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County board seeks answers on uncertain timeline for Route 7 bus rapid transit

Bus shelters at the Spring Hill Metro station, which will be the northern terminus of the planned Route 7 bus rapid transit system (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

(Updated at 9:25 a.m. on 12/15/2023) The long-running effort to bring bus rapid transit (BRT) service to Route 7 is about to enter a new stage of planning, but for some Fairfax County leaders, the milestone doubles as a reminder of how much more still needs to be done to turn Northern Virginia’s vision into a reality.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved an agreement at its Dec. 5 meeting to help fund an engineering study and environmental analysis required to implement the bus system, which will serve the corridor from the Spring Hill Metro station in Tysons to the Mark Center in Alexandria.

Though they voted 9-1 in support of the agreement, some board members raised concerns about a lack of clarity on the project timeline from the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the regional organization that’s managing the planning process.

“I sit on NVTC, and I don’t have a comfort level yet that they have their hands wrapped around this,” Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust said. “Constantly, I’m asking for schedules — when is this going to happen? — and they never provide them.”

Foust — whose district includes the West Falls Church Metro area at the southern end of the BRT’s future Tysons segment — called NVTC a “great organization” and voted for the agreement, which was only opposed by Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity.

But Foust urged county and NVTC staff to provide a thorough breakdown of the long-range plan for the project known as Envision Route 7, including an estimate of when it would be completed “if everything goes as anticipated.”

“That would be very helpful, I think, in evaluating each step as we go forward,” he said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay concurred, adding that the county doesn’t need specific dates but would find it “helpful” to get a more detailed timeline of key milestones to expect going forward.

He noted that NVTC has already been working on the dedicated Route 7 bus system for years, dating back to a transit study commissioned in 2013.

“The number one question I’ve had about this is, ‘What has been taking so long to get to this point and what does the future look like?'” McKay said. “What we do know is this will be a long-term project, but we need to have a reasonable understanding of what that means in terms of years.”

Fairfax County Department of Transportation acting director Gregg Steverson confirmed the request was “something we can provide to you.”

(Correction: This story initially misidentified Gregg Steverson as the NVTC acting director.)

The project’s complexity stems in part from the number of jurisdictions and funding sources involved. Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik suggested it might help to get an overview of where funding is coming from and what role NVTC, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Arlington and Alexandria will each play.

Fairfax County is further along in the study than the other localities, particularly for the Tysons segment that already has an initial route mapped out and dedicated lanes planned. A final report analyzing current and future traffic conditions from Tysons to Seven Corners was completed in September.

However, a study of the last segment from Seven Corners to the Mark Center isn’t scheduled to begin until next year and could take 12 to 18 months, according to NVTC’s project page.

As part of the newly approved agreement, Fairfax County will contribute $250,000 over two years toward the project’s final planning stages, including a conceptual engineering study and a federally required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis.

The remainder of the $3 million budget for this stage will be covered by federal and state grants, along with contributions from Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church.

NVTC told FFXnow that it’s “encouraged by the enthusiasm of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in seeking a definitive timeline for the Route 7 Bus Rapid Transit project.”

“NVTC is actively working with county staff as well as the other jurisdictions along the corridor to conduct planning efforts that will allow timelines to be established,” the commission said. “…NVTC is embarking on the final phase of our planning work for Route 7 from Seven Corners to the Mark Center this summer and will begin the federally required environmental process upon completion of that phase.”

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