Keith Laughlin is president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Greg Billing is the executive director of Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
Since Amazon announced its decision to open up shop in Northern Virginia, the region has been awash in questions.
What about already-soaring housing costs? How quickly might the region realize the economic boon promised by 25,000 new jobs? What might this influx of people and capital mean for a region that appears to be at capacity — especially in its infrastructure?
Simultaneously, predictions are being made about how the deal between Northern Virginia and Amazon might bring new and long-needed investments to the area’s transportation system. Everything from Metro renovations to bus rapid transit and a walking bridge between Crystal City and Reagan National Airport. This list of probable investments aligns with Amazon’s reputation as a mobility-focused employer — encouraging its employees to either take public transit, walk or bike to work. When Rails-to-Trails Conservancy partnered with Amazon to better understand the multimodal connectivity within and between its Seattle campus and the city’s broader trail network, we saw firsthand its commitment to people-first mobility. [Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.]
Regardless, this project list is the low-hanging fruit you’d expect. Instead, the Amazon expansion should be inspiring urgency in transportation officials and decision-makers to think boldly about regional, multimodal mobility designed to meet the area’s 21st-century transportation needs.
Example: moving people more efficiently and safely across the Potomac.
The river is a pain point for all modes of travel, but especially for bicycle and pedestrian use. The only crossing that meets current trail-design standards is the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, some 10 miles south of the city. The existing bicycle/pedestrian connections between the District and Arlington are an anachronism. Routes across the river end in narrow sidewalks, limited bicycle facilities or dangerous intersections.
The Long Bridge, which spans the river between Crystal City and the Southwest Waterfront, delivering passenger trains and freight, presents an incredible opportunity to build a first-class bicycle and pedestrian route across the river. The D.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, in partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation and CSX, have been working on plans to increase rail capacity over the bridge. But, really, the project is about much more than rail.
The Long Bridge Project represents a once-in-a-generation moment to create a transformative transportation solution by adding freight and passenger rail capacity, connecting major regional bicycle and pedestrian trails and providing direct links to two of the fastest-growing areas of our region. What’s more, it is a necessary connection in a vision of an 800-mile-plus connected trail system across Virginia, Maryland and the District.
Many forward-thinking transportation planners see this bridge as a critical link. The D.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration recently showcased their preferred designs for the bridge, including a separate, dedicated bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians. On the surface, it looks like a victory for regional mobility.
However, elected and appointed officials involved have repeatedly cited cost as a reason to limit the project and focus only on rail. With the bicycle/pedestrian bridge planned as separate infrastructure, there is a risk that this segment of the project would come last and face significant hurdles.
And the design drops people bicycling and walking in the middle of Ohio Drive SW, with no safe connections deeper into the city. This presents an approach that could hinder future mobility strategies.
While the news of DDOT’s plans for the Long Bridge are positive, all of the project partners need to commit to funding the preferred design (two new bridges to provide rail and trail access) in its entirety, ensuring a timely delivery of both increased rail capacity and increased trail capacity. They also need to evaluate the planned D.C. endpoint. Amazon could leverage political will and financial support to help the trail project come to fruition.
Many are rightly concerned that the arrival of Amazon will exacerbate the region’s mobility challenges. But the company’s arrival could be a huge opportunity to reimagine regional transportation priorities, forcing necessary conversations that will set us up for 21st-century growth and prosperity.
This is a chance to prioritize people-powered mobility instead of simply following the status quo. The Long Bridge Project is the perfect first step. It simply makes sense.