Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Potomac Yard Metro opponents cite GW Parkway purity

Officials have refined the options for where to place the Potomac Yard Metro station. Neighbors concerned about impacts to the George Washington Parkway are opposing 2 options which place the station closer to planned development, but the Metro station will bring far more long-term traffic relief than just avoiding temporary construction.

Alternatives for the Potomac Yard Metro station.
The project is now in the middle of its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) phase. Officials have refined a set of 9 alternatives down to 3, plus a 4th no-build scenario. The City of Alexandria is now required by law to evaluate each of the 3 alternatives that made it through the screening phase.

Some residents at a public meeting on April 19 vehemently opposed alternatives B and D, because the project's construction could temporarily affect the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Both of those alternatives place the station farther north than the other alternative, A.

The speakers came primarily from Potomac Greens and Old Town. Some were fine with a station at A, while others opposed the station entirely. For most, the Parkway was the primary reason they cited, though some also feared construction noise and didn't want a station near their homes.

Impact on the GW Parkway

Those opposed to alternatives B and D repeatedly lauded the uniqueness of the parkway among capital cities worldwide. They demanded that officials throw out any build alternative that interferes with the roadway, even for two years or less.

Alternative D, located closest to existing and planned density in the area, probably has the most impact on the GW Parkway. This alternative requires elevating tracks to cross over the existing Metrorail and CSX tracks, passing through an aerial station roughly where the movie theater now stands, and then passing back over the CSX tracks to rejoin existing tracks.

There are construction benefits and drawbacks for this option, but it undoubtedly puts the infill station much closer to existing neighborhoods and the densest portion of future planned development.

Portion of Alternative D station and track (click through for full proposed construction zone)

At least two speakers at the meeting asked for a traffic study, but this study has already been done as part of the Potomac Yard small area plan (chapter 6). One infill Metro station isn't a traffic panacea, but according to the study, traffic will be worse in the Potomac Yards area if the station is not built.

The Potomac Yard small area plan calls for drastically-reduced density without a Metro station. But even in this scenario, traffic will be worse than with higher density and a Metro station. The closer the Metro station is to existing and planned density, the more cars it will take off the road.

Nonetheless, Old Town resident Poul Hertel reached as far back as 1902 to protest impacts on the Parkway, quoting a document from the McKinley Commission referring to the "Mount Vernon Road" as "affording an opportunity for the most refreshing and delightful drive to be had in any direction from Washington and not to be equaled at any great capital of the world."

While historical context is important, the massive back-ups on this main artery into the city mean McKinley's commission surely would have enjoyed the "refreshing and delightful" drive far less today. They probably would have made a temporary trade-off in parkway accessibility to save green space farther out from the city and temper traffic increases long-term.

The EIS process

Alexandria staff explained at the meeting that they are working with the National Park Service, and nothing will go forward without approval by the NPS. There are also other requirements regarding technical and financial viability, among other things.

Officials cannot throw out alternatives during the EIS phase until the city puts forward a locally-preferred alternative. But speakers demanding staff eliminate parkway-disturbing options did not yield, as speaker after speaker stood up to call for the city to change course in a way that is not possible.

David Fromm of Del Ray pointed out that the city could have done a better job explaining the reasons the screening process put forward each alternative. He was right, but it didn't appear that the most vocal in the audience would have been convinced by any option that breached the sanctity of the GW Parkway, regardless of long-term traffic benefits.

City staff periodically referred speakers to the PY website since they could not cover the vast amount of information about the potential development in a single public meeting.

Density, transit and the urban core

One speaker seemed to understand the larger point. Though she is a Potomac Greens resident who surely will be impacted by the construction, she pointed out that without the infill station, future growth in the area will make it so everyone will have plenty of time to admire things along the GW Parkway-turned-parking-lot, as traffic continues to get worse.

Large growth in the DC area is coming, so area municipalities need to responsibly manage that growth with improved infrastructure. Her statement brought sporadic applause, indicating she was not the lone supporter of the station.

For tangible proof of the traffic-reducing impacts of public transit and responsible land use planning, look no further than the Rosslyn-Ballston-Clarendon corridor. In this corridor, with access to public transit, people choose to live closer to jobs, stores, restaurants, etc.

In turn, people use their cars less, if they keep a car at all. This is why traffic volumes in that corridor have stayed relatively flat over the past 30 years despite massive development. Creating these livable communities reduces driving and therefore traffic.

With growth coming to the DC area, we can either clear-cut and pave over more outlying forests, or add more density close to the core. The most responsible action is to create dense, livable communities with good access to multi-modal transportation.

Even if urban living isn't for everyone, real estate pricing and trends indicate there's ashortage of walkable, transit-oriented communities and an over-supply of distant, exurban sprawl.

To be good stewards of our region, we simply must build density near transit near the urban core. If the most feasible option requires disturbing the GW Parkway during construction, that should not be a reason to avoid it. Temporarily interfering with GW Parkway traffic patterns does not outweigh losing acres of land that would have to be built farther out to replace the lost units and transportation capacity in Alexandria.

Audio of the April 19 public meeting is available here, and the presentation itself is available here and embedded below.


Cross-posted to GreaterGreaterWashington
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