Friday, July 11, 2008

The Choo-Choo 'Round

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on the NCPC's plan to update the Federal Quarter. The plan calls for a redesign of the urban fabric in this part of DC, which has long been marred by institutional, fortress-like structures.

Among other things, it calls for greater connectivity. It proposes to create new pathways and remove barriers to travel between the different parts of the neighborhood, notably the separation of the Waterfront from the Mall.

Greater Greater Washington has a good introduction to the subject, and plans on doing a more detailed analysis later, and his comments are usually spot on, so make sure to stay tuned.

Since Track Twenty-Nine usually focuses on transit issues, I'll stick to those. The plan created by NCPC referred to an earlier study which looked at the barrier created by the railroad corridor running east-west across the southern edge of downtown. These tracks were originally constructed using the rights of way of Maryland and Virginia Avenues to penetrate the urban core. As such, these grand, L'Enfant avenues don't quite have the characteristics that NCPC would like them to have.

Additionally, NCPC and the Federal Government are concerned with the security risks caused by the presence of the railroad tracks mere blocks from the seat of government. These tracks, owned by CSX, are the primary corridor for freight traveling north-south through the Mid-Atlantic region. Some of this freight is hazardous in nature, and NCPC feels that there should be an alternative route.

The railroads also have reason to dislike the alignment. The single-track Virginia Avenue tunnel, located in Southeast, is a major choke point for the railroad. The high number of commuter and inter-city trains on the corridor also put additional strain on the limited capacity of the CSX corridor in the Washington area.

To respond to these concerns, the NCPC produced a report called the Railroad Realignment Feasibility Study. This study looked at several alternatives to rerouting freight traffic through or around the District. The NCPC has narrowed the search down to three alternatives. One would construct an 8-mile long tunnel from Alexandria to Landover for freight traffic. The other two alternatives would involve constructing new bridges over the Potomac (near Indian Head, MD or Dahlgren, VA), rebuilding the Pope's Creek Subdivision to Bowie, and the construction of new track to connect to the Capital Subdivision (MARC Camden Line) at Jessup.

All three of these alternatives would involve removing the railroad from 2nd and E SW to the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station. The section of track from Alexandria to the First Street Tunnel would remain in place to provide access to Union Station for VRE and Amtrak (and potentially MARC) trains.

Because of the other transportation corridors in the area, I'm not sure how effective the plan would be at knitting the urban fabrick back together. The section of freight railroad to be removed under this plan is immediately adjacent to the Southeast Freeway (I-295) and Anacostia Freeway (also I-295) for most of its length. A short section of track near RFK Stadium crosses the Anacostia without a companion expressway, but doesn't really act as much of a barrier at that point anyway. Essentially, without the removal of the Southeast/Southwest Freeways, this removal will not do much to reconnect these neighborhoods.

One potential strategy involves decking over the railroad (or burying it) between 2nd Street SW and the Potomac. Part of this has already been done near L'Enfant Plaza. Decking would be difficult, however, in many places because the railroad is above grade (as can be seen in the picture at top (6th and Virginia SW)). A possible realignment would involve using the Southwest Freeway trench as the new VRE/Amtrak right-of-way, but this would eliminate the commuter connection to Metro at L'Enfant Plaza Station.

The plan's other two objectives, however, seem achievable. Since Washington niether generates or recieves much in the way of railroad freight, rerouting trains through Upper Marlboro and Waldorf will not affect business much in Washington. It will provide additional security by removing hazardous chemicals from downtown, and would eliminate several railroad bottlenecks.

Another benefit is that rerouting freight around the region would provide additional commuter rail capacity. This would be especially helpful for MARC run-through service to Northern Virgina and to VRE trains operating on the Fredericksburg Line. Unfortunately, MARC trains on the Camden and Brunswick lines would still have to compete with freight for track space. However, if the Old Main Line could be rebuilt between Point of Rocks and Baltimore, as is mentioned briefly in the report, commuter trains from Baltimore Camden and northern Montgomery Counties could run more frequently in either direction.

Hopefully, the federal government can follow through on this report's findings. While it appears to be an expensive undertaking, it also seems to be a worthwhile one. Transportation solutions are rarely easy to implement, but in the United States we can no longer afford to put off investment in our national rail system. This railroad redesign has the potential to offer a good deal of public-private partnership and is a win-win for all involved.

What are your thoughts?

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