Alexandria sights a 2018 opening of Metro station at growing Potomac Yard


A model of one of four options proposed for a Potomac Yard Metro station. This view shows Station Alternative B-CSX, looking west from the George Washington Memorial Parkway. (Courtesy of City of Alexandria)

Two years behind schedule, Alexandria is aggressively pursuing the construction of a Metro station at Potomac Yard, anticipating an opening by late 2018.

The city is exploring four sites for a station on the Blue and Yellow lines between the Reagan National Airport and Braddock Road Metro stations. The project, after two decades of planning, is halfway through a required federal environmental review.

But as the project advances, there are increasing questions about how it will be paid for and how it will affect nearby residents, the overall development of Potomac Yard and the scenic views from the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

City officials say the Metro station is a crucial part of the vision for Potomac Yard, a 295-acre former railroad yard immediately south of the airport and downtown Washington that is being transformed into an urban center with residential, commercial and office development. In addition to bolstering mass transit, a Metro stop could accelerate development in an area where growth has taken off with the construction of hundreds of rowhouses and apartments.

“This is probably the biggest infrastructure investment the city has made, and will make, for some time,” Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks said. “Economically, this is a big gain. You are not only getting a station, you are not only procuring long-term development, but you are also getting extra revenues largely generated by the station.”

Building the project, however, could drain the city’s coffers. Alexandria plans to cover most of the cost of the station, originally estimated at $240 million. The amount is likely to rise and will be determined largely by where the station is built. The estimated cost at the four sites under review ranges from $209 million to $493 million.

A draft of the environmental study, led by the Federal Transit Administration, is expected to be released in the fall, with details about the impact on the community, the overall development, wetlands and the views from the parkway.

Once the draft is released, the City Council will hold public hearings and vote on a preferred site, officials said. A final environmental impact statement, along with federal approval of the project, is expected by late 2015, and construction could begin in early 2016, city officials said.

That is, if all goes as planned.

The project has stalled because of issues related to the scenic easement that protects views from the GW Parkway. What some have called the preferred option would put a station partly on National Park Service land and intrude on the scenic easement.

In an effort to move away from the parkway’s “viewshed,” the city spent months studying a relatively expensive and complicated option that would put the Metro station where the Regal Potomac Yard movie theater is now. This option would require moving some CSX train tracks and would add millions to the project’s cost and years to the timetable.

At the same time, some developers want the station built as close as possible to the commercial areas of Potomac Yard. But Jinks said putting the station near the commercial development — like moving it away from the parkway — would make the project more challenging and more costly.

Of the four options, the least costly, a ground-level station near the Potomac Greens neighborhood, puts the station farthest from the Potomac Yard retail center and the areas of densest development. The other three — two at ground level and one elevated — put the station closer to the retail center but cost more, and all of them, including the Regal theater site, might be more damaging to scenic views from the parkway.

A series of digital presentations released this month show how the proposed Metro station would look to a driver on the parkway. The Metro station and nearby development would be visible at any of the four sites, especially during those times when trees are without leaves.

Some community activists said that protecting the scenic drive to Mount Vernon is important to preserving the purpose of the parkway.

“The Metro station smack right on your face was not part of the plan,” said Poul Hertel, a resident of Old Town and a longtime advocate for preserving the parkway’s views.

Alexandria officials said they are working with the Park Service to address concerns and that they expect the environmental review to provide guidance on how to move forward.

Officials estimate that building the station would prompt an additional 7.5 million square feet of development.

“People are buying here realizing that there is a Metro planned for this area,” said Richard Baier, the city’s director of transportation and environmental services.

Plans for the station are part of a broader effort by the city to encourage transit ridership. The Potomac Yard Transitway, the region’s first bus rapid transit service, is scheduled to open in August and will serve a five-mile stretch between the Braddock Road and Pentagon City Metro stations.

Both options will address a boom in residential development, Baier said. Nearly 2,000 residential units have been built or are under construction in south Potomac Yard.

David Adams, 60, who moved to the Potomac Greens neighborhood six years ago, said the prospect of a Metro station factored into his and his wife’s decision to buy there. Now, he said he worries about more delays and the city’s funding plan for the project.

“They are already two years behind schedule, which is unfortunate. . . . It seems to me they are making this more complicated than it needs to be,” said Adams, who commutes to downtown Washington for work. “They say 2018, but I still don’t know exactly how they plan on paying for it.”

Alexandria plans to finance the construction of the Metro station mostly with city funds, Jinks said, but only the two least-expensive options are financially feasible.

In 2010, Alexandria approved a special tax district at north Potomac Yard for Metro construction. The special tax district went into effect in early 2011, and some of the revenue already is being used to cover the federal environmental review process.

A special tax district approved in 2011 for the south section of Potomac Yard will go into effect after the Metro station opens.

Jinks said the city is pursuing about $60 million in regional funding from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. A Potomac Yard developer has agreed to contribute about $50 million for the project, but only if the site closest to the shopping area is chosen, Jinks said.

City officials have argued that Potomac Yard can handle only so much development without a mass-transit option in place, but to build the Metro station, the city needs the revenue from an already developed Potomac Yard.

“They have been in somewhat of a financial quandary on how to get this done,” Adams said. “It will be shortsighted to put the Metro station out of the center of where it should be just to save money. . . . They need to consider what the city of Alexandria is going to look like in 40, 60, 80 and 100 years. It will all be mass transit then.”

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Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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