It has been a while since we’ve had any update about the critical infrastructure upgrade in Tysons known as the Jones Branch Connector. The overpass project will directly connect North Tysons to East Tysons via a bridge over 495 which will be different than most highway overpasses, including pedestrian provisions. It has cleared a significant hurdle and is now soliciting bids for construction, as well as giving us some more information on what it will look like.
The project isn’t perfect — far from it — as it ended up being more diluted by commuter through-put than being an intracity link first and foremost. This is made evident by the massive intersection being created at the 495 HOT lane entrances; double turn left lanes to get onto the northbound HOT lanes that lasts a half mile? Sure why not!
My hope for the project is that over time — yes it is disappointing that Tysons remains stuck in a culturally backwards way of viewing transportation — that the additional turn lanes and overkill for one of the least used HOT lane entrances will provide an opportunity to restripe and create better bike lanes. I’m also disappointed that the pedestrian system is minimal; the bare minimum in sidewalk, with an oversized grass (to my knowledge no trees) utility strip (not seen at the bridge portion) and a pointless grass median (also not included at the bridge portion). Perhaps I am reading the plans wrong, but not lining this with trees is a horrible mistake, and hopefully not one that will be limited to correction by the structural capacity of the overpass.
Without shade, and without creating a pedestrian friendly environment, this will just serve as another mega-barrier, not a link, to Tysons’ urban goals. As one who has walked across the much smaller and flatter Westpark Bridge, I know that for most the Jones Branch on foot will not be viable due to this design flaw.
This isn’t a cost issue; it is an oversight of who should be involved in infrastructure projects. If landscape architects and urban planners were included and equally weighted in design consideration to transportation engineers, this project could be so much more than it is, and for no additional cost. When we are talking about 50+ million dollar projects, to cut corners like shade trees or proper design of sidewalks, or bike lanes, all the while providing far more lanes than are really ever going to be necessary, is short sighted and shows the vulnerabilities in the design process we have at the county and state level.
That’s the bad of it. There is good of course, for instance any crossing of 495 at this location is surely better than the alternative of diverting all the way to Route 123 only to have to ride or walk along Route 123 to get to East Tysons. The road link will dramatically improve traffic at Route 123 and Tysons Boulevard by providing an alternative for folks turning left to get on Dolley Madison instead of onto the Beltway and is a critical grid link which overall will help other road diets occur elsewhere. In the inbound direction, it will also provide a link from the Beltway HOT lanes to Tysons East which currently doesn’t exist; serving several of the major defense contractors in the area and Capital One headquarters.
The terrain of this crossing was always working against pedestrians and cyclists. The steep hill, the quasi on-ramps make for rough conditions, especially in inclement weather. That’s why I hope there is still time to think in more detail about what this project is meant to be, not just a same old same old highway connection that will inevitably need another study to correct in 10 years, but a project which promotes the ideals that the new Tysons seeks to embody.
This is a difficult concept for many transportation officials to wrap their heads around, especially when everything has been codified and seems as though it has been vetted as best design. Critique of this project isn’t meant to say that anyone has screwed up, it is to view the project from a different perspective, one that often those who are asked to design a project of this type are not in the position to view it from.
As a pedestrian or cyclists, is this bridge truly a good link for Tysons, or is it the bare minimum to meet cursory consideration? That is a question planners and designers should reflect on.