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Long Bridge, worst rail bottleneck in region, being studied for fixes

BY SCOTT SHENK, The Free Lance-Star

The Long Bridge, a two-track span crossing the Potomac River into Washington, has long been a bottleneck for train traffic.

 Virginia Railway Express riders long have lived with delays caused by the narrow steel-truss span parallel to the 14th Street Bridge.

 A study aimed at improving the situation could be finished later this year.

 Three tracks on both the Virginia and the D.C. sides of the river taper down to two at the Long Bridge. Freight, commuter and passenger trains share the tracks, so the delays affect them all.

 Mark Roeber, spokesman for the Virginia Railway Express, said Long Bridge is the worst rail bottleneck in the region.

 “Clearly, something needs to be done,” he said.

 VRE trains, which carry thousands of commuters from the Fredericksburg area each weekday, have to cross the bridge to get in and out of D.C.

 Roeber said improvements to the bridge are important to VRE’s expansion hopes.

“It’s critical, the way we see it,” he said.

The bridge’s future also will play a role in regional rail expansion, according to the study, launched last fall by the District Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The study analyzes long- and short-term issues.

 The viability of the current structure is part of the short-term study. Though the bridge has undergone upgrades over time it is more than 100 years old.

The long-range vision includes “multi-modal capacity improvements,” with an eye toward “high-speed and intercity passenger rail, commuter rail” and freight traffic, according to the study. Mass transit, pedestrian and bicycle needs also are being considered.

Virginia’s Statewide Rail Plan includes potential expansion of high-speed, intercity rail service, stretching beyond its borders into North Carolina and D.C.

Two VRE projects are included in the state plan:

Adding a  third set of tracks in Spotsylvania County near the VRE station project there, is one. The station is expected to open at the end of this year. Construction of the third-track timeline is unclear at this point.

Adding a third track  from Arkendale in North Stafford to Powell’s Creek in Prince William County also is part of the state plan. But that project remains up in the air at this point.

Roeber said all who use the railroad lines are involved in the study, which he considers an important factor in planning for rail’s future in Virginia.

“The vision of it happening is now taking root,” he said. “Everybody has an interest.”

Any improvements to the Long Bridge will be expensive.

Roeber pointed out the 2007 expansion of the Quantico Creek bridge from one to two tracks. Adding a second set of tracks to the 1,768-foot bridge cost $26 million.

The Long Bridge, which spans 2,500 feet, could be expanded to three or four tracks, he said.

There are two more scheduled public meetings on the study. Dates have not yet been set.

The study’s findings are expected to be released this summer.

Scott Shenk:  540/374-5436