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While the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is working through plans to make September fare-free for all riders, that could be extended into October for Alexandria riders dealing with the Metro shutdown.

Plans for the VRE are headed to review at the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission’s meeting on Thursday, July 7.

A report (page 155) from VRE CEO Rich Dalton said that while the pandemic has hit VRE’s ridership, a month without fares would simultaneously be a “thank you” to loyal customers and could attract new riders to the VRE:

September is typically a month where the regional transportation system is strained, as kids return to school and workers return from summer vacation, and it historically has been one of the highest ridership months for VRE. This September, many federal agencies are expected to transition to more permanent in-office work schedules, moving away from the remote work scenarios implemented during the pandemic. While many agencies and private employers will still allow some teleworking, most will require a higher in-office presence for their workers. Staff believes offering free fares for the month of September will encourage commuters who are considering various commute options to try VRE.

The fare-free month also coincides with the start of the shutdown of Metro lines south of National Airport.

“Starting on September 10th, WMATA will shut down Metrorail stations south of Reagan National Airport on both the Blue and Yellow Lines,” the report said. “This shutdown will last at least six weeks, and VRE will be a major contributor to the mitigation efforts in the region. Allowing riders to board for free during September will maximize usage of VRE during the first half of the shutdown.”

The report also says VRE is planning to extend the free fare into October for riders traveling between Alexandria or Crystal City and either going across the river to L’Enfant or union Station or going south towards Franconia-Springfield.

“Providing free fares for these zones in October will continue VRE’s enhanced role in mitigating the effects of the Metrorail shutdown,” the report said.

The report said passenger fare revenue in April and May this year has been between $1.1 and $1.2 million.

“We do not expect significant growth in ridership from this level during the summer months, but ridership in September is expected to increase as employees return to the office,” the report said. “If average daily ridership were to increase to 10,000 trips per day, the expected monthly fare revenue would also increase to approximately $2.3 million.”

The foregone fare revenue, the report said, would be between $1.2 and $2.3 million — without factoring in the impact of the Metrorail shutdown.

“VRE’s existing federal pandemic relief funds will provide a backstop to replace this foregone revenue,” the report said. The expected impact to VRE of the proposed free fares in September and October for zones 2/3 specifically is more modest. Current ridership to/from/between zones 2 and 3 is relatively small at only 400 trips per day, with most of that ridership occurring at the
Backlick Road station. Of course, if a significant share of passengers impacted by the Metrorail shutdown shift over to VRE, that figure could increase substantially.”

The report said the VRE will be applying to a grant from the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to cover the lost funds for offering fare-free transportation in Alexandria.

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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.

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A series of new improvements to Alexandria’s Union Station — a Virginia Railway Express stop — proposed late last year are moving forward toward city approval.

The plan is to create new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant access with a grade-separated pedestrian tunnel and elevator access. The expansion will also allow the station to take two trains at any given time, with one at each platform. The change is part of a regional effort to reduce the system’s bottleneck around the D.C. area.

According to the VRE website:

The project will provide an ADA-compliant, grade-separated pedestrian tunnel and elevator access between the two platforms at the VRE/Amtrak station in Alexandria and modify and extend the east platform at the station to accommodate eight-car trains and enable the platform to service two trains simultaneously, from a track on each side of the platform. The west platform adjacent to the station building will also be modified to raise its height relative to the top of rail as part of the project. Project funding sources include state SmartScale and Federal funds (through VDOT) to eliminate railroad grade crossings. Currently the project schedule is slightly ahead of the final year of funding allocation, which must be addressed with VRE’s funding partners through either reprogramming of funds or short-term borrowing.

The project is scheduled to go to the Planning Commission on September 1. The project was originally scheduled to be presented to the City Council in May, according to the VRE website, but the pandemic limited the scope of council meetings.

Construction on the project is estimated to start in 2022.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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A pedestrian was killed this evening by a Virginia Railway Express train behind the Regal Cinemas at Potomac Yard, according to Alexandria Police.

The person died at the scene, and the incident occurred at around 6:30 p.m., according to Alexandria Police spokesman Lieutenant Courtney Ballantine.

It is not clear if the pedestrian was male or female, and their identity and age have not been disclosed. Police are also investigating why the person was on the tracks at that time, and it is not clear who witnessed the incident.

Police also reported that there was no derailment because of the incident.

According to The Washington Post, the train was the southbound VRE train 313 to Fredericksburg, which stops nearby at Crystal City.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Morning Notes

Freedom House to Expand — “An expansion of the Freedom House Museum and renovations to the historic building it is in are in the works. Earlier this year, the Northern Virginia Urban League put the historic townhouse at 1315 Duke St. it owns up for sale for $2.1 million, after going through a difficult period keeping up payments on the property.” [Alexandria Living]

Former NFL Cheerleader Opens Salon — “From a loft-like space off a busy street in Alexandria, Stephanie Prinzbach runs the one-woman-show that is District Chic Hair Co., providing hair styling to over 115 customers spanning from Washington, DC to Richmond.” [Northern Virginia Magazine]

Treatment Court Shows Results — “In August, the City of Alexandria launched the Alexandria Treatment Court (ATC) as an alternative to jail for people accused of nonviolent felonies with significant substance use disorders… re-arrest rates of treatment court graduates are approximately half or less than that of non-treatment court graduates — which not only saves the judicial system money but also changes lives.” [Zebra]

New Rail Bridge, Expanded VRE Service Announced — “Virginia will build a new rail bridge over the Potomac River connecting Arlington and the District to significantly expand commuter and passenger train service over the next decade, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Thursday.” [Washington Post, ARLnow]

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Morning Notes

A Look at the Cannabidiol Store in Old Town — “The Zebra wanted to find out the latest on the CBD craze and visited Your CBD Store at 301 S. Washington Street! Shells Karle opened the shop in May. She also individually owns two other locations in Alabama and is looking to possibly expand to Richmond.” [Zebra]

Good Tidings at Port City — Port City Brewing has released Tidings, its holiday seasonal spicy Belgian style blond ale. [Facebook]

VRE Santa Train Returns — “A holiday tradition cherished by thousands of Northern Virginia families, VRE Santa Trains will run Saturday, December 14… Santa, Mrs. Claus and their elves will be on board listening to children’s holiday wishes and handing out goodie bags.” [Zebra]

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(Updated at 11:45 a.m.) Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is moving forward with plans to upgrade Alexandria Union Station — not to be confused with D.C.’s Union Station.

On Oct. 24, the VRE submitted concepts for a requested development site plan to improve accessibility to the train station at 110 Callahan Drive, which also serves Amtrak.

Katherine Carraway, an urban planner for the Department of Planning and Zoning, told ALXnow in an email:

Proposed improvements are to improve passenger safety, operations and accessibility. Some of the proposed improvements include the following upgrades:

  1. The installation of two new elevators to provide an ADA‐accessible route to the east platform.
  2. Elimination of the existing at‐grade crossing between the east and west platforms.

The improvements will create a safer passenger crossing between the two platforms, according to a VRE statement.

Funding for the project is provided by the Federal Highway Administration, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, and grants.

If approved, construction for the project is scheduled to be completed sometime in 2021.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Alexandria firefighters and police responded to a collision between a train and a vehicle this morning on the 4100 block of Wheeler Avenue, near Port City Brewing.

A VRE train loaded with hundreds of passengers struck a construction vehicle that was too close to the tracks. No injuries were reported and the train did not derail, but the crash drew a large emergency response.

As of 9 a.m., the train and tracks had been inspected and the train was given the all-clear to resume its journey.

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