Blog Post

Tunnel Vision: Has Tysons Missed the Train?

First, let me begin by introducing myself. I am Parris Glendening, and I serve as the president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C., which is part of Smart Growth America. From 1995-2003, I was Governor of Maryland, and for more than 20 years before that I served at various levels of local and county government. I am excited about being part of the network of contributors here at Planetizen and participating in the discussion.

In 1956 Pres. Dwight Eisenhower shepherded the Interstate Highway into existence, fulfilling a decades-long aspiration to link the nation with highways that could move both people and materiel as efficiently as those he had seen in Germany. Later, he would warn us against the military-industrial complex, but with a bit more foresight he might have warned against the asphalt-industrial complex, as well.

The so-called "interstates", as we all know now, not only linked states but became the be-all of our urban transportation networks, and in most metro areas they are strained to the brink. Fifty years into Eisenhower's project, today our cities are in desperate need of a new national vision for transportation.

Some cities and regions didn't wait and dreamed a vision of their own, only to see it squashed by obtuse federal policies. Consider the case of Metrorail and Tysons Corner, Virginia:

Image from Fairfax Economic Development AuthorityTysons Corner is a suburb of Washington, D.C., just outside the Beltway. The once-sleepy crossroads is now one of the main employment centers of the region, home to the equivalent of one-third of the office space in D.C. proper. Several years ago, the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority and Virginia officials began planning a Metrorail extension through Tysons Corner and Fairfax County to Dulles Airport. But while the service was welcome, the plan to run it on an elevated track provoked a groundswell of opposition among business owners, citizens, and local leaders.

Opponents proposed that a tunnel constructed through Tysons' core would assist it in a transformation from a traffic-clogged, auto-centric, disconnected office park and shopping mall to a walkable and people-centric place. They noted that the neighborhoods in the close-in D.C. region that have experienced the most investment-and become more urban places where daily needs and trips can be accomplished without the use of a car-have overwhelmingly been in areas where Metro runs underground.

Unfortunately, support for the tunnel came after preliminary plans were submitted and the Federal Transit Administration had agreed to provide $900 million for the elevated track, at the encouragement of Virginia Congressmen Tom Davis and Frank Wolf.

In late 2006, Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine announced his support for a tunnel option, buttressed by several privately-financed studies that showed the feasibility of a tunnel; including improvements in tunnel-boring technology, less-intrusive construction, and the future benefits for the competitiveness of Tysons Corner as traffic gets worse and increasing numbers of people seek out places where they can live, work and play-without an exclusive reliance on the automobile. But FTA officials and Reps. Davis and Wolf told Gov. Kaine that any alteration to the previously approved plans would result in potentially losing the $900 million in federal funding.

The core of the problem is a fundamental flaw in the system of funding at the FTA, which elevates short-term number-crunching over community impacts and long-term benefits.

image from Fairfax Economic Development AuthorityFTA officials told Kaine that switching to a tunnel would jeopardize the federal funding, even if Virginia found other sources to cover the more expensive, but longer-lasting tunnel option. Never mind that the tunnel would be far less disruptive to businesses and residents during construction, or that it would spur many times as much investment along the corridor, or that it would simply help make Tysons a more people-friendly place to be. It cost more, and that was the end of that.

There is something wrong with a federal system that encourages local officials to submit a flawed plan rather than risking their funding. Shouldn't the most important thing be to do it right, considering the long-term impact of the decision? Fairfax County officials learned their lesson from several missed opportunities with Metro over the last 30 years, including at least one missed opportunity to bring rail to Tysons.

Fairfax County Supervisor and Metro board member Dana T. Kauffman told the Washington Post several months ago that "I regret my son may pick up a planning text where Fairfax's long-awaited rail extension is highlighted as a failed attempt at service and economic development. It can't only be about the here and now."

In places like Bethesda, Maryland and elsewhere in the D.C. region, Metro lines placed underground have helped to spur investment in some neglected areas and create distinct "places" where cars are an option, but are not mandatory. In a book about Metro's history, The Great Society Subway by Zachary Schrag, Cleatus Barnett, a Montgomery County, Md. representative understood the multi-generational impact of their decisions: "We were building these lines for eternity. You're not going to pick them up and move them if you put them in the wrong place. They are there forever. And don't tell me anything about the cost. If it costs more, it costs more, but that's what we're going to do."

The federal government should be an ally in helping to ensure that projects like the Tysons tunnel get built. Not since the days of Ike have we been in a more desperate need of a clear federal vision that will catapult us into the next century of mobility-mobility that results in competitive places of which we can all be proud.



Tunnel Vision at Tysons Corner

I hope Parris Glendening's piece will initiate a wide debate that focuses not only on elevated vs. underground Metrorail stations at Tysons but also the bigger issue that Glendening pinpoints -- FTA decision making that seems to favor short-term considerations. It's shocking to think that if Virginia opts for a tunnel through Tysons, the FTA might decide to provide no funding for the Metrorail extension -- even though rail to Dulles Airport and eastern Loudoun County will move many thousands of present and future commuters off congested roads and trigger extensive high-density mixed-use (and very smart) development.

Steven Polzin's picture

Whose Vision?

FTA may not be vision less but rather trading off your vision against someone else's vision. Your tunnel may cost someone else their vision for an FTA funded project. Or perhaps your vision will keep someone's grandkids from their vision of being able to save for retirement due to crushing future tax burdens.

Vision without prudence is fantasy.

Support the Tysons Tunnel

As a Marylander who commutes to Northern Virginia, I am in full agreement with Governor Glendening. I would like to add to his point about the disruption the construction will cause: several articles in the Washington Post and other local newspapers have described how the already-gridlocked traffic in Tysons Corner will worsen if they build the Metro above ground. Traffic is already horrendous during rush hour and during peak shopping days. There will be some disturbance when the Tysons tunnel is being built, but to much less of a degree than if they built an elevated Metrorail. This project is long overdue, and I hope that for the businesses, residents, and employees, and shoppers, the Tysons tunnel is built.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Women's t-shirt with map of Los Angeles

City T-Shirts for the ladies!

Women's Supersoft CityFabric© Fashion Fit Tees. Now available in six different cities.
Melissa and Doug Town Blocks Wooden Play Set

Block play meets role play

New! Town block set from Melissa and Doug Toys