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Amazon deal delivers ‘certainty’ for key transportation projects in Northern Virginia

A rendering of the proposed new Metro entrance at the northwest corner of Crystal Drive and 18th Street South in Crystal City. (JBG Smith)

Amazon’s pledge to bring thousands of jobs to Northern Virginia over the next decade has injected new life and urgency into several transportation projects long sought for the area, including a second entrance to the Crystal City Metro station.

The $90.8 million project is one of five key initiatives to get an infusion of state funding as part of Virginia’s deal with Amazon — a deal that officials and business leaders say helped accelerate the project to construction within the next five years.

As part of the agreement to lure Amazon to Crystal City, Virginia committed to $195 million in transportation improvements, which also include an expansion of the Metroway bus system, a south entrance to the future Potomac Yard Metro station, improvements to Route 1, and the construction of a pedestrian bridge connecting Reagan National Airport to Crystal City.

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The Crystal City station entrance is considered critical to support the anticipated growth and enable better access to the area’s other transit options. It will put commuters closer to the Metroway stop, and to the planned airport bridge, as well as to commuter trains in the Virginia Railway Express Crystal City station, which is slated for improvements separately from the Amazon deal.

The Metro station, served by the Blue and Yellow lines, and other transit services in the area can handle the projected growth from Amazon and other anticipated development, officials said. Just like much of the region, Crystal City has experienced declines in transit ridership in recent years, and the area suffered with the departure of federal agencies over the last decade, and with them thousands of federal and military jobs.

In 2017, entries at the station were down from a 2010 peak by 8,700, or about 29 percent. The influx of Amazon employees and workers at the anticipated ancillary businesses is expected to boost those numbers.

Amazon announced in November that Arlington would split 50,000 new jobs and two large campuses with the New York borough of Queens. On Thursday, the online retail giant said it had canceled plans for the New York campus because of fierce local opposition but would “proceed as planned” in Northern Virginia, where officials have hailed the deal as the biggest economic development project to hit the region in years. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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The company expects to hire 400 people for the Crystal City headquarters this year and 1,180 next year, according to its 25-page agreement with the state, and create a minimum of 25,000 jobs by 2030. A building being renovated for initial Amazon occupancy is immediately to the north of the proposed Metro station entrance.

“Inarguably, it makes sense to do this project,” Arlington Transportation Director Dennis Leach said.

Given the location and the immediacy to the future Amazon headquarters, “there is heightened focus” on advancing work, and getting the station designed and into construction, Leach said. “It’ll directly serve the anticipated workforce.”

Metro and Arlington County officials said preparations have begun; they are wrapping up conceptual design and expect to get funding this year to move to detailed design and construction as early as 2021. The new entrance would open by 2024.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority awarded the project $5 million to cover engineering and design. And the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board, which allocates state transportation funds, is reviewing recommendations for nearly $53 million through the state’s Smart Scale program, which prioritizes transportation projects. In June, the board is also expected to decide additional funding for the project through another source for transit aid.

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“We are trying to move as quickly as we can,” said Lynn Rivers, Arlington’s transit bureau chief. Arlington is leading the construction effort, in coordination with Metro and developer JBG Smith, which owns the adjacent property where part of the entrance will be located.

The station entrance will be built in the northwest corner of Crystal Drive and 18th Street South, to the east of the current station exit. JBG Smith is planning an expansive redevelopment with retail and housing within steps of the proposed entrance and is preparing space for Amazon on Crystal Drive.

Andrew VanHorn, executive vice president of JBG Smith, said the Amazon deal gave the project the push it needed to secure funding and move forward.

“We are lucky enough to have a greater sense of certainty,” VanHorn said.

JBG Smith owns most of the property Amazon is expected to occupy in the Crystal City area. The station project and the other transportation improvements, VanHorn said, will help the area maximize its transit options: two Metro lines, commuter trains, and regional and local bus lines. Eventually, he said, the improvements, along with plans for a new rail bridge over the Potomac River, could open up the way for Amtrak intercity and MARC commuter trains to stop at Crystal City.

Two miles away, Alexandria will break ground this spring on the $320 million Potomac Yard Metro station. The station, expected to be completed by early 2022, also will help with the area’s anticipated residential and commercial growth.

Alexandria had announced last year that it was scaling back the project to eliminate the southern entrance because of budget constraints, but it was revived with the Amazon deal. City officials recently said they are working with the state to determine the timing of a $50 million grant for the access point and the scale of design it could fund. It is unclear, however, if it can be included in initial construction, a city spokesman said.

The Amazon headquarters deal also gave new life to what once had been only a dream — a 1,400-foot pedestrian connection to carry people from Crystal City to the entrance of National Airport’s terminal B/C in a five-minute walk.

The pedestrian bridge would be a major improvement over today’s experience, where the safest and most clear walk to the terminal is just over one mile — or a 20-minute walk — starting at Crystal City’s Water Park, said Robert Mandle, chief operating officer for the Crystal City Business Improvement District, which produced a report on the project.

Arlington is working with the business community on the concept laid out in the BID study. The bridge would connect to VRE and the Mount Vernon Trail and cost between $16 million and $26 million to build, according to the report.

Though the bridge is preferred, another option is a tunnel. That, however, would be more complicated because it would cross below an active railroad corridor, the report said, and cost more — between $28 million and $38 million.

The additional Crystal City Metro access point will make the station accessible from what is now the area’s main street, home to many businesses and residences. The new entrance also will better serve a community that has changed much since the station opened in 1977, with access to Route 1 — a major thoroughfare.

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VRE is also moving forward with plans to build a new Crystal City station to replace its 400-foot train platform, which is served by one track. The railroad plans to reconfigure the station with an 850-foot platform served by two tracks to remove an operational bottleneck. The VRE entrance on the northern end of the platform will also be close to many of the Amazon buildings, VRE officials said.

“We’ve been working on this project for some time now, understanding that employment in Crystal City was poised to grow in the future, and we already had a sense of urgency because of that,” said Joseph Swartz, VRE’s chief of staff.

VRE is also expecting state funding this year, with plans to start construction in early 2022, with a 2024 opening.

“These are essential investments to support long-term growth, which includes Amazon,” said Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, president of the Crystal City Business Improvement District. “They will obviously be a benefit for the business and residential community, but I think there’s opportunity to unlock the economic development potential.”

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