A $3.7 billion deal to include a new bridge across the Potomac River is expected to usher in a new era of local and regional rail travel in Virginia.
The move will increase Virginia Railway Express service by more than 70%, with two new round-trip weekend trains, and two new weekday trains that will run later into the evening.
“People can stay in DC after work and have meetings, dinner, and drinks and then get home,” said Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation Director Jennifer Mitchell. She briefed the VRE Operations Board on the day after Gov. Ralph Northam announced the landmark deal.
As part of the deal, the state will also buy 350 miles of right of way on the west side of the existing CSX tracks between L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. and Main Street station in Richmond. This will allow for a new dedicated track that will allow the state to double the number of Amtrak trains and offer a new hourly train between the two cities.
It will also mean dedicated times for passenger trains, as they now share the tracks with CSX freight trains which get priority over Amtrak and VRE trains. “We’re headed to a total separation here,” said Mithcell. “It will become unlimited as to what VRE can do.”
And that boundless ambition now calls into question a time-honored political rallying cry for politicians hoping to win the votes of frustrated commuters who sit on congested Interstate 95 — extend Metro (Washington D.C.’s subway system) to Prince William County.
At that same meeting on Friday, Marty Nohe, the outgoing public official who has spent 15 years becoming synonymous with transportation in Northern Virginia, serving as the chairman of the region’s transportation authority, on the VRE and OmniRide commissions, and as a Prince William County Supervisor made it clear.
“We’ve been talking about how to get more trains, and how do you get them across the Potomac River. There is no plan whatsoever [for Metro] to build more capacity at Rosslyn big enough to accommodate a line big enough to accommodate a new line to Prince William County,” said Nohe.
VRE, and Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol interrupted Nohe and said Metro’s Board of Directors is working on a plan to build a new tunnel under the Potomac River at Rosslyn, which would connect Arlington and Georgetown. Nohe said the new tunnel won’t come close to the matching capacity of a new Long Bridge to be built over the Potomac River, also connecting Arlington and D.C. as part of the governor’s new agreement.
“To try to do this twice [build a new Potomac River crossing] is outside the realm of possibility in our lifetimes,” said Nohe. “This makes Metro unnecessary… New York City has the greatest subway system in the world but it doesn’t go into [neighboring] Nassau County… it is served by the Long Island Railroad… [VRE] is our Long Island Railroad.”
This is the news Virginia Railway Express, and passenger rail advocates from across the state have been waiting to hear for years. The new bridge will have four tracks, double the number it has now and will allow for the increase in the number of VRE trains in the corridor from 38 per day to 92 per day, and Amtrak trains will increase from 24 to 44 per day.
Nohe’s sentiment followed Northam’s, who called the new $3.7 billion deal “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our rail system work better for everyone, both in Virginia and along the entire East Coast.”
Construction on the new on 37-miles of VRE line in Northern Virginia will be done over the next 10 years and will include a new rail interchange in Franconia as well as new track that will link up with the new bridge.