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Virginia Seeks Builders to Take On $2.3B Long Bridge Rail Project Across Potomac River

Mon April 10, 2023 - Northeast Edition #9
Washington Post

Construction of a new Long Bridge is projected to cost nearly $2.3 billion, up almost $240 million from a year ago, according to new budget projections by the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority. (Rendering courtesy of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority)
Construction of a new Long Bridge is projected to cost nearly $2.3 billion, up almost $240 million from a year ago, according to new budget projections by the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority. (Rendering courtesy of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority)

Virginia's plan to double capacity for trains over the Potomac River is moving ahead despite inflation that has driven up the project's cost and contributed to a $389 million budget shortfall, state transportation officials told the Washington Post recently.

Construction of a new Long Bridge is projected to cost nearly $2.3 billion, up almost $240 million from a year ago, according to new budget projections by the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA). The funding gap could put the project at risk for delays, although officials say the bridge is still on track for a 2030 opening.

The Post reported April 7 that the existing 117-year-old, double-track span over the Potomac — the main route for trains traveling south from Washington — is at 98 percent capacity during peak traffic times. Plans call for a new two-track span parallel to the current Long Bridge that would separate passenger and freight trains, boost commerce and meet demands for passenger trains along the Interstate 95 corridor.

The project, within a 1.8-mi. corridor, is central to Virginia's ambitious $7.2 billion rail program, which would add service on Amtrak and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), as well as expand passenger train operations across the state this decade.

"This is really our gem, of all of the projects in transforming rail in Virginia," said DJ Stadtler, executive director of the VPRA. "Long Bridge makes it all happen."

Virginia estimates the expansion will allow for 18,000 more freight and passenger train crossings annually, the equivalent of up to one million commercial trucks and five million cars diverted from highways.

"We know that if we get the trains there, people are going to ride them," he added.

Second Bridge Will Create Four-Track Crossing of Potomac

The expansion over the river would eliminate a major bottleneck in the rail system as freight and passenger trains funnel from three tracks on each end of the bridge to two, slowing rail travel throughout the corridor.

The addition of a second rail bridge, as well as construction of new track south of L'Enfant Plaza in the city of Washington, will create a four-track crossing for train traffic heading from and into Virginia.

The project also will add a pedestrian and bike bridge between Long Bridge Park in Arlington, Va., and East Potomac Park in the District of Columbia.

This spring, the VPRA is beginning a months-long selection process to determine construction teams for the project, which it has split into two segments: On the northern side, work includes construction of several bridges from the Potomac shore to L'Enfant Plaza, while work on the southern side will focus on the parallel bridge over the water.

Stadtler told the Post that Virginia plans to select the rail project's builders by this fall. With approvals already in place from federal and local agencies on the preliminary plans, chosen contracting firms would be able to move into a five-year construction period in early 2025, he said.

The new bridge will be constructed 40 ft. north of the existing crossing. The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), which has review authority over the effort, said last year that the design will complement the existing Long Bridge "without overwhelming its historic character."

It will be built with many of the same features in the existing span, including its structure, material, and form, with steel girders and similar pier spacing, according to preliminary site plans approved by the NCPC. Plans also call for the use of Ashlar stone cladding for the bridge piers, and abutments and walls near the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Funding Gap Needs Filling Over the Next Year

Though the project has stayed on track since Virginia announced an expansion deal with Amtrak and CSX three years ago, it could be delayed if VPRA does not secure the remaining funding to cover the entire cost over the next year.

The rail authority is seeking federal grants to help close a $712 million funding gap for its overall $7.2 billion rail program, said Stadtler, of which $389 million is for the new Long Bridge. He attributed the project's cost overruns to inflation, noting that the plan was fully funded when the state embarked on the rail program in 2020.

"A lot of those projects were just in the early stages of design, and so as we've moved into this with better estimates, obviously inflation has been a big part," he explained. "We found that all of the funding that we had is not going to be sufficient to cover all of our projects."

Stadtler added that if no funding is secured in the next year to fill the gap, the state would need to decide whether to delay other rail projects to fully finance Long Bridge.

While the funding gap mostly affects funding several years out, officials are confident in the planned 2030 opening.

Hourly Rail Service Between D.C., Richmond Expected

The Long Bridge project is backed by D.C. officials, along with Amtrak, VRE and CSX, which owns the existing rail structure. It comes alongside other planned improvements, including construction of a fourth track south of Washington; the acquisition of hundreds of miles of track and right of way elsewhere in Virginia; and other improvements in the I-95 corridor and across the state.

When the new bridge is complete, the state expects hourly Amtrak trains during peak hours between Washington and Richmond, the Post reported.

Business leaders have touted the expanded service as essential to the economic vibrancy of the greater Washington region, noting better access to jobs and housing.

Kathy Hollinger, chief executive of the Greater Washington Partnership — a group of business executives that has pushed for more passenger rail — said Long Bridge progress ensures a future not only with expanded Amtrak offerings, but also with regional commuter trains between Maryland and Northern Virginia.

"The new Long Bridge represents a unique opportunity to better connect the super region," explained Hollinger, calling it of "national significance" because the bridge connects the southern and northeastern United States.

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