Bridge Project Halts Rail Expansion Planning

A railroad bridge project in the Washington area has put on hold planning for additional Amtrak service to Virginia.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation said it has shelved for an indefinite period of time any thoughts about paying for additional intercity rail service.

The department is also taking part in the environmental impact study of rebuilding the Long Bridge, the only rail line between Washington and Virginia that feeds Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Officials say the bridge in Arlington, Virginia, is at 98 percent capacity.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said the study will examine expanding capacity of the two-track bridge, which is used by Amtrak, CSX, and Virginia Railway Express.

The project is being led by the Department of Transportation of the District of Columbia. Also involved in the project is the Federal Railway Administration.

Built in 1904, the bridge spans the Potomac River near the Pentagon.

A website devoted to the project notes that increasing the capacity of the bridge would also “improve the reliability of railroad service through the Long Bridge corridor.”

Virginia DRPT Director Jennifer Mitchell said the project is a high priority.

“All of the passenger rail service we have today — the service that does originate in Roanoke, the service that originates in Hampton Roads, anything that comes from North Carolina — everything funnels over that bridge.

“We can’t expand any more passenger rail or get any more slots until we’re able to expand that bridge, and the cost could be from $1.6 billion to $2 billion. It’s a big project, but we’re not going to fund it ourselves,” Mitchell said.

“We’ll clearly need other sources of funding, federal funding, other state funding. In this six-year plan, we’ve really prioritized that project and some of the Virginia approaches into that project because we recognize how important it is for the whole state. That’s really where we’ve directed a lot of our funding.”

The environmental study began in 2016 and hearing on a draft of it is expected to be held this summer with the final report released in early 2020.

One interested observer is Ellen Tolton, the community development block grant coordinator and the project leader for the efforts in Bristol, Virginia, to bring Amtrak service to that community.

Bristol has not had scheduled intercity rail passenger service since 1971.

“The city knew from the beginning this would be a long process and we will continue our efforts to advocate for bringing passenger rail back to Bristol,” Tolton said. “We do not know at this time how this new information will affect our progress, but we have demonstrated the benefits and need for rail in Bristol through the recent Economic Impact Study and we will continue to move forward, working with local stakeholders, state officials and vested localities.”

Bristol officials want to see an existing Northeast Regional train extended from Roanoke, where it now originates and terminates to Bristol.

A study found that extending service to Bristol would net between 75,400 and 99,300 additional passengers.

Although extending Amtrak service from Roanoke to Bristol would not be directly affected by the Long Bridge project, a decision by Norfolk Southern, the would-be host railroad between the two cities, to halt its involvement in the process has stymied the expansion.

NS said it was focusing on other parts of its business.

“We’re still working with Norfolk-Southern on the status of getting that advanced,” Mitchell said. “Right now, it is still something we’re looking very closely at — particularly incrementally to be able to get to the New River Valley as well.”

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