A Road Through the County

After years of bypassing the surrounding community, George Mason brought local governments on board to develop a transportation plan that has paved over some old tensions.
July 27, 2011

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- One of the major problems with traffic is that when people get behind the wheel of their car, they forget that all the other drivers they’re whizzing past have needs and places to go, too.

The same can probably be said for traffic planning in metropolitan areas. It’s easy for individual parties to focus on their own goals and ignore the needs of others. Everybody has someone else to blame for problems, and for many of the residents of northern Virginia, the root of all problems is George Mason University.

The university, which has about 32,500 students and often contends for the title of the largest public university in Virginia, has been on a growth spurt for several years in both enrollment and research capacity. On top of that, the university has several new public-use facilities, including a conference center and a 9,000-seat stadium, the Patriot Center, which plays host to about 120 events a year.

The result of this growth has been a headache for local residents and an earful for elected officials. One of the campus’s borders consists of one of the major arteries through Northern Virginia into the Washington metropolitan area, Braddock Road, which carries 47,000 cars a day. When the campus or the Patriot Center hosts a major event, like a high school graduation, it can take a car an hour to cover a distance that without traffic takes 10 or 15 minutes.

“Many folks felt like George Mason was the 800-pound gorilla in the room, that it wasn’t concerned with its impact on the community,” said Rosemary Ryan, senior legislative aide for the member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (the equivalent of a city council) who represents George Mason and the surrounding area.

Ryan was part of a discussion here Tuesday at the annual conference of the Society for College and University Planning that detailed how George Mason began to include the surrounding areas in its transportation planning process and how that effort paid off -- to the tune of an additional $15 million in state support to build a new campus road, as well as better relations between the university and community.

Unlike businesses that are subject to the control of the county or city in which they reside, GMU is an autonomous state institution, meaning that it doesn’t have to answer to the surrounding community when it wants to expand enrollment or do anything within its property. And historically it has made its decisions with little input from the community.

The university straddles the line between Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax, a separate administrative district outside the jurisdiction of the county. The surrounding community, like much of northern Virginia, is residential and highly educated, and Ryan said the residents pay particular attention to what’s happening in their neighborhood. “They react strenuously and articulately when they see George Mason on the move,” she said.

So when George Mason decided a few years ago to develop a new strategic plan for its transportation efforts, administrators knew they had some people to please. “Our main goal was to minimize the impacts on the surrounding community,” said Christopher R. Conklin, a principal at Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., the design consultant that George Mason hired to help with the project.

The project would be designed to ameliorate the effects of George Mason’s growth on the Fairfax area. The university convened a committee made up of representatives from the university, Fairfax County, and the city to help design the transportation plan. It sponsored forums every 90 days alternating between the county and the city to solicit input from community members.

Involving a surrounding community in planning can take significant time, and requires listening to a lot of people. “Parking, transportation and traffic are hot-button issues on any campus,” said Josh Cantor, director of parking and transportation at George Mason. “Everyone’s an expert.” But university administrators said the resulting plan ended up being stronger and more comprehensive.

Another major component of the plan was to move the campus away from its traditional history as a commuter campus with abundant parking (though never enough, administrators joked, for some students, employees, and faculty members) and little emphasis on pedestrian traffic. The final plan, which was recently approved by George Mason’s Board of Visitors, has several strategies for minimizing car use. The design tries to make George Mason more of a pedestrian campus by giving walking paths a consistent look and signage. It also promotes bike use, adding bike lanes to almost all campus roads. And it includes mass transit shuttles that circle the campus and bring people to and from an off-campus parking lot for freshmen and a nearby Metro stop.

But the most dramatic improvements have come where the campus and community intersect, both physically and administratively. The campus is redesigning the intersections with Braddock road to make traffic flow more smoothly. It has also improved the crosswalks in the area.

Surprising everyone involved in the planning process, the State of Virginia agreed to appropriate $15 million for the construction of a bypass that goes from one end of George Mason’s campus to the other. The original plan called for diverting some of the traffic through the city of Fairfax, which city administrators opposed. The resulting plan is a compromise.

The project could divert as much as 30 percent of the traffic on that segment of Braddock Road. Ryan said it could also delay an $84 million bypass project that has been in the works for some time, a major victory for the county, which would have a difficult time finding that much funding in the current economy.

There have also been new efforts to open up communication channels between the university and community. For example, the county has created a notification system that goes out to 7,000 households to let them know about events on campus and the days they might want to stay away.

Ryan said she hopes that the planning process is just the starting point for better cooperation between the county and university. “I really hope we’ve turned a corner,” she said. “A lot of people hope the university isn’t just listening to make us happy and then going to do whatever it wants anyway.”


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