The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Rail-to-Dulles Realities


Running a rail line to Dulles Airport could be a great idea -- if planners cluster the right kind of development around the rail stations. Otherwise, it's just business as usual.


Moving passengers and workers to and from Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) in a high-capacity shared-vehicle system -- currently known as the "Rail to Dulles" project -- has been an important and laudable regional goal for over 40 years. Achieving this goal requires public understanding of two realities.

First, the prevailing settlement patterns, especially the location of urban dwellings, in the National Capital Subregion makes private vehicles the most convenient way to get to IAD. Due to the scatteration of trip origins and destinations, there is no efficient way to aggregate the ridership necessary to support a shared-

vehicle system primariliy serving Dulles.

Second, creating an economically feasible "Rail to Dulles" project requires the creation of functional human settlement patterns in the station areas along the corridor connecting the core of the Subregion with IAD. 

In other words, "Rail to Dulles" is a land-use issue, not a transportation infrastructure issue.

Fortunately for those who would like to see rail service to Dulles, there are are two major nodes of intensive urban activity along the access corridor at and outside the Capital Beltway (radius=10 miles+/-). If the station areas serving Greater Tysons Corner and Greater Reston are properly planned and developed, they can generate the ridership necessary to support rail service in the corridor.


The most recent attempt to get "Rail to Dulles" failed because it was engineered by 30+/- major landowners and related interests who would benefit financially from building a "METRO Silver Line" to IAD. They believed their financial interests were best served by focusing on the "train," not on the pattern and density of land use in the station areas. 

Here is an alternative Tysons/Dulles Corridor plan that would place the emphasis where it properly belongs, on land use. The plan would create the desired human settlement pattern and shared-vehicle system ridership, as well as lower construction costs.


A different tax district could be created that covers only the area within a half mile of each station platform. The district would include all of the land private and public. Much of the land within a half mile of the station platforms is devoted to public highway rights-of-way (ROW) where air-rights development should take place.


Adjacent private owners would be provided the option of leasing the air rights over the highway ROW where the new station platforms would be located for 99 years and paying the taxes. If they choose not to lease the air rights to build over the right-of-way, they could be auctioned to third parties. Alternatively, the public agencies that own the ROW -- VDOT, Airports Authority, etc. -- could pay the tax and preserve the option of greater cash flow from future joint development of the air rights.


Tax rates within the special district -- for purposes of illustration -- could be 10 cents per 100 dollars valuation when federal and state funding is guaranteed, 50 cents when construction starts on the line to a given station and one dollar when the trains are running.  Five years after the trains were running to a given station, property and air-rights owners would pay the assessed value of the land calculated on the basis of the full development potential (hello, Henry George). This would create an incentive for property and air rights owners to develop their property rather that hold it in an under-developed state for speculative purposes as is the case now throughout the METRO system.


To cut costs, a New York Urban Development Corporation-like (UDC) public benefit entity should be created to design/build the rail system and the Tysons and Reston circulators. This would avoid the bloated METRO overhead cost structure and the nation-wide practice in which engineer firm-led design/build teams expand the project cost in order to increase their profit.


A number of plans for air-rights development illustrate the future development: The Davis and Carter plan for air rights at Reston Avenue, The Kane/Rando plan for air rights at four Reston stations, The Kane/Tytran plan for a Tysons Corner Central station, the plans for Tysons stations prepared for The Blueprint for a Better Region PowerPoint program, etc.


The major difference between the station-area tax district plan and recent proposals is that there would be 500 +/- acres in the district around each station as opposed to thousands of acres scattered along an 11-mile corridor. The benefits of a shared-vehicle system would accrue primarily to locations within a half-mile radius of the station platforms -- within walking distance for the most part -- not to private and commercial land in the entire corridor beyond that radius. The spread of shared vehicle-induced land uses beyond the half-mile mark would dictate more scattered, private vehicle-oriented development. Under the current tax district scenario, station areas would remain vacant and underutilized due to speculation as is the case now around METRO stations. 


There will be some benefits from a shared-vehicle system beyond the half-mile radius but the district, municipal jurisdictions and owners within the district could use the Cordon Line Technique to allocate all costs and benefits. A focus on the station areas would have a side benefit of eliminating suits by distant landowners to forestall further tinkering with the recent, flawed proposal.

If the current six-year federal funding window -- assuming it really is a window and not a trap door -- is missed, then there should be a fundamental review of the whole "rail to Dulles" strategy. Perhaps it would be better to use 20th century technology (Personal Rapid Transit or PRT) rather than 19th century technology (Heavy Rail/Subway) to make the connection between IAD and the core of the National Capital Subregion. This is, after all, the 21st century. 

The use of PRT technology could involve building the METRO Turquoise Line to Tysons and to Bailey's Crossroads and perhaps the Inner Purple Line in Montgomery County also using METRO technology. A 21st century "rail to Dulles" would rely on a high-speed origin-to-destination PRT system with real-time variable capacity. It would run from Dulles to the core of the Subregion. The PRT line might follow the Dulles Access Corridor to Tysons Corner, where it would interconnect with METRO Turquoise and the Tysons Circulator, then to Bethesda, where it would interconnect with METRO Red, and then to the core of the National Capital Subregion to interconnect with most METRO lines and the Federal Core Circulator.


There are two choices: Create a station-area tax district structure or start over. Either would work. The recent discussion of creating two districts with all the commercial land in the corridor will not.



End Notes

  • For a further exploration of shared-vehicle transport alternatives, see " It Is Time To Fundamentally Rethink METRO and Mobility in the National Capital Subregion"; SYNERGY/Resources; January 1999.

  • As documented in The Shape of the Future, when considering alternative shared-vehicle (aka, transit) system infrastructure, it is important to understand that each technology, system configuration and hardware option has a "native" or optimum station area settlement pattern. The National Capital Subregion is, to this point, primarily committed to a single line (no express trains) heavy-rail (subway) system. A mix of technologies and hardware options would provide enhanced mobility in a comprehensive regional system configuration. This is the case in Paris, Wien (Vienna), Toronto and elsewhere.

  • Heavy rail/subway systems (e.g., METRO) as well as PRT, Monorail, light-rail and fixed-guide-way/

    fixed-station bus systems (aka, Bus Rapid Transit) technologies can generate supportive station-area land uses. Bus-on-the-street and similar non-station shared-vehicle systems do not. While buses, vans and jitneys can move people from one place to another, they do not induce public or private investment in functional, higher-intensity settlement patterns in a station area as there are no stations. For this reason, buses and bus-like systems are not useful as a major "solution" for creating urban area mobility.


  • There are other illustrations of the imperative of planning the optimum settlement pattern before selecting system technology and hardware. Bus Rapid Transit Systems do not have the flexibility or speed of PRT systems and do not have the capacity of heavy-rail systems. When applied region-wide in a large New Urban Region such as Curitiba, Brazil, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) can generate but not serve intensive station-area settlement patterns. In this case, Curitiba is phasing out BRT and putting in rail transit with higher line capacity. Light-rail because of low capacity, slow speeds and frequent stops is best suited for specialty applications (e.g. moderate intensity waterfronts, large recreation venues and "garden districts") and in small New Urban Regions. Ottawa, Canada and Goteborg, Sweden are prime examples of creative balance of land use with transport technology in small New Urban Regions.
  • As one, can see from these illustrations, choosing a shared-vehicle system is not simple. If one's focus is making money and not on building Balanced Communities within a sustainable New Urban Region, it is best to avoid complications. Fortunately, we live in a market democracy and must have citizen understanding and support for major projects.


  • In considering alternative shared-vehicle technologies, it is important to first determine the desired station-area settlement pattern and keep in mind the following axiom: 

    Shared-vehicle systems (aka, transit) create mobility in large New Urban Regions not because they move people efficiently but because these systems facilitate the agglomeration of human settlement patterns in the station-areas that allow citizens to meet many of their mobility and access needs without resorting to any vehicle. 

    It is true that if origins and destinations of travel are agglomerated in a station-area, a shared- vehicle system can move passengers much more efficiently than private vehicles. However, that is a secondary reason for creating shared-vehicle systems, not the primary one. Lowering per-capita vehicle-generated air pollution, making possible the creation of large public gathering places or venues for for sociality employment, recreation or mobility venues (e.g., Wall Street, The Federal Triangle, The World Congress Center, intercontinental Airports, high-speed ground terminals) and other factors are also important considerations within the regional context.

-- January 5, 2004

































Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


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