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With Commuters Returning, Fairfax Leaders Call For Investments In Metro, Roads

As Fairfax County grows in population, development and jobs, transportation is struggling to keep up in the suburban network. 

With more people moving to live in the suburbs and returning to their pre-pandemic commutes, real estate leaders and county officials say now is the time to put the pedal to the metal to improve the county’s mass transit and vehicular transportation options. 

Transurban’s Amanda Baxter, Tysons Community Alliance’s Katie Cristol and Fairfax City Economic Development’s Christopher Bruno speak at Bisnow's Future of Fairfax County event.

“There are plenty of people trying to move, especially at the peak hours, that we need all of the modes,” Tysons Community Alliance CEO Katie Cristol said at Bisnow’s Future of Fairfax County event last week. 

“Being thoughtful … about a whole system of mobility is integral to the economic success,” she said. 

Fairfax County's population grew 0.2% last year to nearly 1.2 million, according to the Census Bureau, and it is projected to keep growing to 1.25 million by 2030, more than 1.3 million by 2040 and nearly 1.4 million by 2050. 

Transurban Senior Vice President Amanda Baxter, who oversees the operation of a 53-mile express lane network in the region, said traffic on the I-95 express lanes is above pre-pandemic levels, and the 495 express lanes have recently returned to 2019 levels. 

“Based on our roads, people are going somewhere,” she said. “It was pretty nerve-wracking, as you can imagine, during a pandemic, when you rely on traffic and there was no traffic.”

The percentage of employees returning to offices reached a new pandemic-era high last week, according to Kastle Systems' weekly report. The average of the 10 markets Kastle tracks was up 2.7% last week to 51.6% of pre-pandemic occupancy, and the D.C. area was up 3.1% to 49.5% occupancy. 

Speaking at the Fairfax Marriott at Fair Oaks, panelists said that with commuting rising in the region and people who are working from home out and about more during the day, the county has to up the ante on creating a connected, multimodal transit system throughout the region. 

The county’s sprawl is part of the issue, panelists said. Made up of individual urban-adjacent areas like RestonTysons and the Mosaic District, with aging office parks sprinkled throughout, many of the individual enclaves aren't well-connected to each other or to the surrounding residential neighborhoods.

The opening of the second phase of the Silver Line late last year was a big step in connectivity, panelists said. The project added over 11 miles of track with six new stations west of its former terminus at Wiehle-Reston East to its new terminus at Ashburn.

“Without the Metro, we can’t make that case about economic competitiveness as a true downtown for the whole of Northern Virginia and the region,” Cristol said. 

But WMATA is in economic trouble, operating under a $750M budget gap. The agency’s 2025 budget, which was officially unveiled Thursday, proposes service cuts, station closures and layoffs to fill the gap. The agency called on jurisdictions to add more funding to the system to avoid the cuts. 

Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley & Walsh’s Bob Brant, Federal Realty’s Deirdre Johnson, Cityline Partners’ Donna Shafer, MRP Realty’s Matt Robinson and EYA’s Evan Goldman.

“Metro this week released a proposed budget for its next fiscal year that, without additional contributions from Metro’s funding partners, would necessitate fare increases and drastic cuts to service and to Metro’s workforce, a worst-case scenario for the region’s economy, quality of life, and environment,” the agency said in a press release Thursday. 

“It is just essential that we are focused in the coming weeks, not months, on how to stabilize Metro at least for this upcoming fiscal year and then in the future,” Cristol said onstage. 

MRP Realty principal Matt Robinson said that although Metro stations attract economic development, he isn't so sure about the “if we build it, they will come” mindset for the region.

“[Metro] concentrates investment. But still, will people ride it?” Robinson said. 

“This is really determined by, are people going back to work? And if you’re not going back to work, it's even harder to activate that line to get on the Metro – other than going to maybe a sporting event.” 

McGuire Woods’ Gregory Riegle, Transurban’s Amanda Baxter, Tysons Community Alliance’s Katie Cristol, Fairfax City Economic Development’s Christopher Bruno and Fairfax County Economic Development Authority’s Victor Hoskins

Robinson pointed to the importance of creating self-sufficient, walkable communities that don’t need to rely on the Metro for their health, pointing to Fairfax County's Mosaic District as a “prime example.” 

“Mosaic is that on steroids,” he said.

EYA Executive Vice President Evan Goldman said the county needs to focus on creating more of these types of communities.

“We work all around the region, and this region is blessed with a lot of great, walkable, urban places, both on transit as well as nontransit, quite frankly, and Fairfax needs to catch up in that regard,” he said. 

EYA is looking at redeveloping aging office parks in the next few years that aren't near mass transit, properties that need a “different solution,” he said.

Even amid a push for more of a multimodal and mass transit landscape, panelists discussed the importance of investing in the dominant mode of transportation in the county: cars. 

Transurban's Baxter spoke about an upcoming study looking at putting bidirectional express lanes on I-95 and a new project to expand the express lanes on I-495 from the Dulles Corridor to the American Legion Bridge, a 2.5-mile project with $660M of private investment.

“We are extending that and hopefully knocking on Maryland’s door to get them to return the favor,” she said.