Federal and District officials have an updated plan to expand Amtrak and commuter rail service across the Potomac River that also benefits cyclists and pedestrians, as part of the Long Bridge redevelopment project. Just don’t expect construction anytime soon.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) want to build a second span of the Long Bridge between the existing 1904 structure and an adjacent Metro bridge, to double train capacity between D.C. and Arlington County, Virginia. The new span would add two tracks primarily for passenger rail service, including Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express (VRE), while the existing span would continue to carry freight trains. The project has been in the works for the past several years.
But under the latest designs, which planning officials unveiled at a public meeting last week, a new bike and pedestrian bridge would also be built to mitigate the second span’s impact on National Park Service land located on both sides of the Potomac. Advocates welcomed the news, having criticized the final two design options presented earlier this year for lacking pedestrian and cyclist access.
“This is a critical link between the north and the south, between the Northeast Corridor and Southeast rail plans,” said Amanda Murphy, an environmental protection specialist for the FRA, during the Nov. 29 meeting. The Long Bridge is the only rail connection between the Northeast and the South to the east of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, she added.
Growing demand for rail service across the Potomac is driving the project. DDOT and the FRA forecast an increase of more than 150 percent in train traffic across the current Long Bridge by 2040, or about 192 daily trains as compared with about 76 today.
That’s because VRE, Amtrak, and CSX, which owns the Long Bridge, all plan service increases in the coming years. The former anticipates the most growth, with its service jumping to roughly 92 daily trains by 2040 from roughly 34 today. Connecting Union Station in D.C. to Manassas and Fredericksburg in Virginia, VRE also has long-term plans to expand to all-day rail service.
DDOT and the FRA have opted for two dual-track structures as officials believe such a design will cost less, be completed more quickly, and maintain current rail service. Other alternatives included two new dual-track spans, one four-track span, or making no changes. The agencies estimate that their preferred design will cost up to $1.6 billion and can built in approximately five years.
Still, neither DDOT nor the FRA yet have a timeline for when construction will begin. They expect to complete the environmental approvals process in 2020, but then have to identify a project leader and funding. Murphy and other officials suggested that the overall process could stretch past the original completion target of 2025.
Funding the new span in particular may prove to be complicated. Amtrak, CSX, and VRE are all involved in the Long Bridge project, as are the federal, District, and Virginia governments.
But Anna Chamberlin, a neighborhood planning manager working on the project for DDOT, said Amazon’s recent decision to put half of its second headquarters in Arlington’s Crystal City could be a catalyst for securing financial commitments. The company is set to bring 25,000 jobs to the freshly branded “National Landing” area of Northern Virginia over the next decade. (State and local incentives that were offered to Amazon, though, did not include improvements to the Long Bridge.)
The planned pedestrian and cyclist structure would be separate from the rail bridge due to security and cost issues. It would be accessible by way of D.C.’s East Potomac Park as well as Virginia’s Mount Vernon Trail and Long Bridge Park. The access point in Long Bridge Park was added to the designs after residents said it was essential to the region’s trail network, Murphy noted.
Robert Gardner, the advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, says this is “a big win for the community.” But it remains to be seen whether the District’s network of bike lanes, which terminates well before East Potomac Park, would be linked with the new bridge, he adds.
“There are so many questions right now,” Gardner says. “On the Virginia side, the connection is very good. We just have to make sure the plans that DDOT has for East Potomac Park get people into [D.C.] safely.”