A bus stop along Richmond Highway today.  Image by Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation used with permission.

Southeastern Fairfax County could see big transportation improvements along Richmond Highway (the local name for US Route 1), including an extended Yellow Line, Bus Rapid Transit, and new bike and pedestrian infrastructure. These improvements are badly needed in the area where commutes are long and many residents rely heavily on transit. The transit changes could even help organize the area's suburban sprawl back into a string of distinct places with their own identities.

These are the transportation problems in the area

South of the City of Alexandria, Richmond Highway is a busy commercial street lined with sprawling shopping centers with housing subdivisions behind the main drag. (Confusingly, this part of Fairfax County is also known as Alexandria, thanks to the Post Office.) Further south, the road runs alongside Fort Belvoir, which has seen a lot of job growth thanks to the Base Realignment and Closure. The area is relatively affordable, but has also been a little neglected when it comes to investment from the county.

Incomes are lower here relative to other parts of Fairfax. Despite geographic closeness to job centers in Alexandria, Springfield, and even Fort Belvoir, commutes are still long. This is due to a double whammy of residents relying on public transportation despite the area not being that transit friendly, and the fact that Richmond Highway is a major commercial street and commuting road. That can lead to huge traffic backups, which have gotten worse as more jobs have come to Fort Belvoir and other parts of the area that still does not have great transit. It has also made walking and biking bad options when it comes to getting around, putting more people into cars or stuck waiting for the bus.

Fairfax County has been trying to come up with solutions for the area since 2015. Using a process called “Embark Richmond Highway,” the county studied various transit options including light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT), and extending the Yellow Line. Now the county has an idea of what they want to change! Using what Fairfax calls a “hybrid” approach, neighborhoods along Richmond highway could get a mix of new metro stations and a BRT system.

Extending the Yellow Line

Part of the plan would be to extend Metro's Yellow Line from Huntington to Hybla Valley, and two new stations would be built at Hybla Valley and Beacon Hill, respectively. Both areas are home to large shopping centers that could be redeveloped to become new neighborhoods with retail, offices, and new homes built around a street grid. It would be a smaller-scale redevelopment than Tysons Corner or Potomac Yard.

A new street grid would help people walk between new homes and an eventual metro station. Image by Fairfax County.

The Yellow Line is well suited for an extension. It does not have the same congestion problems crossing the river into DC like the Silver/Orange/Blue Lines, and Huntington was built with the expectation the line would one day be extended.

Similar redevelopment is happening right now closer to Huntington. The Penn-Daw shopping center closer to Huntington has been building on its property to include new apartments in addition to retail. Even that will be dwarfed once hundreds of new apartments and townhomes come to the the site of the soon-to-be former Huntington Condo Club.

New housing near Huntington Metro Image by Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation. used with permission.

Adding Bus Rapid Transit

The plan calls for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that would mostly run in the median of Richmond Highway from Huntington to Fort Belvoir and eventually Woodbridge. If extended to Woodbridge the BRT line would be about 15 miles long, dwarfing MetroWay, a BRT line running in Arlington and Alexandria, and Richmond's Pulse BRT line which should open later this year.

BRT would build on the success of the Richmond Highway Express (REX) buses that run along Richmond Highway today. The buses run often and cover major destinations both along Richmond Highway and in the City of Alexandria, but the lack of a dedicated lane means the buses can get stuck in the same traffic as everyone else. New stations and BRT lanes would improve the experience for the many people living along Richmond Highway who depend on transit but live in an area built for cars.

BRT running in a median in California. Image by Erick Fredericks used with permission.

Road widening and pedestrian/bike improvements

There are no bike lanes along Richmond Highway and sidewalks can be inconsistent, especially further south closer to Woodbridge. Plans would put sidewalks along the whole route and install dedicated bicycle paths. Combined with efforts to create walkable street grids in place of current sprawling shopping centers, this would make Richmond Highway far more accessible to pedestrians than it is today. That's especially important in this area of Fairfax County, which sees a higher proportion of households that do not have a car.

That being said, the road for cars will be widened as well. The plan calls for a uniform six traffic lanes along the length of the route. At the moment it is inconsistent, which can lead to backups on top of the regular traffic. With BRT slated to run in the median and at least six lanes of for personal vehicles, any person trying to cross Richmond Highway is going to have to deal with long waits.

A cross section of a widened Richmond Highway. Image by Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation used with permission.

Local governments have a tough time when it comes to providing better transit, pedestrian, or bicycle options for people while simultaneously making it look like things are not going to get worse for drivers. The end result is plans for transit, walking, and biking in the middle of super wide roads. That is a challenge today in Tysons Corner, where construction to continue widening Route 7 and Route 123 are well underway. It's also a problem in Montgomery County's super-wide Rockville Pike, which will feature 18 travel lanes for people to cross. Richmond Highway looks modest being “only” 178 feet wide, compared to Rockville Pike's 252 feet.

Still, it's a big improvement to be able to walk or bike anywhere along Richmond Highway and not worry about losing your path, or to be able to ride in a bus that avoids the worst of congestion. Embark Richmond Highway is an ambitious plan that would bring a slew of benefits to a part of Fairfax that does not get as much attention as other parts of the county.

There is still a lot of work to be done. Current plans envision all of this being in place by 2040, meaning planners, officials, and communities will have to work together to get the necessary studies done and the funding in place. Doing so will help current residents and give neighborhoods their identity back. One day, Richmond Highway could become another one of the region's great transit success stories.