VDOT Looks to Expand Capacity of Century-Old Rail Bridge Seen as Bottleneck for Amtrak Traffic
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is participating in an environmental impact study of the Long Bridge project - the state's sole rail link to Washington, D.C. , and the Northeast corridor.
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said while in the area Tuesday that state transportation officials are "deeply involved" in the environmental study process.
"The bridge is now at 98 percent capacity, and we are working with DCDOT, who is the leader on this study, to see if we can expand capacity of this two-track bridge for every commuter rail, passenger rail and state rail has to cross," Valentine said.
The District Department of Transportation and Federal Railway Administration are studying whether to replace or expand the two-track rail bridge, which was built in 1904 near the Pentagon. It is owned by CSX Transportation and crosses the Potomac River , serving CSX freight, Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express .
"The purpose of the proposed action is to provide additional long-term railroad capacity and to improve the reliability of railroad service through the Long Bridge corridor," the project website states. "Currently, there is insufficient capacity, resiliency and redundancy to accommodate the projected demand in future railroad services. The proposed action is needed to address these issues and to ensure the Long Bridge corridor continues to serve as a critical link connecting the local, regional and national transportation network."
Virginia DRPT Director Jennifer Mitchell said the project is a "top priority" for state officials.
"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," Mitchell said.
No expansion can occur until the bridge capacity issues are addressed, she said.
"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."
A public hearing on the draft environmental impact study is expected to occur this summer with a final decision in spring 2020, according to the DDOT website. The first study phase of the bridge project began in 2016.
Ellen Tolton , Bristol Virginia's community development block grant coordinator and the city's project leader for the regional passenger rail, was unsure how this would impact its efforts.
"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 wrote in an email. "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."
The study, completed late last year, projects between 75,400 and 99,300 additional "on-and-off riders" per year if Amtrak extends passenger service from its current stop in Roanoke to Bristol .
However, the Long Bridge hold represents the second major blow in recent months to efforts to expand Amtrak service into Southwest Virginia .
Last December, the state announced it was putting a $350,000 study on expanding Amtrak service from Roanoke deeper into Southwest Virginia on hold after Norfolk Southern announced it was halting its involvement in the study to focus on other parts of its business.
"We're still working with Norfolk-Southern on the status of getting that advanced," Mitchell said Tuesday. "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."
Amtrak expanded service from Lynchburg to Roanoke in October 2017 , and ridership at that location continues to grow, rising 6.6 percent in the last three months of 2018, according to the state website.