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Va. seeks federal money as work set to start on new Potomac rail bridge

The new span and other upgrades south of Washington aim to alleviate a growing East Coast bottleneck of passenger and freight trains

A passenger train travels Tuesday on a bridge that will be replaced as part of the Long Bridge rail project. The project, slated to cost more than $2 billion, is expected to be completed by 2030. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Preliminary work is set to begin this fall on a $2.3 billion rail bridge over the Potomac River — a milestone in Virginia’s ambitious plan that would expand East Coast commuter and passenger train capacity over the next decade.

Virginia Passenger Rail Authority officials said Tuesday that the first of two major contracts is expected to be issued this year, keeping the project’s timeline on track for the span to open in 2030. But during a tour of the project site along the Potomac River, they warned of delays if funding isn’t secured in the coming months to close a $729 million budget gap in the state’s rail program.

The rail authority is seeking $829 million in federal grants through two programs to help pay for construction of the bridge and other projects in Virginia’s $7.2 billion rail program. The new span and other upgrades just south of Washington aim to alleviate a growing East Coast bottleneck of passenger and freight trains at the Potomac.

“Our project is ready to go, so this is an opportunity for the feds to make an investment that shows immediate return,” said rail authority executive director DJ Stadtler. “We’re really at an exciting point. We’re going to move forward and put shovels in the ground and really make a difference to the way people move around here.”

The new bridge would sit alongside the Long Bridge, a 117-year-old, double-track span over the Potomac — the main route for trains traveling south from Washington — that is at 98 percent capacity during peak times.

The plan, conceived more than a decade ago, calls for a new two-track span parallel to the Long Bridge. The new bridge would double train capacity to support commerce and increasing demands for passenger rail along the busy East Coast corridor.

Cost rises for Potomac rail bridge that would eliminate East Coast bottleneck

The project also would add a pedestrian and bike bridge between Long Bridge Park in Arlington and East Potomac Park in the District, creating a walkable connection from the growing Crystal City neighborhood to the Southwest Waterfront.

The rail authority’s Long Bridge project senior director, Shirlene Cleveland, said crews will begin a pile-driving project this fall to test soil conditions in the area, including just north of the Potomac to assess whether soil strengthening is required before major work begins next year. The existing bridge will continue to operate during construction.

The authority is expected to hire a contractor in December to oversee work on the northern side of the project that includes construction of a rail bridge over Interstate 395 and the replacement of three rail bridges and a pedestrian bridge in the District. A second contract is expected to be issued next year for the construction of the new span over the river.

CSX owns the Long Bridge, which is mostly in D.C., as would be the new bridge. But Virginia is making the infrastructure investment, which the state says is critical to growing commuter and passenger train service, as well as handling projected increases in freight transportation because of growth at the Port of Virginia in Norfolk. Virginia officials said Tuesday that the District has committed $52 million to help pay for the pedestrian bridge.

CSX will retain ownership of the Long Bridge and two tracks south of it. The state would then own a third and fourth track from the new bridge that would carry passenger trains.

The project comes with challenges, Cleveland said, noting the tight space to build between the Long Bridge and Metro’s Yellow Line span. The project is also near Reagan National Airport, which means the builder will need to limit how high equipment can extend into the air.

Adding capacity in the 1.8-mile corridor is a critical component for the state’s plan to double train service between Washington and Richmond within the decade. The project comes as other pieces of Virginia’s rail program are moving forward, including construction of a fourth track south of Washington, the acquisition of hundreds of miles of track and right of way, and other improvements in the I-95 corridor and across the state.

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The expansion would allow Virginia to significantly boost Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express commuter services while separating passenger and freight trains, which officials say will improve service reliability. Virginia officials say they also would allow Maryland’s MARC commuter trains to travel into Northern Virginia.

Stadtler said the coming months will be critical to securing the remaining funding. Work on the northern section is fully funded, he said, while federal grants would help to complete funding for the southern section, including the new bridge.

“That determines whether we finish in 2030 or if we have to take a hard look at the whole portfolio and phase the project further out into 2031, 2032 or 2033,” he said.

Touring the project site Tuesday, officials said expediting construction of the bridge is critical to expanding rail operations in Virginia, where passenger service has grown significantly since the state partnered with Amtrak in 2009.

Ridership hit 1.26 million passengers in the fiscal year that ended June 30, a record for Virginia trains, state officials said. The state’s previous record was just under 900,000 in 2015. July also marked a monthly record, with 125,488 passengers — a 14 percent increase in ridership compared to July of last year.