Va. rail plandepends onland transfer that is picking up speed in Congress
Congress is moving to boost Virginia’s ambitions for passenger rail — with eventual hourly train service between Richmond and Washington, D.C. — which depends on control of a small patch of federal land on both sides of the Potomac River.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to adopt the Long Bridge Act, sponsored by Reps. Rob Wittman, R-1st, and Don Beyer, D-8th, two members of a Virginia congressional delegation that has been united in getting Congress to authorize the transfer of 4 acres from the National Park Service that is crucial to construction of a new rail bridge across the Potomac.
At the same time, Sen. Mark Warner is leading a push with Sen. Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, and a bipartisan coalition of congressional representatives from Virginia and the District of Columbia, to include the land transfer in the pending appropriations package for funding the federal government and, potentially, providing emergency COVID19 relief.
“We’ll take it either way,” said Beyer, whose district includes a portion of the park service land on the south side of the Potomac in Alexandria. “The notion of putting it into the appropriations bill is a safety valve.”
Long Bridge, a two-track rail crossing built in 1904, carries freight and passenger trains across the Potomac, but it has become a chokepoint for expansion of passenger rail service along the East Coast because it’s operating at 98% of its capacity.
An expanded rail crossing is central to a $3.7 billion deal announced a year ago by Virginia, CSX Corp. and Amtrak to unlock the potential for hourly passenger rail service between the state and national capitals.
A final environmental impact statement for the project was completed in early September, approving its construction.
Wittman hailed House passage of “this vitally important piece of legislation,” which he said would boost commuter rail service in Northern Virginia and adjoining parts of his district served by the Virginia Railway Express, including Fredericksburg.
“The current Long Bridge structure is the primary constraint limiting VRE’s ability to operate more passenger trains, which could significantly reduce traffic in Northern Virginia and help with the commutes of First District residents,” he said.
“The construction of a separate passenger-only bridge will also allow freight to move freely from the Port of Virginia, taking thousands of trucks off of Virginia roadways.”
Warner introduced similar legislation in the Senate, while pushing to include the provision in the spending bill, which is necessary to avoid a federal government shutdown. The House voted Wednesday to delay the Dec. 11 deadline for the appropriations for a week to allow negotiations on a $908 billion COVID-19 relief package.
Warner worked to shape the package with a bipartisan coalition of Senate centrists, with help from Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, and other members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House.
The $1.9 billion Long Bridge project is the heart of a rail package that Virginia is working to finalize with CSX and Amtrak that would give the state control of 350 miles of rail right-of-way and 225 miles of track as part of a $525million deal with the freight rail company, which would benefit from the separation of freight and passenger train traffic at the river crossing.
“The proposed new Long Bridge project will double the capacity of the Potomac River rail crossing by adding a second two-track bridge adjacent to the existing bridge — alleviating this significant bottleneck and increasing rail capacity up and down the East Coast,” the Virginia congressional delegation and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said in a letter to congressional budget leaders just before Thanksgiving.
The near unanimous passage of the Long Bridge Act by the House reflects bipartisan support to move the legislation on a fast track to the Senate, Beyer said. He added that the bill’s technical nature — the park service doesn’t object to transferring control of the land — doesn’t diminish its significance.
“It’s a big deal,” he said in an interview after the vote. “It will have a ripple effect that will go all the way down to Georgia and Florida. If you live around metropolitan D.C., this has to be one of the most important projects.”
Earlier on Thursday, the Greater Washington Partnership released the Capital Region Rail Vision, a 25-year strategic plan for building inter-connected rail service across the Potomac between Virginia, Maryland and Washington, based on construction of the new Long Bridge and other improvements to the rail network of a region extending from Richmond to Baltimore.
“With seamless, all-day connection across the Potomac, employers will have access to a more diverse recruitment pool, job seekers will have new opportunities, and employees will have more housing options within commuting distance,” said Matt Kelly, a partnership director and CEO of JBG SMITH. The Marylandbased real estate company helped bring Amazon’s East Coast headquarters to Arlington County.