Shaking up the Rail-to-Tysons Debate

I normally let Bacon’s Rebellion e-zine contributors plug their own columns in this blog, but I’m making an exception today. I want to bring to readers’ attention Ed Risse’s column, “All Aboard!“, which takes a fresh look at the Tysons Corner heavy rail project.

The backdrop of Ed’s column is the controversy over Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s decision, largely on the basis of practical funding considerations, to pursue an above-ground rail line rather than the underground rail line that many Fairfax County residents wanted. The rap against the above-ground rail line is that it would chop up Tysons Corner, disrupting the effort to reconfigure the business center as a connected, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community.

Not necessarily so, argues Risse. A “pyramid” development pattern, in which tall buildings and high densities are permitted above the Metro stations and taper off within a 1/4-mile radius, combined with Public Way Rights, which permit development above the Metro station and on publicly owned roadway around it, would create just as much connectivity for travelers as an underground station.

Plus, if I extrapolate from Ed’s reasoning correctly (Ed, please correct me if I go astray) a Pyramid/Public Way Rights approach would have a huge bonus: Because the public owns the rights of way, the public could reap some of the economic value created by the Metro presence to pay for construction of the rail line.

At full build-out, Risse calculates, the property within a 1/4-mile radius of a Metro station could be worth, at current prices, about $1.9 billion at each of the four Tysons Corner stations, for a total of $7.6 billion. (Important caveat: The number would be lower if we do a net present value analysis; such a huge volume of space would take years, if not decades, to absorb.) Compare that to the cost of extending the above-ground rail line through Tysons Corner: between $2.4 billion and $2.7 billion. Extracting the economic value from the publicly owned rights of way could cover most of the cost of building the rail line — and that doesn’t even include the option of tapping the value created for private land owners.

The column is “must” reading for anyone interested in the future of Rail to Tysons and Rail to Dulles.

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7 responses to “Shaking up the Rail-to-Tysons Debate”

  1. Groveton Avatar

    This is the crux of the problem:

    “Conventional wisdom holds that the only civilized way to locate a high-capacity, shared-vehicle system in an urbanized area is to put it underground.”.

    That is conventional wisdom. It’s also wrong. Chicago is a great city. It is also an incredibly “livable” city – much more so than New York or LA in my opinion.

    Chicago’s subway system is called the “L” or “el” – short for elevated.

    It works and it was recently extended to go out to O’Hare.

    It also connects to a train system that goes way into the outer suburbs / ex-urbs – whatever name you like.

    Super city, super system.

    People should look at Chicago before they make decisions about over or under Tyson’s.

  2. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    Thank you for the plug. Your interpetation is sound. There is so much more to be said about this issue but one has to stop somewhere :>)


    You are right, Chicago is a great place to visit and to live.

    You point out one of the many things that there is never enough space to include — a paragraph on Chicago.

    I am afraid Chicago is a great place in spite of the elevated part of the shared-vehicle system.

    Have you ever noticed that the great places (at least “great” to the vast majority) are a block or two away from the streets with the El?

    Chicago is exibit A when transit professionals talk about the depressing impact of a naked elevated system. The market does not like the noise and clutter of the El.

    Chicago is also exibit A when there is discussion of how not to run a shared-vehicle system from the Centroid to a large airport.

    Our comment in “Time To Fundamentally Rethink METRO” about the “butt numbing 24 stops” one would have to endure to ride METRO from Dulles to Capitol Hill was inspired by a trip to O’Hare on the Chicago system.

    That is why most take a cab to OHara and the shared-vehicle system is used primarily by lower- paid employees, at least that was the case the last time I made the trip.


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    FYI…..did anyone see the news story about NYC expanding it’s subway system for the first time in 70 years?

    If not, Here is a link.

    The cost is $17 billion.


    Just thought I would pass this along as a point of reference for what is going on in Tyson’s Corner.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    If this is such a good deal, how come it takes $900 million in Federal dollars to get anybody interested?

    Or is it the Federal dollars that make the project interesting at all, like all those airport terminals that were built with fed money, and still vacant.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    There is some question in my mind as to whether HOT lanes would compete in terms of cost-effectiveness with light rail and especially so if BRT were part of the mix.

    I’ve always felt, as Ray that Transit for transit sake, without comparing to other modes in terms of cost effectiveness is wrong-headed.

    One can argue intangibles or even assertions about benefits that would not be easily measured but at some point – we need to know and understand .. and agree to… choices that involve significantly more dollars – than other choices.

    Otherwise, transportation policy and decision-making cannot be relied upon for rational outcomes.

    And this very much DOES affect public support.

    The public can and does make judgements about the “worth” of something even if it is expensive. Just look at schools to confirm this.

    “Pushing” transit .. no matter the expense.. does not build public support in my view.

    There has to be an honest dialogue and a certain level of truthfullness about the numbers or else the public will be moved to distrust and oppose it.

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar


    Today I drove to Vienna Metro. From the time I hit the exit ramp to the station, waited in line to park, walk to the station, wait for the train, ride to McPherson Square took an hour and cost $10.75 on top of the fixed costs of operating the car. That works out to 15 miles per hour, riding in a seat that is too small for an average height and weight man.

    If I drive to McPherson square and park it costs $11.00 and takes forty minutes or less.

    The good news is that I get to pay for Metro (AND VRE) whether I use them or not. For me, at least, it is very hard to see the real value value.

    Then, when I see a family of six Hispanics riding, and I add up all the fares they are paying collectively, it is really hard to see the value. You could get a zipcar for less, except that they may be prohibited from having a drivers license, so it is their only option.

    True enough, if all the people riding Metro drove, things would be worse, congestion wise. But it is the if in that sentence that counts. If Metro simply collapsed, like the cross Bronx Expressway, what would happen? Like the CBE the traffic would just disappear: people would adapt or do something else, and it would not have cost $30 billion.

    Metro has not alleviated any congestion, but only enabled more congestion of a different kind, and even created some new bottlenecks of its own. When we consider the value and the financing of Metro, we should consider very carefully who it REALLY benefits.

    The van pool or car pool or jitney is really a lot better and more convenient (and probably cheaper), provided that your boss will allow you the luxury of regular hours, and provided you don’t have some mid-day crisis like having a child in Balcksburg.

    As for the BRT, it might be OK if it was really rapid, but absent a dedicated guideway, it still has to compete with (or impede) other traffic. On Monday I watched a string of exasperated HOV drivers exit the HOV lanes and join the regular traffic so that they could pass a bus which was lumbering along in the HOV lane, screwing things up.

    There were more people in the cars I watched passing the bus than there were on the bus.

    I think there are places and occasions where various options make sense. But I also think that mindlessly “pushing” transit or mindlessly denigrating auto use is a mistake.

    These are hard problems and we need our best minds working on them. Really working on them, not just pushing an agenda. Not only are these problems hard, but they have a temporal aspect. Even if you have a correct solution now, it may not be correct for long, but that does not mean the previous solution was wrong, just that it is now dead. So you need to examine it over its life cycle and see what it was worth, ignoring the fact that it is now worthless.

    Going forward, I call these wicket problems (they may also be wicked problems). With a wicket problem, you have to get through the first wicket with the resources at hand, before you can even consider the next wicket.

    You might like to have a global strategy or a systems approach to the game, but the fact remains that you must conquer one wicket at a time, and you must do them in order.

    Today, I read a report on decaying infrastructure: water, power, sewer, roads, and bridges. It concluded that our cities need $40 trillion in refurbished stuff.

    That is just to fix what we have, not to accommodate all the additional infrastructure needed to accomodate growth.

    Think about that the next time the Georgetown sewer launches a manhole cover, or the next time a tree branch in Ohio shorts out 40 million people.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I guess I have a simple concept with regard to infrastructure and that is that it is necessary for our civilized world – and that we all need it and we all pay for it.

    Ray and I agree on this part but not the part.

    I think it is crystal clear that if we do not pay for it on a pro-rata per-use basis and instead everyone pays a set fee for it that we end up with a huge disconnect between decisions about what, where and when infrastructure to build and where it is truly needed to satisfy demand.

    We essentially create slush funds and then bureacratic folks with political influences decide how to spend that money and invariably – the decisions do not result in effectiveness in meeting demand.

    This would be like WalMart executives giving money to it’s chief toy buyer and saying – “go buy toys” without any process that looks at what kinds of toys that are in demand and which are not and in various geographic locations.

    The result would be a huge unsold inventory in some places… and at the same time shortages of sought-after toys in other areas.

    This is what happens when you tax everyone the same amount for infrastructure no matter how much they use or when and where they use it.

    Some folks cite the gas tax as a “use” tax but it is not because the money collected is not directed to where the payer of that tax actually drives – everyday

    Some folks say – that we should charge for miles on the odometer – but it has the same exact problem.

    The money collected is not plowed back into where the demand is but instead and again an arbitrary process that does not use performance-based metrics and criteria to rank and prioritize projects according to … need.

    And I’ll admit – that even if per-use TOLLs are implemented that the money can be diverted.

    The difference is that you know.

    You know that a certain road took in money and needs improvements to respond to demand and you know the money was shipped somewhere else.

    With a gas tax – you don’t know any of this because it goes into a general fund …

    For instance, it is clear to everyone what is going on with the Dulles Toll road. There is absolutely no doubt that money is being diverted and the policy issue is in the public realm and will become the subject of dialogue about I-395 and I-95 HOT lane proposals (I hope).

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