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Survey shows what’s important to Northern Va. commuters

Northern Virginia residents say reducing trip times and making the local transportation system affordable are their top priorities when considering the future of transit in the region, according to a survey released by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) in November.

Northern Virginians also cited trip predictability, efficiency and safety, and the need for investments in highway and road improvements among their concerns.

Conducted by the consulting firm Heart + Mind Strategies, the survey is the first step in the NVTA’s public outreach push as the regional body seeks to update TransAction, the long-term transportation plan for all of Northern Virginia.

“Public engagement will help us choose between many options when it comes to designing our transportation future,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said at a press conference held at the interchange of Route 7 and the Dulles Toll Road in Fairfax. “Our new survey confirms what every commuter will tell you: travel is slow, congested, unpredictable and frustrating.”

According to the TransAction survey, 78 percent of the 610 interviewed adults primarily travel by automobile or motorcycle, spending an average of 64 minutes commuting round-trip. 59 percent of respondents indicate that traffic flow and congestion have the biggest impact on their quality of life of any transport-related factors, and 71 percent of those people said that the region is doing a ‘mostly bad’ job in addressing this issue.

Survey participants also said they value convenient access to work, schools and other services, variety of public transportation options, and maintenance and quality of infrastructure.

Conducted online from Oct. 8 through 15, the survey included respondents from all nine jurisdictions in the Northern Virginia region: Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William Counties, and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park.

According to Heart + Mind Strategies CEO and managing partner Dee Allsop, the survey was designed to be representative of Northern Virginia in terms of jurisdiction, gender, age and ethnicity. However, aside from some variations between different jurisdictions, responses largely followed the same general trends regardless of factors like age or gender.

“Different jurisdictions need different solutions to solve their local problems, but there was very clear agreement throughout Northern Virginia that transportation and congestion relief is a regional problem,” NVTA Chairman and Prince William Supervisor Martin Nohe said.

TransAction encompasses all current and future transportation projects funded by the NVTA and currently allocates more than $1.7 billion to regional transportation improvements from 2018 to 2023. Though it’s updated approximately every five years, this will be the first time the plan is altered since the Virginia General Assembly granted Northern Virginia a transportation funding stream with the passage of H.B. 2313 in 2013.

According to Nohe, H.B. 2313 provides NVTA with $300 million in funding each year. Since the bill was passed, the agency has attached $535 million to various regional transportation projects, including the widening of Route 28 through Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun Counties and the purchase of new buses for the Fairfax Connect, Loudoun County Transit and other local bus systems.

The first public step in a process scheduled to end in the fall of 2017, the deadline for a final, updated TransAction plan, the NVTA survey was aimed at gathering residents’ thoughts on the region’s current transportation system as well as their hopes for the system’s future.

In addition to improving existing infrastructure, future NVTA projects are designed to potentially accommodate new transport technology such as self-driving cars.

“[Driverless cars are] a phenomenon that people are generally aware of,” Allsop said. “They look at it at a far off horizon as something that’s most likely to happen 10 to 20 years down the road, so they don’t see the immediate impact that it may potentially have.”

Though NVTA isn’t currently funding any projects specifically designed for driverless cars, Nohe said that they will be included in the TransAction update.

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) took a self-driving car on a test drive on the I-95 express lanes on Oct. 19. Though 84 percent of NVTA survey respondents said they believe driverless cars will be on Northern Virginia highways within the next 20 years, Google predicts that they will be on U.S. roads in five years, according to Nohe.

Because only 8 percent of survey participants said they’ve heard of TransAction before, NVTA is using the survey and other public outreach techniques, from traditional public hearings to social media campaigns, to spread awareness of the plan. The agency set up an interactive website at nvtatransaction.org that provides information and resources while also featuring a space for residents to share their thoughts.

Along with soliciting public opinion, NVTA is working with what Nohe calls “transportation thought leaders” to assess how new and evolving technology might affect transit in Northern Virginia.

“It’s a truly thrilling time to be involved in transportation,” Nohe said. “We’re very excited to be charting our region’s course for the coming decades, and we look forward to inviting the public to help steer us in the right direction.”


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