In the fall, there were two leading options for new transit along Route 7: bus rapid transit or light rail. The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) recently settled on plans to move forward with BRT.
Virginia’s Route 7 is a major road in Virginia that connects a number of dense communities that already use a lot of transit. The road is also one of the region’s oldest, with some sections dating back to colonial times. It runs through both Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners, some of the densest places in Northern Virginia that don’t have direct access to a Metro station. Both also have a large number of low-income families, meaning much of the population is pretty dependent on transit.
Route 7 also connects a number of places that are becoming more urban, like Tyson’s Corner and Falls Church, along with growing employment centers like Alexandria’s Mark Center.
Right now, Route 7 is a fairly straight shot between Alexandria and Tysons. But heavy traffic slows down current transit options, and a connection via Metro isn’t nearly as direct, which eliminates the time savings the train usually provides. Better transit for Route 7 would mean quicker journeys between these major and already dense destinations.
Here’s the plan for Route 7 BRT
As part of its Envision Route 7 project, an effort to bring better transit to Route 7, the NVTC studied both light rail and simply expanding current bus service. Earlier this month, though, it picked a BRT system that would run from the Spring Hill Metro Station in Tyson’s Corner to the Mark Center in Alexandria.
The BRT plan would include more frequent buses and dedicated bus-only lanes. Both would speed up bus trips for people who need or want to take public transportation along Route 7, with less waiting and less time sitting in traffic.
Bus lanes wouldn’t be everywhere. In some places, like downtown Falls Church, the road is comparatively narrow and hemmed in by buildings, so new lanes wouldn’t fit. But bus lanes will go in some of the places where congestion is usually the worst, like at the Seven Corners interchange.
Other ideas plan to improve the bus stations themselves by making them bigger and more comfortable for people waiting for the bus. This would also include changes that would make it easier to walk to a bus stop from a nearby neighborhood. Another proposal is making sure traffic lights can favor buses via signal priority, which would cut time spent waiting at red lights.
BRT won out for a few reasons, but the biggest was cost
BRT scored well on factors like how it would affect future zoning changes and overall trip times and speed, but the main reason NVTC went with BRT is because it’s much cheaper to build than any rail option.
Planners think they can put BRT on Route 7 for between $220 and $270 million. None of that money has been committed yet, so leaders in Fairfax, Falls Church, and Alexandria will have to work together and with the state and federal government to come up with it.
The initial planning considered a few different route options that would require a system to veer off of Route 7 to make some connections easier. For example, a number of people surveyed pushed hard for a connection to the East Falls Church Metro Station, which is about a mile from the road. Another reason BRT won out was that it’s easier to be flexible in planning its route.
Opponents often chip away at BRT projects
BRT does face challenges and pitfalls, and those haven’t gone anywhere for this project. “BRT creep,” for example, is when the product on the road don’t exactly match the nice renderings of buses gliding along dedicated lanes because fears of vehicle congestion meant chipping away at project features. Other examples of BRT creep include shortening dedicated lanes or eliminating them altogether, or cutting the frequency with which buses run.
Route 7 near Seven Corners, with enough right of way to fit in some bus lanes. Image from Google Maps.
Another fear is that even when dedicated lanes go in, the desire to maintain a certain number of other travel lanes could mean a roadway that’s impossibly wide to cross on foot. An example of that is in Rockville, where a desire to fit BRT lanes in with cars, parking, bike lanes, and wide sidewalks led to a road that is almost hilariously wide.
Is a Northern Virginia BRT network forthcoming?
The region’s first BRT system, Metroway, is already running in Northern Virginia between Alexandria and Arlington. That route links growing communities in Potomac Yard and Crystal City to various Metro stations. Alexandria is also planning for BRT along Beauregard Street as well. Further down the line, Fairfax is thinking about transit solutions along Gallows Road between Merrifield and Tyson’s Corner, and it may go with BRT.
BRT along Route 7 could link up with all of these services in a variety of ways. Here, the flexibility of buses could be a big help, as some routes may be able to use dedicated lanes or special stations even on different routes.
This is an opportunity where the region could turn the threat of BRT creep into a positive thing. Bus service already runs along Route 7 and there is even an express service. Frequencies on both could be increased (with the express getting all day service) and advertised to potential riders.
Meanwhile other features like bigger stations and dedicated lines could come along gradually. As Seven Corners adds more housing and a street grid, Fairfax could begin painting dedicated lanes and building nicer bus stations. This could also happen towards Alexandria and Tysons as sections of Route 7 come up for redesign.
We’re still quite early in the planning stages. Right now, the governments involved need to think about if they’re willing to fund the project. But if they can get it done, the project could be a big hit right out the gate since many communities along Route 7 already have what it takes to make up a great transit corridor. They just need the transit to prove it.