THE LONG Bridge, constructed in 1904, is the oldest railroad bridge across the Potomac River between Virginia and the District of Columbia. Three tracks lead up to the bridge on either side of the river, but since there are only two tracks on the bridge itself, backups and delays are inevitable. This creates a major bottleneck for freight, intercity passenger and Virginia Railway Express commuter trains heading into and out of D.C.
Bottlenecks are incredibly inefficient, which is why building a new railroad bridge with two more tracks alongside the existing span, for the exclusive use of Amtrak passenger and VRE commuter trains, is so necessary.
According to the Long Bridge Project, the new bridge will “provide additional long-term railroad capacity and improve the reliability of railroad service through the Long Bridge Corridor. Currently, there is insufficient capacity, resiliency, and redundancy to accommodate the projected demand in future railroad services.”
The Federal Railroad Administration is currently preparing a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the new bridge as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The draft is expected to be released for public comment within the next few weeks. The final version is expected to be completed next summer, and if approved, design, engineering and construction can begin soon afterwards, with anticipated completion in 2025.
Unfortunately, a public meeting held by the Long Bridge Project last November indicates that project managers have not done a good job educating the public. For example, there were 43 questions/comments on whether the new bridge would include bicycle/pedestrian access, and five on the future structure’s design and aesthetic appeal.
But only four people were concerned about rail volume and capacity—the main reason another bridge needs to be built. And only one person at the public meeting mentioned safety, even though the idea of pedestrians and cyclists sharing a bridge with trains should have made it a topic of more than passing interest.
Rail volume is expected to increase 150 percent in the corridor by 2040. If the current bridge can’t handle the current rail traffic, and it can’t, imagine the gridlock when volume more than doubles. As the Long Bridge Project pointed out, “The capacity of the corridor is governed by the slowest train.” And even now, the slowest train is often not moving at all.
The new railroad bridge—which will cost an estimated $1.5 billion—will allow VRE to expand its commuter rail service from Fredericksburg to Washington. VRE CEO Doug Allen told The Free Lance–Star that besides minimizing delays, the additional tracks will enable VRE to add more frequent service, which would attract more passengers. More passengers mean more fare revenue for VRE and less vehicle traffic on the region’s already congested highways.
Allen also held out the possibility that with the extra track capacity, VRE might be able to run trains both ways during weekdays instead of the one-way service it now provides during the morning and evening rush hours. However, he acknowledged that weekend service will remain a distant, long-term goal.
The draft EIS for a separate, fourth track project linking Richmond and the District has already been completed, he added, but VRE currently has no plans to extend the Fredericksburg line past Spotsylvania.
Allen said that VRE is currently working with state officials and members of the General Assembly to start identifying funding sources for the new railroad bridge. With all the state legislators up for reelection this year, voters should ask if they intend to set aside money in the next state budget for this critical infrastructure project.
Unlike Long Bridge, which is privately owned by CSX Transportation, ownership of the new bridge has still not been determined, Allen said, although it will likely be the Commonwealth of Virginia.
It that’s the case, state officials should insist that the new bridge be built exclusively for trains to avoid the enormous liability, safety and security risks involved with adding pedestrian and bicycle access, and to keep construction costs down. And VRE should be guaranteed all the additional track space it needs in any future agreement.