Colin Mills: Soapstone Connector Is Good Work In Progress

Colin Mills/File photoSpring and the Silver Line opening both feel a long way away right now. When you’re digging out from the latest snowstorm and reading about MWAA’s declaration that the line isn’t ready for turnover to Metro, it’s hard to convince yourself otherwise.

But believe it or not, we are getting closer to both. In the case of spring, the vernal equinox is on March 20, just a couple weeks away. (The real beginning of spring, baseball’s Opening Day, is a week and a half later.) With the Silver Line, unfortunately, we don’t yet have a firm opening date. But each day that passes brings us closer to both long-awaited events. For now, all we can do is wait.

In the meantime, we can pass the time by preparing for the impacts that the Metro will bring to Reston. The most notable of these is traffic. As RCA has stated repeatedly, new crossings of the Dulles Toll Road are key to easing congestion around the Silver Line stations. And of the proposed new crossings, the Soapstone Connector is the furthest along.

Last month, the County Department of Transportation presented the latest on the Soapstone project to the Hunter Mill Transportation Advisory Committee. RCA Vice President John Hanley attended the meeting, and he gave the Board an update last week. The good news is that the county understands the importance of the project and is moving it along; however, there are a couple of major questions that must be resolved before this important link in Reston’s transportation network can be built.

The last time I wrote about the Soapstone Connector, back in May, the County was evaluating several proposed alignments for the connector. They alignment has now been selected; it’s a hybrid of a couple of the previous options. And on the whole, it looks pretty good.

On the south side, the connector links up with Soapstone Drive, which is a definite plus.  You might have assumed this was a given, since the project is called the “Soapstone Connector,” but several of the alternatives would not have connected to Soapstone.)  The alignment passes through the existing National Association of Secondary School Principals building and generally follows the western side of Association Drive before crossing the Toll Road.

On the north side, the connector will run to the west of the BAE Systems building and the gas pipeline, and east of Plaza America, before ending at a signalized intersection with Sunset Hills Road. The connector will consist of two lanes over the bridge and three lanes on either side (two travel lanes and a turn lane), as well as bike lanes, a sidewalk, and a shared-use trail. The connector will not provide access to the Toll Road, but it will serve as a relief valve for crosstown traffic and for those trying to access the Wiehle station from the south and west.

This alignment seems like a worthy compromise. It’s a little farther away from the Wiehle station than would be ideal, but it connects directly to Soapstone Drive and requires relatively little disruption of existing properties.  Constructing two lanes over the Toll Road instead of four holds down the overall cost of the project, and the bike lanes and trails encourage pedestrian and bike travel to the station.

Sounds like a plan, right? Well, there are a couple things that still need to be dealt with before the plan can become reality.  The biggest ones are the challenges that face any infrastructure project: time and money.

When will the Soapstone Connector be ready?  We don’t know. Ideally, it would be in place when the Wiehle station opened, to divert some of the traffic from the immediate vicinity of the station. That obviously won’t happen, but will it be ready during the years when Wiehle is the end of the line? Probably not. The project hasn’t even begun preliminary engineering yet; it’s not certain that construction will even occur during this decade.

Part of the reason for that is the issue of funding. The current cost estimate for the project is $92 million, although that’s only a rough guess at this point. Whatever the final cost, it’s certain to be a significant outlay. And so far, the County has allocated only $2.5 million for further planning and study.

Where will the rest of the money come from? In all likelihood, funding will have to come from several sources.  Hopefully, developer proffers will be a piece of the puzzle. But of course, that money wouldn’t be available until redevelopment starts around the stations. And that depends on economic conditions, among other things.

Presumably, the Soapstone Crossing will be a key topic of the “inclusive process” on transportation funding that the Supervisors called for when they approved the revised Comprehensive Plan last month. RCA looks forward to participating in that process. If we’re going to prevent the Toll Road corridor from becoming a barrier that divides our community in half, we must figure out how to pay for the transportation infrastructure we’ll need. This is perhaps the most important implementation question that we face as we prepare for the transformation of the Toll Road corridor, and RCA is ready to be involved in finding the solution.

In the meantime, we find ourselves waiting, just like we’re waiting for spring and the Silver Line. But I am encouraged that the County is making progress on the connector, and that they’ve selected an alignment that makes sense. RCA will continue watching both the Connector and the Silver Line. We’ll keep you informed and keep advocating for solutions that maximize the benefits and minimize the costs to our community.

As for spring… sorry, you’re on your own there.

Colin Mills is the president of Reston Citizens Association. He writes weekly on Reston Now.

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