Transportation and financial realities create strong incentives for Fairfax County to keep growth at Tysons Corner in the slow lane for years to come. Despite the Board of Supervisors' charge to the contrary, transportation planning was an afterthought to the supporters of rapid and intense growth at Tysons. For example, the Tysons Land Use Task Force's "vision" report merely touches upon road improvement needs over a few pages of text. Big landowners and their agents were focused on pushing density as high as possible, instead of trying to size future density to transportation realities.
Fortunately for the rest of us, the Fairfax County Department of Transportation picked up the slack. Indeed, the county prepared what is likely the most complex "527 Traffic Impact Analysis" ever submitted to the Virginia Department of Transportation. But even after superlative work by county engineers, VDOT identified a number of problems with the study. Much more planning and analysis are required. In short, the transportation needs of an urban Tysons are multifaceted and very expensive.
On April 19, Fairfax County released its latest road and transit cost estimates for the next 20 years (which are in addition to the $5.3 billion price tag for bringing the Silver Line just to Wiehle Avenue). The current projection of $1.762 billion, stated in 2010 dollars, is broken into five-year increments. For example, by 2015, the county needs $162 million for two road projects and capital investment in more buses. In addition, the annual operating costs for these new bus routes are estimated to be $18 million.
While these cost totals are daunting in and of themselves, it is critical to note that, even after spending all of this money -- plus the full cost for constructing a rail to Dulles Airport and beyond -- and after taking other actions, such as eliminating free parking throughout most of Tysons, traffic engineers have concluded the transportation network, including the Beltway, the Dulles Toll Road and Routes 7 and 123, would hit the failure stage once Tysons reaches 84 million square feet (going from today's approximately 45 million square feet). This means that, at some point in the future, the more than $1 billion invested in road improvements will no longer perform acceptably.
When will this happen? It depends, of course, on how fast Tysons is permitted to grow. Experts from George Mason University made three growth estimates for Tysons Corner. The "fast growth" estimate projects Tysons will reach more than 82 million square feet by 2030. In other words, by the time all of road improvements needed to grow Tysons to 84 million square feet are finally completed, the entire transportation network will be close to fatal gridlock. More important, since many of these improvements would be funded through bonds, they wouldn't be paid for by the time they reach the point of failure, if Tysons is allowed to grow rapidly. It will be similar to being required to keep making monthly payments for an uninsured car that has been totaled in a wreck.
On the other hand, if the county decides to slow down significantly the pace of growth at Tysons, GMU estimated Tysons would not reach 84 million square feet until close to 2050. Slowing the approval of development at Tysons permits the county to extend the functional life of more than $1 billion of road improvements for almost 20 more years. That is a very strong incentive for Fairfax County to take a very measured pace in Tysons for years to come, despite the likely pleas to the contrary from landowners. The public interest easily trumps private gain in this instance.
The letter writer is an attorney and serves as president of the McLean Citizens Association.