Guest Column

William Vincent


A Transit Network for NoVa


The odds look good for the General Assembly to study a rapid transit network covering Northern Virginia to points as far flung as Winchester and Fredericksburg.


A ray of hope for transportation has emerged from the first half of the General Assembly session. SB 122, introduced by Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-Manassas, would create a joint commission to study the creation of a new rapid transit network in Northern Virginia and possibly other parts of the Commonwealth.


The concept has bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, and the prospects for passage appear reasonably good.


The need for such a network is clear. Northern Virginia is expected to attract 650,000 new jobs and 918,000 new residents by 2030. We already have the second-worst traffic congestion in the nation and it will get worse, particularly in the fast-growing areas like Prince William, Loudoun, and Spotsylvania Counties. For example, by 2030, congestion is projected to increase by nearly six-fold in Northern Virginia’s outer suburbs, far faster than any other part of the region.


Although some expansion of roadway capacity will be necessary, we are running out of space as well as money. The federal highway trust fund is projected to have a negative balance in the next few years, and Virginia maintenance costs are likely to consume much of the construction budget.


Our best strategy is to promote alternatives to driving wherever practical. The region has a huge, untapped market for new transit trips. Accessing this market will require investment in new services as well as more transit-oriented land uses.


A new, regional rapid transit network (perhaps called “TransNOVA”) is the key to unlocking this market. It would connect existing and emerging activity centers with high quality transit, providing beleaguered commuters with new options and promoting economic activity and transit-oriented development. It would attract jobs and residents to communities throughout the region and, with the right land use policies in place, would bring people and jobs closer together.


TransNOVA would benefit the entire region. It would extend far beyond the current Metro service area, serving communities like Fredericksburg, Warrenton, Culpeper, Winchester, and Leesburg. It also would serve communities closer to the urban core, such as Fort Belvoir. At least 14 state Senate districts, 28 Delegate districts, and 5 Congressional districts would benefit.


Using technologies like bus rapid transit (BRT), TransNOVA could be high quality, cost-effective, and implemented quickly. Pilot BRT corridors could be operating in 2-3 years, with substantial investments added over time. In some corridors, such as the Beltway and I-95/395, private sector funding and toll revenues can be used to help pay for the service.


TransNOVA would complement existing systems. It would bring people from near their homes directly to VRE and Metrorail stations and, in some cases, to their final destination.


Using BRT, TransNOVA could provide a level and quality of service, as well as an ability to attract transit-oriented development, comparable to that of rail transit. Over time, as ridership builds and more funding becomes available, investments in rail could be considered. 


One option to kick-start TransNOVA would be to build upon existing bus services, perhaps by funding upgrades such as advanced vehicles, dedicated transitways, GPS, traffic signal prioritization, and on-board Wifi internet access. The result could be an exceptional service that reduces dependence on foreign oil, eases congestion, cuts carbon emissions, promotes transit-oriented development, and provides new mobility options in the event of a national emergency.


The Commonwealth is uniquely positioned to study the creation of a regional rapid transit network. The potential service area goes far beyond the reach of existing institutions such as the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. Moreover, the service area includes multiple, largely autonomous local public transit providers. The Commonwealth is in the best position to encourage participation by these operators.


Moreover, the Commonwealth already has laid some of the groundwork for TransNOVA. HB3202, enacted last year, increased transit operating funds by roughly 42 percent, improved coordination between land use and transportation planning, and required the development of land use and transportation performance goals. TransNOVA would build upon this foundation and provide a focal point upon which to achieve some of these goals.


TransNOVA should be well positioned to compete for federal funding. The federal New Starts program has become extremely competitive, requiring proposals to be more innovative and to show greater benefits than previously required. To stay in the game, communities are increasingly turning to BRT. There are now more BRT proposals seeking federal funding than heavy, light, or commuter rail projects.


TransNOVA is an idea whose time has come. The General Assembly has been truly forward-thinking in considering legislation to study a new regional rapid transit network. If the legislation reaches Gov. Timothy M.  Kaine, I am optimistic that he will sign it, and we can all celebrate an important new transportation milestone.


-- February 11, 2008

















William Vincent is a former official with the U.S. Department of Transportation where, among other things, he was responsible for developing policy and communications strategies for several safety programs and for reauthorizing various provisions of the original ISTEA bill. He currently helps run a Washington, DC-based non-profit that promotes advanced energy and environmental technologies. He is a frequent presenter on bus rapid transit as well as fuel cell technology in local, national, and international forums, and his work has been published in the news media and academic publications. He also produced a film documenting innovative transportation solutions in Latin America and Australia and this film has been translated into three languages.

He was ecently named as a Research Associate with the Mineta Transportation Institute, and serves as co-chair of the BRT Standards Committee of the American Public Transportation Association.