Like one of the many oversized trucks stuck there over the years, a regional partnership will impact the long-troubled Virginia Railway Express (VRE) bridge over King Street and other nearby infrastructure projects.
At an open house next week, the City of Alexandria, the VRE and Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA) are planning to discuss the broad range of projects around the area where the rail lines cross over King Street and Commonwealth Avenue.
The VRE bridge has been the scene of a few collisions as vehicles hit the structure while trying to pass under it, but a new project proposed last year could involve full replacement of the bridge. According to the city’s website:
The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA), in collaboration with CSX, will design and construct replacement rail bridges over King Street and Commonwealth Avenue in Alexandria. The intent is to improve safety and reduce maintenance for these structures. Construction is expected to begin in Spring 2024 and finish in mid-2026.
That project is currently in the design phase.
It isn’t the only infrastructure overhaul planned for the area, though. The VPRA is working on an Alexandria Fourth Track project to add six miles of railroad track between Arlington and Alexandria and add capacity to the regional railway bottleneck.
According to the website:
The Alexandria Fourth Track project will design and construct 6.0 miles of a fourth railroad track and related infrastructure between Arlington, VA, and Alexandria, VA. The project will connect to the southern end of the Long Bridge Project and will construct one additional track within existing railroad right-of-way to accommodate more railroad capacity between Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia. Construction is expected to begin in Spring 2024 and finish in early 2027.
The open house event is scheduled from 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at the Platform of Alexandria VRE Union Station (110 Callahan Drive).
Infrastructure upgrades along King St & Commonwealth Ave strive to move Alexandria forward! Attend an open house to learn about upcoming projects and talk to City of Alexandria, @VaRailExpress, and @vapassengerrail staff about projects. More info>>https://t.co/FjEpUIJNwc pic.twitter.com/Rf60R1jaXa
— Alexandria Transportation & Environmental Services (@AlexandriaVATES) September 25, 2023
(Updated 1:20 p.m.) Train riders bound for D.C. are disembarking in Alexandria instead after a derailment this morning.
Police were deployed to Alexandria’s Amtrak station at 101 Callahan Drive to help handle unruly passengers frustrated by the delays, according to scanner traffic, but so far police at the station said that’s been “theoretical” only.
One Amtrak employee suffered minor injuries in the derailment this morning. The derailment has caused a ripple effect down the line, starting with trains held in Alexandria. More than 100 passengers were stuck at Alexandria Union Station waiting for buses to take them into D.C.
Jennifer Rivers from Richmond was going to Philadelphia with her family for a Beyoncé show.
“We should be in Philly now,” said Rivers. “There’s no communication on what happens when we get on the bus. We can drive the rest of the way, but we need to get reimbursed by Amtrak.”
Shelley burns was heading to New York.
“I’d rather just go back home to Richmond,” Burns said. “I’m worried all the trains to New York will be sold out when we get to D.C.”
As of 10:29 am ET, Train 174 and Train 84 are currently being held in Alexandria (ALX) due to a disabled train blocking the tracks in the area. Updates to follow as more information becomes available.
— Amtrak Northeast (@AmtrakNECAlerts) July 11, 2023
Virginia Railway Express trains running through the station have also been impacted by the derailment, with passengers asked to board OmniRide buses instead.
Due to the service disruption, VRE passengers can board an OmniRide bus today by showing their VRE ticket. See OmniRide’s service information at https://t.co/ENBy3mR0aY
Note: Updates are not typically available for delays under 10 minutes https://t.co/C4lIht2ssW
— Virginia Railway Express (@VaRailExpress) July 11, 2023
James Cullum and Vernon Miles contributed to this story
A new authority responsible for promoting railways in Virginia said the only real solution to a degraded bridge over King Street is full replacement.
The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA) made its recommendation to the Transportation Commission earlier this month. The CSX bridge over King Street is nearly 120 years old and is notorious for causing closures and shutdowns.
The bridge has repeatedly closed after issues ranging from rail debris falling onto the street to repeated strikes by trucks and other vehicles.
At the Transportation Commission, Todd Hopkins — part of a group from the VPRA — said the bridge is also subject to occasional crashes with trucks and that the bridge does not meet current height requirements.
“Bridge strikes do occur by high trucks that try to pass through there,” Hopkins said. “When a bridge strike takes place, a safety inspection has to occur. All traffic gets shut down for at least a couple of hours. That leads to operational delays.”
Hopkins said a study weighed four options, ranging from various types of repairs and lifts to the bridge to full replacement.
The presentation noted that there are five criteria for screening bridge repair or replacement options, which include: adding 50 years of functional life to the bridge, minimizing rail operations, and meeting current railroad requirements and roadway clearance requirements. A full replacement was the only option that hit all five criteria.
VPRA Planning Manager Naomi Klein said bridge replacement met all criteria and is the recommended design option.
A report from the VPRA said the replacement would include increasing the bridge height and possible width under the bridge. Replacement would also reduce maintenance requirements and minimize rail service interruptions.
Klein said a feasibility study is scheduled to be completed sometime in the next month to be published early next year. After that, the VPRA will review public feedback and complete the environmental clearance process before progressing with a preferred design option.
Once a design is chosen, construction is scheduled to start in the second quarter of 2024 and continue until midway through 2026.
The Transportation Commission also voted to include a note along with the report saying the city should add more signage to the bridge in the meantime with more visible warnings to truck drivers about the bridge height.
The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) said in a report that the fare-free ride program created a noticeable bump in ridership during September, though it’s unknown how much that will linger post-promotion.
In a report (page 60) prepared for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), the VRE said the commuter rail service offering free rides in September caused a 21% increase in ridership. The promotion continued into October for Alexandria and areas further south during the ongoing Metro shutdown.
“VRE offered Fare Free September, which allowed for fare-free travel during the month of September, to promote VRE service and build ridership, as well as a thank you to those riders who stayed with VRE throughout the pandemic,” the report said. “Additionally, the free fare promotion allowed VRE to serve as a major contributor to the regional mitigation efforts during the Metrorail Blue and Yellow Lines shutdown south of Reagan National Airport. VRE continued to provide free fares during October for riders traveling between Zones 1, 2 and 3 until Metrorail service south of the airport reopens.”
The shutdown of the Metro lines was originally scheduled to conclude in October, but with the Potomac Yard Metro station delay that was pushed to November and the fare-free program is recommended by VRE staff to continue until services resume.
The report provided some numbers behind how the fare-free month impacted ridership, with the uptick mainly among riders who has ridden the train before the pandemic but had not resumed VRE travel since.
“For the month of September, ridership increased by 21% compared to the previous month,” the report said. “The rider survey showed that the Fare Free September promotion was especially successful in getting riders who took VRE pre-pandemic back on the service.”
The rail system is also currently in the middle of a study looking at what commuter train demand looks like in a post-pandemic era with many of the office jobs having transitioned to work-from-home.
“The market analysis and baseline 2030 and 2050 ridership forecasts by line and station, using the currently adopted Transforming Rail in Virginia (TRV) Phase II service plan, will be completed in November 2022,” the report said. “VRE staff plans to return to the Operations Board prior to the end of the calendar year to provide the results of the market analysis, ridership forecasts, and to request authorization to initiate Phase II of the System Plan 2050 update process. The 2025 System Plan will be brought to the Commission for action in 2023.”
For years, local first responders have been dispatched for worrying signs of decay at the CSX bridges over King Street and Commonwealth Avenue. Streets have been closed for emergency fixes and rail debris can regularly be found on the nearby streets and sidewalks. Finally, Mayor Justin Wilson said a new organization could help Alexandria address this problem.
In a newsletter where Wilson also addressed Holmes Run issues, Wilson also said there may be a way of getting the bridges back on track.
“For decades, the City has expressed concerns regarding the condition of the railroad bridges owned by CSX that cross King Street and Commonwealth Avenue near Alexandria’s Union Station,” Wilson wrote. “These bridges form part of a critical rail link for freight and passenger service through our City. Under the auspices of the new Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA), it is possible that these bridges may finally get a new look.”
The VPRA was created in 2020 is responsible for promoting, sustaining, and expanding the availability of passenger and commuter rail service in the Commonwealth, according to the VPRA website.
“The VPRA is a new entity that was created by the Commonwealth to preside over a massive expansion of rail infrastructure and service for the state,” Wilson wrote. “Earlier this year, the VPRA began a feasibility study to look at the future of these two rail bridges. This study is now on an accelerated timeline that assumes construction beginning as soon as 2024.”
Wilson said the VPRA’s study is currently soliciting input from the community, which could be Alexandria’s chance to make a ruckus about the crumbling bridges.
“The VPRA is seeking input from our community,” Wilson wrote. “Tomorrow evening at 6 p.m., VPRA is hosting a virtual meeting to provide more information on this study. Sign-up online to participate in this meeting. These railroad bridges are critical infrastructure for our community, but I am hopeful that this project will lead to aesthetic and functional improvements in support of our City.”
A $30 million overhaul of Alexandria’s Union Station, a Virginia Railway Express stop, is in the final design phase and is working through some final permitting ahead of project construction next year.
An update scheduled to be presented to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) tomorrow (Thursday) noted that the project is going through permit coordinating with the City of Alexandria as part of the final design phase.
“Passenger safety will be improved by replacing an at-grade pedestrian track crossing with elevators to connect the two platforms,” the NVTC description said. “The elevators, along with
the current and proposed stairs, will connect to the existing tunnel between the two platforms. Adjustments to platform elevation will eliminate the need for stepboxes to access VRE and Amtrak trains. The center platform will be widened and lengthened to accommodate trains on both tracks.”
The widening of the center platform will allow the station to accommodate two trains at any given time, cutting down on the regional bottleneck around the D.C. area.
The VRE site also says the project also takes into consideration the Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s plans to build a fourth track through Alexandria, though the fourth track won’t stop at the VRE station.
“This project will take into consideration the design for DRPT’s planned Alexandria Fourth Track Project,” the VRE site said. “The new fourth track will not have platform access and will be built next to Track 1.”
Permit pending, the project is scheduled to start construction next year.
Alexandria Black History Museum director speaks on anniversary of George Floyd’s murder — “Yes, there have been changes – Diversity and inclusion training are being taught in universities and the American workplace, some racists are being held accountable, corporations have promised new more transparent hiring procedures that would add African Americans to leadership positions, TV shows and advertisers have hired people of color in record numbers and The Oscars are not quite so #OscarsSoWhite anymore. All of this is meaningful, but it must be more than a quick fix. Everyone needs an ally, but being a true ally goes deeper than the protests. To be a real ally, you need to be there for the hard work, the messy work, and the unpleasant conversations about race and racism. You need to turn the mirror inward and make the personal changes that will help make your community a better place.” [Zebra]
Local chef appearing on FOX baking competition tonight — “Erinn Roth still can’t believe she was chosen to compete on FOX’s new baking competition show. ‘Crime Scene Kitchen’ premieres this Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET… The contestants are allowed to explore a kitchen that was recently used to bake a specific treat. They must use their baking skills and the clues left behind to determine what was baked and then they have two hours to recreate what they think it was. At the end of each episode, after two rounds, a team is eliminated.” [Alexandria Living]
Roy Rogers to reopen year and a half after Belle View Shopping Center fire — “The Roy Rogers in the Belle View Shopping Center will celebrate its long-awaited grand re-opening on June 1, the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce announced. Located at 1506 Belle View Blvd., the restaurant closed in October 2019 following a devastating multi-alarm fire that spread along the roofline of the shopping center. An investigation by the Fairfax County Fire Marshal’s office determined that fire began in a walk-in cooler at Yido Ramen and Sushi, which had opened just days before. [Alexandria Living]
Old Hat Bar opening delayed in Old Town by staffing challenges — “Residents eager to see Old Hat Bar open its doors in Old Town Alexandria will have to wait a little longer. The gastropub was set to open Friday, May 21 at 112 N. Saint Asaph Street, the former location of King Street Blues. But like other businesses in the food service industry, Old Hat Bar faces staffing challenges.” [Patch]
City to Host Town Hall on Anti-Asian Violence — The City of Alexandria invites the public to attend a virtual Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Town Hall, “Contextualizing Anti-Asian Violence in the Age of COVID,” on Thursday, May 27, at 7 p.m. The virtual panel discussion focuses on the wave of racial incidents and attacks directed toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel features Elisabeth Chan, Sue Jean Cho, John Min, and Alexander Purrugganan, faculty members of Northern Virginia Community College. Their presentation will be followed by an interactive question and answer session. The presentation is free, but attendees must register.” [City of Alexandria]
PHOTOS: Alexandria Fire Department train on the Potomac River — “Yesterday, some of our first responders participated in swift water boat operator training. #traineveryday #stayready” [Twitter]
Today’s weather — “Partly cloudy in the morning followed by scattered thunderstorms in the afternoon. Gusty winds and small hail are possible. High 93F. Winds SW at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 40%… Scattered thunderstorms in the evening. Partly cloudy skies overnight. Low 68F. Winds WNW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 40%.” [Weather.com]
New job: Crew at AMC Theatres — “AMC amazing. That’s the promise we deliver to nearly 35,000 associates, 240 million guests domestically, and 350 million guests worldwide each year. AMC has propelled industry innovation since 1920, and we continue to innovate by delivering premium sight and sound, new and improved food and beverage options, and diverse content in our state-of-the-art theatres.” [Indeed]
Mayor gets vaccinated — “On Christmas Eve our Health Dept vaccinated 251 healthcare workers. Since that time, 51K+ Alexandrians have received at least a dose. Today, my name was called. I’m excited to receive the J&J vaccine. Thanks to our staff and volunteers!” [Twitter]
Council considers changes to taxi regulations — “Since the arrival of taxi network companies, TNCs, like Uber and Lyft in 2015, the taxi industry has been struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing market. The COVID-19 pandemic did not help the situation for an already challenged industry, and the city’s proposed code amendment aims to provide support for local taxi companies by easing specific regulations.” [Alex Times]
Wilson, Silberberg differ on stream restoration plans — “Wilson advocates moving forward with natural channel restoration; Silberberg wants to go back to the drawing board.” [Alexandria Living]
Alexandria Sportsman’s Club hosting famed sportswriter — “Len Shapiro, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated sportswriter, editor and columnist for more than 40 years for the Washington Post, will be the featured speaker for the April 21st meeting of the Alexandria Sportsman’s Club.” [Gazette]
Today’s weather — “Partly cloudy skies during the morning hours will give way to cloudy skies and rain in the afternoon. High 66F. Winds N at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 60%… Showers in the evening, then cloudy overnight. Low 48F. Winds NE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 60%.” [Weather.com]
New job: Sushi helper — “The Handover is hiring sushi assistants willing to work hard and be open to learning new skills. We are a small restaurant looking for candidates with the ability to accurately prep, cut vegetables, prepare maki rolls and follow chef’s direction. Both full- and part-time positions are available. Competitive hourly pay commensurate with experience level.” [Indeed]
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg joined Governor Ralph Northam, Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th) and regional railway leadership at Alexandria’s Union Station to mark a $3.7 billion investment in Virginia rail and the signing of the Transforming Rail in Virginia agreement.
The investment and agreement is designed to pave the way towards increased VRE and Amtrak service, greater connectivity to other parts of Virginia, and to lay the groundwork for a high speed rail corridor — something that’s been a talking point for Buttigieg over the last few months.
“Every day at stations like this across America, transportation workers are serving on the frontlines of America’s response to this pandemic,” Buttigieg said. “They have been delivering vaccines, getting people to essential jobs, and getting goods to wherever they need to go. Their service has been extraordinary, but the challenges facing them and our entire transportation system have been daunting… We are proud to say, on behalf of this administration, help is here.”
Buttigieg also highlighted the $43.2 billion in transportation funding included in the American Rescue Plan.
“We know the cuts these agencies were facing disproportionately harm workers,” Buttigieg said. “It’s a matter of equity; doing right by so many heroes of the pandemic.”
— NVTC (@NoVaTransit) March 30, 2021
Northam said the rail investment is part of a gradual push to get more people out from behind the wheel of their cars and into passenger trains.
“America is still a nation of drivers,” Northam said. “We tend to like our cars. but all those cars on the road come at a price.”
Northam said that the state, Northern Virginia in particular, is plagued with congestion to levels where adding more capacity to the highways is no longer a viable option.
“Adding more highway lanes isn’t the answer,” Northam said. “A study of I-95 found adding a new lane in each direction would cost 12.5 billion dollars — and by the time it was done, corridor would be just as congested as when we started. Rail can add additional capacity at a third of the cost.”
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) March 30, 2021
I'm grateful to members of Virginia's congressional delegation from both parties who championed legislation that will allow for the construction of a new Long Bridge and support the long-term investments we need to fund these important projects. pic.twitter.com/FwlKDxJTpI
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) March 30, 2021
Photo via Governor Ralph Northam/Twitter
One of the most visible congestion points in the city is about to get revamped.
On Tuesday, the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved roadway improvements the the intersection of King Street, Russell Road and Callahan Drive, as well as a conversion to one-way for the service road leading up to the George Washington National Masonic Memorial.
“I think it’ll be safer for one and all,” Alexandria City Councilwoman Del Pepper said.
Roadway improvements in the area include:
- Signal timing optimization to reduce vehicle delay by 45 seconds
- Upgraded crosswalks and pedestrian signals
- A curb extension for shorter crossing and to slow turning vehicles
- Bike facilities through the intersection
Improvements at the intersection have been in the works since 2015, when the city received a $1.2 million Federal Transit Administration grant. The next few years were spent collecting and analyzing data, and were met with delays due to “the combination of staff capacity and implementation of the King Street Metro Improvements Project and the 2019 Metro Summer Shutdown,” according to a city staff report.
The George Washington National Masonic Memorial Association wanted the access road shut down to vehicle traffic.
“Part of this project involves the access road around the traffic island, which connects the Memorial’s driveway to Callahan Drive,” the Association wrote in a letter to Council. “While the Memorial Association believes the modifications before Council for approval are a positive step, it is the viewpoint of the Memorial Association that this access road, which is used by motorists as a way to circumvent the traffic light at King and Callahan, should be permanently closed to vehicle traffic.”
Christopher Ziemann, the city’s Transportation Planning Division chief, said that the one-way conversion was a compromise.
Mayor Justin Wilson said that the traffic island in the center of the intersection will not be impacted, as it is designated as a national historic landmark.
“I think this is a step forward and certainly enjoys broad-based community support, which is great,” he said. “I appreciate staff’s efforts to build consensus on the changes on this intersection. I know this has been a long time coming.”