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Potomac Yard Metro station hits a snag

Alexandria hopes to build a new Metro station at Potomac Yard, but wetlands near the route and negotiations with the owner of adjacent rail tracks have stalled the planning process. Can this project get back on track?


Layout of one alternative of the Potomac Yard station. Image from the City of Alexandria.

The city has selected Potomac Yard as the location for the new infill station, to be located on the Blue and Yellow lines between National Airport and Braddock Road, and is evaluating four specific alternative sites. In May, the project hit its first delay when the environmental impact statement (EIS) team revealed that one of the alternative sites under consideration would impact land owned by the National Park Service. But the alternative has its own complications.

At that point, the Federal Transit Administration asked the EIS team to study ways to address the issues. They found that the best option would be to move a series of CSX rail tracks so that the station could be built farther west of the sensitive area, in between the relocated CSX tracks and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Moving the tracks could potentially kill two birds with one stone by giving station designers flexibility to avoid encroaching on a scenic easement established in 1999 while addressing problems with adjacent wetlands. If the tracks stay where they are, the city will need to negotiate an agreement to build on the legally protected easement.

But while CSX has met with the city to explore the possibility of moving the tracks, negotiations won't be quick or easy. After waiting four months, WMATA and the City of Alexandria only recently had the chance to meet with CSX for the first time. The EIS team can't wrap up the study and move forward with the project until negotiations are completed.

The EIS team is studying three options and a no-build alternative for the Metro station site. Alternative A would cost approximately $200 million and place a station at ground level between the existing tracks and the George Washington Memorial Parkway, but would be located farther away from the Potomac Yard Shopping Center.

Alternative B, estimated to cost $250 million, would be closer to the shopping center, and have foot paths to it and the adjacent Potomac Greens neighborhood. Alternative D is an aerial station, which would cost almost twice as much.

While city staff emphasize that no decisions will be made until after the EIS is complete, the city and the business community have expressed interest in Alternative B because it is one of the less expensive options and would provide the best access to existing planned development. CPYR, the owner of the nearby Potomac Yard Shopping Center, has agreed to contribute approximately $50 million toward the project if the city chooses Alternative B.

Because there are still so many uncertainties about if and when the city and CSX will reach an agreement, the original timeline for the project is slipping. The city initially hoped to start construction on the station in 2014 and open it by mid-2017, but now there is no longer an estimated start date for the project.

Editors' note: The original version of this post inaccurately suggested that Alexandria has selected a preferred site for the station. This is incorrect, and the text has been updated to reflect this and other minor corrections.

Mitch Margolis just finished the Digital Advocacy internship at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Mitch has an MA in English from the University of Florida, but he's currently trading in his pen for a pair of walking shoes, exploring cities and urban life abroad. 

Comments

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The environmental benefits of putting a station here outweigh any temporary encroachment on wetlands or a scenic easement that can be mostly restored after construction is done.

Straightening the CSX tracks is probably a good idea but these delays are getting real old.

by NikolasM on Dec 18, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport

"The environmental benefits of putting a station here outweigh any temporary encroachment..."

Based on what?

by Bill Smith on Dec 18, 2013 10:27 am • linkreport

Can't wetlands be like air rights? Meaning, can't the benefits of good mass transit be offset by converting other nearby land to wetlands?

by Thayer-D on Dec 18, 2013 10:35 am • linkreport

Moving the tracks could also potentially kill two birds with one stone ...

I giggled, since you're talking about environmental impact.

by Tim on Dec 18, 2013 10:37 am • linkreport

@MM
Thank you for the article. This message needs to get out. People think this is Alexandria dragging its feet and that perception is unfair.

@Nikolas
That might be the case but the law is not flexible on this front. Wetlands are very tightly regulated.

by movement on Dec 18, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

@Thayer-D in theory it is true but there are no empty spaces in the area to trade with that aren't already protected.

by movement on Dec 18, 2013 10:43 am • linkreport

Anyone know how much moving the CSX tracks would cost?

by Richard on Dec 18, 2013 10:48 am • linkreport

"The city initially hoped to start construction on the station in 2014 and open it by mid-2017, but now there is no longer an estimated start date for the project."

I'm sure this isn't the first slip in the timeline. I know its been discussed (here I think) that the 2014-2017 timeline is itself a delay; previously it was 2013 for construction start and 2016 for completion.

At this rate, the entire Silver Line (phase I and II) will be complete and operating before we're able to build a single infill station at Potomac Yard.

by Nick on Dec 18, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

@Richard
I have heard no estimates. We also have no idea how much cost-sharing CSX would be willing to do. Expect this to be negotiated over the next few months.

by movement on Dec 18, 2013 10:53 am • linkreport

This is why there are no "shovel-ready jobs"

The money the federal government gave to California under the stimulus program has been eaten up by legal fees fighting environmental groups like the Sierra Club. Ditto the Purple Line, and now this.

I recall a few years back, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow did her "Lean Forward" promo in front of Hoover Dam, praising government projects like that one. Good luck trying to get a dam that size built anywhere in the United States ever again, and you can thank the environmental lawyers for that.

by 17BobTreyO on Dec 18, 2013 10:54 am • linkreport

It is times like these that I thank God that we built the interstate highway system and subway systems when we did...just simply would not be possible these days.

by xtr657 on Dec 18, 2013 10:56 am • linkreport

Thank you for this update.

Is there any chance to get waivers for either the wetlands requirement or the scenic easement?

by Fitz on Dec 18, 2013 11:00 am • linkreport

@Bill Smith Taking more polluting and noisy cars off the road that rumble by every day on Rte 1 and the GW Parkway.

by NikolasM on Dec 18, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

One benefit for the relocation of the CSX tracks at Potomac Yard: It would straighten out a bend in a curve for freight, Amtrak and VRE trains, which would benefit Virginia commuters and Amtrak riders heading to/from points south of Washington.

The future Long Bridge replacement span (hopefully with four tracks) and upgrading to a four-track configuration south through Potomac Yard will help improve regional rail service and lay the foundation for high-speed rail improvements in the Washington-Richmond corridor.

Would there be any benefit to relocating the Crystal City VRE stop to a new multimodal station at Potomac Yard with easy Metrorail transfer and Route 1 BRT/streetcar? (It would be great if the VRE-to-Metrorail transfer at Crystal City could be upgraded.)

by Michael_G on Dec 18, 2013 11:02 am • linkreport

Am I the only one completely shocked at the cost estimates for this station, which we all know will be exceeded by the end of the day anyway?

250 million for an at grade metro stop, where the tracks are already there? Are they insane? This station is going to be nearly equivalent to the Arlington Cemetary station (open air, at grade), and no one who stands on the Arlington Cemetery platform would look around and say "gee, looks like a quarter of a billion dollar construction project".

The elevated McLean station for the silverline cost 310 million and it included the expense of tearing up all the adjacent streets, and oh...the elevated track at the station.

The potomac yard station is going to be built in a big open, flat field, with nothing else in the way or to work around, and like I said, all the tracks and associated rail infrastructure is already there. How in gods name is it going to cost a quarter of a billion dollars (minimum)?

by metro on Dec 18, 2013 11:06 am • linkreport

@ Michael_G
While it would straighten the tracks, it is still between two sharper curves, so it would not increase speeds and the distance would be only slightly shortened. I dont think this will help VRE or amtrak much. What it would do it reduce the maintenance on the tracks, as curves cost more to maintain and it would improve the drainage, which also reduces maintenance costs. CSX would really enjoy that.

Straight tracks would also reduce the cost of adding a VRE/Amtrak dedicated line or two, but that is a ways off.

by Richard on Dec 18, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

You don't just relocate wetlands in an urban environment. Because despite their value and protected status, nobody wants a smelly mosquito hatchery in their backyard.

by Kevin on Dec 18, 2013 11:08 am • linkreport

I am not sure how much of this curve they intend to straighten but you could conceivably eliminate an "S" curve, which I believe really suck for train speed.

by NikolasM on Dec 18, 2013 11:15 am • linkreport

exactly how are the "wetlands"--- presumably on or near the river -- at all valuable here?

by charlie on Dec 18, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

@Michael_G

Would there be any benefit to relocating the Crystal City VRE stop to a new multimodal station at Potomac Yard with easy Metrorail transfer and Route 1 BRT/streetcar? (It would be great if the VRE-to-Metrorail transfer at Crystal City could be upgraded.)

I don't think so. VRE in Crystal City serves a large core of jobs in those buildings, as well as getting Pentagon workers as close as reasonably possible to their workplace. You certainly don't want to relocate the station away from that.

The existing CC VRE station is nothing to write home about, but there is a chance to rebuild it as Amtrak, VRE, and MARC invest in the overall rail corridor for regional rail services. It might not improve the connection to Metro, but I don't know that is a huge transfer point for riders; a much easier transfer (potentially, with some station improvements) is available at King St.

Am I the only one completely shocked at the cost estimates for this station, which we all know will be exceeded by the end of the day anyway?

Anytime you need to build something as an addition to an existing facility while keeping the existing facility open, you're going to see your costs increase over the baseline.

by Alex B. on Dec 18, 2013 11:17 am • linkreport

@metro
The elevated McLean station for the silverline cost 310 million and it included the expense of tearing up all the adjacent streets, and oh...the elevated track at the station.

Yes, and the McLean station didn't have to preserve active service running through it while it was being built!

There is a huge difference between adding infill stations and building new extensions - infill costs more because you are doing it on an active line.

by MLD on Dec 18, 2013 11:20 am • linkreport

The current CC VRE station could fairly easily be better integrated at its current location if Metro built a east entrance to the CC Metro station. It would be a short walk across one street between the two then. And the CCPY Transitway will one day go down that street.

by NikolasM on Dec 18, 2013 11:21 am • linkreport

NikolasM
I am not sure how much of this curve they intend to straighten but you could conceivably eliminate an "S" curve, which I believe really suck for train speed.
Presumably they would be making the tracks from around S Glebe to E Curtis straight and roughly parallel to route 1. The problem is that there are still curves right above and below it. There could be some fuel savings and speed increase but I dont think it would be that significant.

by Richard on Dec 18, 2013 11:21 am • linkreport

Page 13 of this PDF shows roughly where the tracks would be relocated to:
http://alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/2013-12-10%20Council%20Work%20Session.pdf

by MLD on Dec 18, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

@MLD
Yes, and the McLean station didn't have to preserve active service running through it while it was being built!

There is a huge difference between adding infill stations and building new extensions - infill costs more because you are doing it on an active line.

I wonder if any of that could be gained by moving the CSX tracks. Obviously that would involve it's own cost moving the tracks while they are active, but once that is done you could start construction of the metro station and new approach tracks while leaving the current metro tracks as a bypass around the new station. Then when the station is nearly finished you cut the old tracks and route trains through the new ones.

Obviously it would be more expensive overall, but I wonder if there are any efficiencies to be had.

by Richard on Dec 18, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport

So, does Alternative B's $250 price tag include the cost of realigning the CSX tracks, or are they assuming that'll get picked up somehow? Because it seems a little strange that it's only and extra $55m to do that work on an active rail line.

by Distantantennas on Dec 18, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

So, does Alternative B's $250 price tag include the cost of realigning the CSX tracks, or are they assuming that'll get picked up somehow?

No, they have not costed out the re-aligned CSX option. It has not been assigned a letter (e.g. Alt A, Alt D, etc).

Obviously it would be more expensive overall, but I wonder if there are any efficiencies to be had.

The other options involved truck access to the site through the GW parkway, undoubtedly with all sorts of mitigation costs. If you first move the CSX tracks, much of that work can be done from the shopping-mall side of the tracks (much simpler). Once the tracks are moved, there is maintenance-of-way access to the Metro tracks that opens up, potentially easing construction access for the Metro station.

It is potentially an easier construction job. However, it's far more complex on the 'deal' side - the developer needs to replan for the lost area, needs to buy out (or wait out) the movie theater, needs to coordinate and not disrupt CSX, there was mention of moving existing fiber optic lines and other utilities, etc.

by Alex B. on Dec 18, 2013 11:36 am • linkreport

Could they swap out land somewhere along Cameron Run? Wetlands between a highway and railroad tracks in an urban environment has to be marginal habitat at best. I'm sure there are other interventions to deal with drainage issues that wouldnt amount to the cost and delays of moving the CSX tracks.

by BTA on Dec 18, 2013 11:38 am • linkreport

@Distantantennas
So, does Alternative B's $250 price tag include the cost of realigning the CSX tracks, or are they assuming that'll get picked up somehow? Because it seems a little strange that it's only and extra $55m to do that work on an active rail line.

Option B does not move the tracks. Moving the CSX tracks would be some other Option not yet fully studied.

by Richard on Dec 18, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

@metro

Agreed. A similar (in that it's an infill on an active line) station, NoMa-Gallaudet (formerly New York Avenue), had a final cost of 103.7 million.

by Ian on Dec 18, 2013 12:22 pm • linkreport

Not to worry, The Alexandria City Council will simply exercise eminent domain and take what they want, regardless of the Virginia Constitution.

by LOL on Dec 18, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

UF eh? Welcome.

Just build the Alternative B already. GD!

by h st ll on Dec 18, 2013 12:27 pm • linkreport

What about having the the CSX and Metrorail tracks switch places via a flyover ramp similar to Rhode Island Ave or tunnel for one of them at or around South Glebe Road and build the new station infront of the parking lot behind Staples.

Or as a way more expensive cost build a double decker station with CSX/Amtrak/VRE at the bottom level and Metrorail at the top, with the space to add platforms for VRE/Amtrak, or just build the station similar to Franconia Springdfield or Dunn Loring with the Interstate being replaced by CSX tracks

by kk on Dec 18, 2013 12:56 pm • linkreport

Question regarding Alternative A: are the any issues regarding the scenic easement and wetlands encroachment? I ask because since it seems it would be the least expensive alternative then why wouldn't Alexandria make it the next preferred option? The distance between Alternative A and Alternative B is maybe 1/8 mile.

by Fitz on Dec 18, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport

@kk
What about having the the CSX and Metrorail tracks switch places via a flyover ramp similar to Rhode Island Ave or tunnel for one of them at or around South Glebe Road and build the new station infront of the parking lot behind Staples.

That is basically Option D, which costs nearly twice as much as Option A or B.

by Richard on Dec 18, 2013 1:33 pm • linkreport

@Fitz
Question regarding Alternative A: are the any issues regarding the scenic easement and wetlands encroachment? I ask because since it seems it would be the least expensive alternative then why wouldn't Alexandria make it the next preferred option? The distance between Alternative A and Alternative B is maybe 1/8 mile.

A completely avoids the easement and the wetlands and it is about a train-length of difference(1/8 of a mile). The issue is that with the height restrictions, most of the density is going to have to be in the direction of that 1/8 of a mile, so most people using the station will have to walk an additional 1/8 of a mile.
Take a look at that article from last week which showed how much additional value property in the DC region has if it is within 1/8 of a mile of a metro line. Option A has less land, and less densely developlable land than option B, which means less taxes for the city of Alexandria.

Also
"CPYR, the owner of the nearby Potomac Yard Shopping Center, has agreed to contribute approximately $50 million toward the project if the city chooses Alternative B." So from the City of Alexandria prospective, A and B cost the same.

by Richard on Dec 18, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

@Richard
I'd rather see Alternative A get built sooner rather than later (the original reservation site designated decades ago) than everyone involved drag their feet on trying to make Alternative B feasible. Every day its not built thousands of extra cars drive on Route 1. Couldn't they do Alternative A with really amazing pedestrian features to make that 1/8 of a mile walk easier? It could be a phase II once the station is built and open. Also, if you're talking about the greater good of the environment, shouldn't they take the millions they will spend studying and mitigating the wetland impact and buy a tract of land in the Florida everglades or otherwise preserve some premium natural habitat that is not obstructing a sustainable-transportation friendly urban infill project?

by Ryan on Dec 18, 2013 5:04 pm • linkreport

Ah yes, wetlands. The areas most treasured by environmentalists because, unlike any other area (forests, fields, mountains, waterways), they have no possible use by humans. When your goal is to stick it to the Mother Earth rapists, the maximum inconvenience for humans is a goal rather than something to be avoided.

by Eric on Dec 18, 2013 5:11 pm • linkreport

Wetlands are actually quite valuable to the environment and there was good reason to give them special protections. Plenty of money has been spent under the stimulus for important projects not just to "fight enviro lawsuits".

As for substitute tracts I believe under the law they need to be close by. I dont know EPA has the legal authority to waive that requirement.

I do not think the negotiations with CSX need to be a deal killer. There is benefit for them in straightening the track.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Dec 18, 2013 5:16 pm • linkreport

Wetlands are extremely http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/sea/wetlands/functions.html>useful.

It's also not hard to make them into nice parks.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 18, 2013 5:33 pm • linkreport

Ian -- by the time the NoMA station was finished, the cost was at least $125MM. A big part of the cost was relocation of a switch.

Obviously, the big cost in Alexandria will be creating an inline station where tracks will have to be moved. It will be more complicated because the NoMA tracks were moved within the WMATA track area and didn't involve changes to CSX alignments.

WRT railroads, their policy is not to spend money on changes ("improvements") that support passenger rail of any sort, unless they happen to be a spillover from improvements to freight operations, because they are in the freight rail business, so I don't see how they will agree to contributing money to the construction. I don't know enough about the alignments over there to opine about how CSX might think, except negatively.

by Richard Layman on Dec 18, 2013 6:03 pm • linkreport

Blame NPS. The wetlands can be mitigated for, but it is NPS that won't budge off an easement I am betting. And why is NPS so concerned about a metro station (transportation use) adjacent to the GW pkwy (another transportation use)?

by Blaine on Dec 19, 2013 7:46 am • linkreport

I am in favor of the no-build option. Building this station will add considerably to the running times of both the Yellow and Blue Lines inconveniencing tens of thousands of commuters and other headed to Braddock Road and points south and west.

by Howard on Dec 19, 2013 9:30 am • linkreport

Howard, forest from the trees my friend - The no-build option inconveniences the car commuters who are stuck in ever greater congestion on the GW Parkway and Route 1. The new urbanized density around the Potomac Yards Metro Station reduces the daily trip making frequency and distance in the area better optimizing the existing capacity of the current road network. Also, by making the entire metro system run more efficiently and profitably with a new infill station, this adds to the ability to run more eight-car trains at higher frequencies.

by Ryan on Dec 19, 2013 10:16 am • linkreport

Re: Alternative A - I'm with Ryan and Fitz. I understand why the city prefers Alternative B, but it seems that the problems may be insurmountable (at least within a reasonable time frame and budget). Alternative A may offer less potential value to the city, but the absolute value of having a station in the area would still be tremendous vs. the no build option. It would be unfortunate if the planners' insistence on pursuing Alternative B scuttles the entire project.

by billy on Dec 19, 2013 12:02 pm • linkreport

I think the No Build is an option in name only. There is too many vested interests (Potomac Yard Development, JBG, the city, etc.) who have a stake in the new metro station being built. Of course we'd all agree that we wan't the most optimal option to be chosen and a certain amount of delay is acceptable. But at what point? Within the past three months there have been THREE new developments in the immediate area which have begun construction. That's a lot of sunk cost, and it was probably done with the expectation of a metro station within walking distance in 2017.

The Potomac Yard/Crystal City transitway can mitigate concerns for a while I suppose.

by Fitz on Dec 20, 2013 9:41 am • linkreport

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