- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Commuter rail services in the Washington area are creating new opportunities for home buyers around rail centers as well as in what once was considered the hinterlands of the metropolitan area. Housing affordability has driven expansion into once-rural areas of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. At the same time, there is an increasing focus on transportation-oriented development (TOD) centered on commuter rail hubs. Housing and transit development can, but don’t always, work in concert.

“Transportation-oriented development captures the salient aspects of mixed-use development and smart growth,” says Robert Dunphy, senior resident fellow for transportation and infrastructure at the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

Development trends that have transformed area Metro stations from just being low-cost transportation portals to communities providing housing, shopping and access to entertainment are being replicated by developers along the region’s commuter rail lines.

The primary commuter rail services for the region consist of the MARC lines running north and west of Washington and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) extending southwest into Virginia.

The 187-mile MARC system includes three lines. The Camden Line connects Union Station to Baltimore. The Penn Line continues from Baltimore north to Perry-ville, Md. The Brunswick Line extends west to Martinsburg, W.Va. In 2001, a 3.5-mile line was added to link Frederick to the Brunswick Line.

MARC serves all major cities along its lines, as well as some smaller station stops, and includes a number of stations providing direct access to the Metro subway and bus lines.

Passenger rail service on the MARC lines has been operating since the 1830s on the Camden Line, and since the mid- to late 1800s on the Penn and Brunswick lines.

MARC spokesperson Cheron Wicker says the average daily passenger count is 28,754 systemwide.

VRE, which began operations in 1992, has two lines. The Fredericksburg Line extends from Union Station to Fredericksburg with stations and stops along the Interstate 95 corridor. The Manassas Line runs from Broad Run to Union Station.

Like MARC, VRE connects with area subway and bus lines.

VRE estimates its daily passenger count at nearly 16,000, VRE spokesperson Mark Roeber says. That’s the equivalent of eliminating a lane of car traffic on I-95 and I-66 during peak hours, Mr. Roeber says.

While the lure of affordable housing and alternative low-cost transportation to and from work remain important, there is evidence of change in how the commuter rail systems are being viewed by developers, the commuter lines themselves, and home buyers.

Yet Mr. Dunphy says home buyers often head out as far as they can to find an affordable house with little or no real conscious thought given to associated transportation costs.

“The best of modes is to be able to walk to the train,” Mr. Dunphy says. However, he says, “proximity to train service” in many instances does not eliminate a drive to the train or weigh in the factor of difficulty finding a place to park.

The Brookings Institution reported earlier this year that although housing is considered affordable if it accounts for roughly 30 percent or less of a household’s monthly budget, “location costs, and more specifically transportation costs, are often dramatically underestimated or ignored.”

The Brookings report put the average U.S. household expenditure for transportation at 19 percent, second only to housing itself.

This Washington-based think tank recommends that home buyers use an “affordability index” that divides housing costs and transportation costs by income. Transportation costs would include the costs of auto ownership, auto use, or transit.

Mr. Dunphy says the ULI estimates that the annual cost of keeping a car on the road in the Washington area is $4,000, including gas and maintenance. Most families have two wage earners and two or more cars.

“A slight reduction in the number of cars can make a significant difference,” Mr. Dunphy says.

While an affordability index might tilt the equation to lower-cost commuter rail service, other concerns remain that are not so readily quantified. Not the least of these concerns is reliability of service.

VRE recently posted a decline in passengers, which the rail line says was due to the slowing of trains in hot weather to better detect bends in rails due to heat.

Additional delays have been attributed to freight train traffic and track work by CSX Transportation (CSXT), which owns the tracks used by VRE’s Fredericksburg Line.

Mr. Dunphy says commuter rail lines often are forced to take the “cheapest alternative and go with existing lines.” He says it is extraordinarily difficult for a commuter service to negotiate with the profitable freight lines.

“The solution is to create a separate right-of-way for the commuter lines,” Mr. Dunphy says.

Despite challenges confronting the region’s commuter rail lines, there is some sense that better days are coming.

“We can be a catalyst,” says VRE spokesman Mr. Roeber. “Clearly our mission statement is to provide quality commuter rail service, but we are also contributing to economic development.”

Mr. Roeber says preliminary work is under way to extend the Manassas Line west into the Gainesville-Haymarket area in Prince William County.

Prince William County officials recently gave the green light to an ambitious project to be constructed adjacent to VRE’s Rippon station located just south of Woodbridge.

Rippon Center, which is being developed by Fredericksburg-based Hazel Land Cos. Inc., will include 550 high-rise condominiums, 250,000 square feet of office space and 27,000 square feet of retail space, the company’s Executive Vice President Bob Wulff says.

In its conception, the project extends the trend toward high density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly developments that have grown around many of the area’s Metro stops.

Mr. Wulff says Arlington has been successful in the development of mixed-use communities, as have Gaithersburg and Rockville along the MARC Brunswick line.

MARC’s Ms. Wicker says a major transportation-oriented development project for the rail line is a $75 million improvement of the Silver Spring Transit Center to “improve the center itself and the interconnectivity of Metrobus, Ride On, MARC and intercity bus services and to support the ongoing revitalization of downtown Silver Spring.”

The 5.7-acre project includes development of two residential towers with 450 units, a 200-room hotel, and 25,000 square feet of retail space.

One barrier to MARC-backed transportation-oriented development projects, says Ms. Wicker, is that “the balance of land along the rail lines is owned by other entities, including CSXT and local governments.”

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