

Under the agreement between the Commonwealth and the region's counties and cities, the toll revenues will be used to increase transit service, improve technology, provide park-and-ride lots and encourage carpooling and vanpooling to increase the number of people able to move reliably on I-66 inside the Beltway and surrounding roads.

Will you consider a rush hour service in the mornings and evenings for commuters from Manassas, Haymarket, and Gainesville? I believe that if the buses are reliable, clean, fast, and relatively reasonable, commuters will use this option to the Orange Line, rather than by going all the way to the Silver Line at Tysons. The Tysons option can remain in place, but if there are regular buses in the early AM - and late PM - at least four or five trips each - commuters will consider using it because the Orange line provides other options such as the Fairfax Connector in case of emergencies.

Yes, we will consider rush-hour service like this. In fact, increased rush-hour bus service to and from Manassas, Haymarket and Gainesville is included in the Commonwealth's plan for improvements outside the Beltway. 

Why aren't there buses between Bethesda and either Herndon-direction or Arlington-direction (and vice versa)? So many people need to go those routes, and would love to be in an expedited form of mass transit. It would probably take a lot of cars off 495. Are mass transit buses banned on the Beltway?

Mass transit buses are allowed on the Beltway, including the express lanes. The express lanes are intended to carry more buses throughout the region. With the expansion of the express lane network on I-66 and I-395, we will see increased express bus service. VDOT and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation are coordinating on how these express lanes might connect with express lanes in DC and Maryland.

Will tolling really help with the congestion on I-66? Traffic is an issue all day and not just during the rush hour and it seems fixing bottlenecks and adding a lane would help more than tolling. Will tolling money really go to help congestion?

The Transform I-66 program, Inside and Outside the Beltway, plans to fix bottlenecks and add lanes where needed. It widens the eastbound section of I-66 inside the Beltway from exit 66 to 71 and increases transit service along the entirety of the project. Inside the Beltway it will take carpools, vanpools and transit to move more people more reliably. The toll money is essential to pay for the increased transit service required to reduce congestion on I-66 inside the Beltway and surrounding roadways.

I really hope this never happens. I am an Arlington resident and the amount of noise from 66, the Beltway and Metro is already irritating. Plus, I have a basic question: why do we think it will do any good? Any expansion of capacity will just result in more people using the road. On the weekends when I head out to Fairfax County or points west, I find that the traffic is actually worse on 66 when it expands to four lanes outside the beltway.

I-66 inside the Beltway involves widening only within the existing right of way. Toll revenues will be used for expanded transit service and encouraging carpooling and vanpooling. Based on over 15 years of study, we know it will take a variety of tools to solve problems on I-66. This plan, originally advanced by the McDonnell administration, includes widening and other multimodal improvements. In order to get the best, most cost-effective solution, you need to do both. Just wanted to let you know that VDOT is working to fix sound barriers on I-66 before they begin construction.

395 has been absolutely horrible lately. My commute from the west end of Arlington used to take 40 minutes but now takes an hour. The problems are on the DC end from accidents, so the HOT Lanes aren't going to fix the issue. Why can't DC clear things faster to keep the commute alive? I don't live on the metro. I'd have to take a bus to the blue/yellow to switch to the red to walk 10 minutes to my office. Not any better than driving. HELP!!!

Incidents on I-395 or any other roadway impact drivers and transit riders. Incident management is critical to improving your commute by bus, Metrorail or by car. It takes coordination between Virginia and the District, as well as Maryland.

What are the roles and responsibilities of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission? How is the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission different from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance?

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission is the principal transit organization for the region, managing close to a billion dollars in grant funds for transit systems in Northern Virginia. We are co-owners of VRE, have governance responsibilities with respect to WMATA, are planning new transit service on Route 7, and run programs pertaining to transit emergency service. We bring technical expertise and financial management to bear in order to solve transit problems in the region. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority develops the region's long-range transportation funding plan and makes decisions about how to spend funds under Virginia's landmark transportation legislation, HB2313. The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance is a nonprofit advocacy group. All three focus on Northern Virginia.

Kelley, Please explain how the commission is evaluating the various I-66 corridor projects and programs submitted for financing. Describe the scoring system that the commission is using. And there are two public hearings in May?

There is a public hearing/open house on May 5 beginning at 6pm in Arlington at 2300 Wilson Blvd. A second public hearing/open house will be held at Wiehle-Reston East Station on May 18 at 4:30pm. 

 

The Commission is evaluating projects based on their ability to relieve congestion by moving more people through the corridor more reliably. You can find this information on our website at novatransit.org.

I liked the article in today's Post about the state of Metro. It really nailed Metro's situation on the head. We are lucky that we get from point A to point B everyday.

After reading that article, I truly hope Metro's new GM comes up with a really good plan to fix the problems that have become a kind of cancer on the system.

The article does a good job of highlighting the challenges Metro is facing. NVTC's recommendations to WMATA's new GM focused on safety, reliability, customer service and financial management. These priorities align with Mr. Wiedefeld's. In the short term it's key to operate the system safely and reliably day to day and for the federal government and the region to work together to ensure that WMATA has the resources it needs now and in the future.

Are there any plans for direct access to the West Falls Church Metro Station from I-66 Eastbound? It seems feasible to connect the I-66E to VA7 ramp with the VA7 East to I-66E ramp that has direct access to West Falls Church Metro. With high parking availability and the coming implementation of tolls on I-66 during peak periods, this may increase transit usage. Also, any plans to repurpose the vacant West Falls Church Bus Terminal?

Those are interesting ideas. The impact of a ramp would need to be studied by the City of Falls Church and VDOT. I am not aware of any plans to repurpose the West Falls Church bus facility. 

In this weekend's Metro fire incident, it seemed to happen yet again where poor communication between ROCC to Conductor to riders turned a bad situation even worse. There have been many reports from riders on the train of poor communication, which seemingly resulted in the Emergency Door Release engaged, which hindered Metro's ability to expediently get the train out of the tunnel. Poor communication seems to be a systemic issue with Metro. Is the solution to have metro conductors frequently go through training on how to respond in emergencies? Is there a better way to fix this reoccurring issue?

Communication during a crisis is something WMATA has been working on and clearly needs to continue to work on.  The best way to do this is to improve emergency response and safety practices through training. 

The big problem with using transit as an option for I-66 is the tunnel issue at Rosslyn, until there is a new tunnel and service improves on the Orange Line, I will continue to drive. Will there be a project for a new tunnel through Rosslyn using the I-66 tolls?

There's a recognition that we need to add capacity at Rosslyn either through a new tunnel or a second Rosslyn station. We know we need to add capacity in Rosslyn and it's part of WMATA's strategic plan, known as Momentum. At this time we do not plan to use I-66 toll revenues for this effort. 

What is the Return on Investment as it relates to economic development for the corridor and the surrounding jurisdictions? What impacts will the transit alternative have on congestion for Route 7? How soon could the project produce mitigation? What is the stance of the jurisdictions involved?

Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church have joined forces to identify new transit service for Route 7. NVTC's recent study shows that bus rapid transit will attract 9,000 new transit riders. Come to our public meetings in June or look at our website envisionroute7.com to learn more about this project.

If both the orange and silver lines were more reliable and less crowded, taking them would be a more viable option than driving on 66. How will the toll money go to improving the orange and silver lines and when will we see this happen?

In the short term, we are looking to put in new transit service through commuter and local bus. There will be opportunities over the 40-year life of the program to purchase eight-car trains, which will go a long way to relieving overcrowding, and improve access to Metrorail stations on the Silver and Orange lines.  

Thanks to everyone for their questions and for the opportunity to participate in Dr. Gridlock's online chat. We look forward to seeing you at our public meetings and hearing your comments on which project applications will make your commute better on I-66. Our website (novatransit.org) has all the information you need.

Thanks to Kelley and to everyone who joined us today. I'll be back solo next Monday at noon for another chat.

And for those of you who submitted questions today for me, I see several that I think can appear on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week. So please check in there.

And as always, stay safe till we chat again.

In This Chat
Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on the Dr. Gridlock blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
Kelley Coyner
Kelley Coyner is executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. The Virginia state government has tasked the commission with picking programs that will help drivers leave their cars behind when the HOT lanes open on I-66. As executive director, a job she has held since 2013, Coyner focuses on regional transportation goals including transit and ridesharing.
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