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Rails Y Lazos Critical Thinking

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect number for passengers transported by water taxi between National Harbor and Alexandria annually. The water taxi carries more than 130,000 people a year. This version has been corrected.

How about a high-speed ferry to transport commuters from Woodbridge to the D.C. waterfront in under an hour? Or a gondola to carry people through the skies over Rosslyn to Georgetown in less than five minutes? A superfast train that could take you from Union Station in Northeast Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes and another that would get you to Richmond in 90 — more than an hour faster than today’s Amtrak service?

Sound too unrealistic for a region that struggles with upgrading its crumbling bridges, paying for new roads and finding the money to rebuild its struggling Metro system? Possibly. But transit planners, advocates and government officials say the proposals aren’t just wishful thinking.

“Some people say given Metro’s needs why should we do that? Well, we’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “We can maintain the infrastructure we’ve got while also looking at the future in terms of what our needs are and how they might be best met.”

The Washington region consistently ranks near the top for having some of the worst traffic in the country. In 2014, residents spent an estimated 82 hours stuck in traffic — up from 74 hours in 2010, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

American River Taxi owner, Shaun Guevarra, walks onto his vessel before it departs from Gangplank Marina to Washington Harbour. The taxi has been offering commuter services since April 2011. (2011 photo by Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The region also is projected to add more than 1.5 million people and 1 million jobs by 2045, according to a report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, worsening congestion.

Separate studies are underway to determine the feasibility or next steps for projects such as the commuter ferry and the gondola to provide relief.

“We need to look at making every transportation option available,” said Kanti Srikanth, director of transportation planning at COG. “If it works out, great. We can provide one more option.”

The first six months of Metro’s SafeTrack rebuilding program have shown the importance of having options.

Telecommuting and the integration of bike- and ride-sharing and buses have helped riders navigate the Metro disruptions. So why not explore commuter ferries, cable cars and bullet trains for the future, proponents ask?

Studying the proposals doesn’t mean they will materialize or that they will happen overnight, Srikanth said. It was about half a century between the time Metro’s Silver Line was proposed in a federal document and the 2014 opening of the line’s first five new stations.

Prince William County Supervisor Frank J. Principi has been pushing to bring commuter ferries to Washington’s waterways for over a decade.

In this file photo, a trial commuter ferry service for Prince William County stops in Old Town Alexandria. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

The project was recently awarded a $174,000 federal grant for an environmental impact study.

Principi (D-Woodbridge) said a market exists for fast ferry service between Alexandria and the District. Eventually, as areas along the Potomac River continue to develop, Principi envisions a wider system, accessed by bus, bike or rail, where commuters would pay fares with their Metro SmarTrip card, and with routes as far as the Occoquan in Woodbridge to the Washington Navy Yard.

“I see no reason why we can’t have fast ferry service here in our own region. It’s just a matter of time,” Principi said. He said the project could come to fruition within five years.

Ferries are heavily used in harbor cities such as New York, San Francisco and Seattle. New York City, for example, recently announced plans to expand its ferry system to connect communities not served by the subway in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx to work centers in Lower Manhattan.

But in Washington, aside from some river taxi service mostly used by tourists, the concept of a commuter ferry has been largely unexplored.

“It’s too bad because the water is a great way to get around,” National Harbor developer Jon Peterson said in an interview earlier this year. “It is a great alternative. Every major city uses their waters.”

The water taxi that connects National Harbor to Alexandria has been successful, carrying more than 130,000 people a year, according to the Potomac Riverboat Company. But the 20-minute, $7 ride isn’t appealing to commuters. Washington’s speed and noise restrictions on the Potomac also present a challenge in running a successful commuter ferry, Peterson said.

Principi said speed waivers would be granted once a plan is approved.

The proposed transit system, under study by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, still faces questions and hurdles. As with other major transportation endeavors, funding remains the key challenge.

Operating a ferry route from Alexandria to the District could cost nearly $6 million. According to a market feasibility report last year, with as many as 2,000 trips per day, the route is commercially viable.

Although there is no estimate of how much it would cost to build docks and access points, a major hurdle, according to one study, would be addressing stakeholders’ concerns “about adding another mode to the mix of decisions on existing highway and transit infrastructure maintenance needs as well as already planned and underway transportation infrastructure expansions [that] may cause even more ‘fog’ in the funding equation.”

Still, some supporters say a ferry system would be cheaper and easier than investing in underground tunnels to expand Metro. The Silver Line extension, the first phase of which opened two years ago, cost $5.8 billion. Adding an infill station in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard community is expected to cost $268 million.

By comparison, building a gondola over the Potomac connecting Rosslyn and Georgetown would cost $80 million to $90 million, according to a feasibility study released last week. The annual operating cost would be about $3.25 million.

[A gondola connecting D.C. and Virginia? It’s feasible and legal, study finds.]

The cable-propelled transit system has potential to allow people to travel more quickly between Washington and Virginia, and serve at least 6,500 passengers a day, the report says.

“This is something that could be done,” said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). Cheh, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, helped secure $35,000 in the city’s budget to fund a gondola feasibility study.

“Given that it has great advantages for easing some transportation snags and revitalizing the Georgetown area, which doesn’t have a subway, I am kind of keen to seeing what the steps are to implement it,” Cheh said.

Other ideas appear more out of reach. Building a 40-mile high-speed magnetic-levitation, or maglev, train system that could carry passengers between Washington and Baltimore in 15 minutes would cost at least $10 billion, according to estimates.

Still, a critical step was taken last year when the U.S. Transportation Department awarded nearly $28 million to conduct studies on building the high-speed rail line. The funds support ­private-sector efforts to bring maglev trains to the region as part of a larger vision for building such a system along the Northeast Corridor.

In the plan to speed up rail service along the 123-mile stretch between Washington and Richmond by 2025, some investments, include adding a third track, are already underway. Cutting down travel time between the two capital cities from the current 2 hours and 45 minutes to 90 minutes would make train travel more attractive to travelers in the corridor

[Plans for higher-speed rail between Richmond and Washington on track]

In the mix of ideas, some officials say, should be plans to continue broadening the bicycle infrastructure and extending Metro to unreached areas, such as Prince William.

Connolly says he is interested in investments that will have big payoffs.

“I say let a thousand flowers bloom and see what works,” Connolly said. “I don’t want to discourage imagination or alternatives. But once we go through it in a methodical way, the feasibility and the initial engineering processes, we will have a better idea of what’s practical and what’s not. But let’s not rule out a lot of things in advance.”

VRE Conductor Lisa Walor chats with a longtime rider on the way to Fredericksburg April, 15, 2015 in Quantico, VA. VRE is a lso expanding the first time since it opened 23 years ago.
(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

If traffic is smooth on Interstate 95, driving is the quickest way to get from Richmond to Washington — even faster than taking the train, which can take up to 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Virginia transportation officials say they want to cut that train ride to 90 minutes, make passenger train travel more reliable and attractive to travelers in the corridor, and increase capacity.

And they want to make that happen by 2025.

The state and Federal Railroad Administration are exploring the feasibility of high-speed rail in the 123-mile stretch connecting the two capital cities.  Virginia officials say the plan is to raise the maximum rail speed from the current 70 mph to 90 mph, and in doing so, make intercity passenger rail more reliable for people in the corridor and more competitive with car and air travel.

That effort would require maximizing the efficiency of the existing infrastructure while making enhancements to increase rail capacity.  The corridor, which generally has a two-track system, is used by commuter and passenger rail as well as freight.  The ongoing federal environmental review is contemplating adding a third track all along the corridor, modernizing stations, adding passing sidings and crossovers to allow for trains to pass one another more easily and straightening some curves to achieve faster speed.

“These improvements will decrease travel time and increase the reliability of the service in the corridor,” said Emily Stock, manager of rail planning at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Already there is an effort to add a third track in the area used by Virginia Railway Express, which provides commuter rail service from Fredericksburg to Washington.  That undertaking is half completed, officials said.  Some rail advocates say a fourth track might be a good addition, particularly north of Fredericksburg where rail traffic is reaching capacity because of the various passenger and freight services in Northern Virginia.

[VRE kicks off major expansion plan with new Spotsylvania station]

The Richmond-D.C. project is one in the nationwide push for high-speed rail and is part of a larger federal plan for bringing higher speed trains to the Southeast corridor, reaching all the way to Florida.

Any improvements in the commonwealth’s rail system also would support Amtrak’s vision to transform the Northeast Corridor into a high-speed system by 2040.  Many Northeast trains start their route in Virginia. Amtrak’s plan calls for the replacement of its Acela Express fleet, which only rarely reaches top speeds of 150 miles per hour, with new high-speed trains that would cruise at top speeds of 220 miles per hour.  Last year, Amtrak put out a request for bids for the purchase of 28 new high-speed trains.

Amtrak’s plan for the busy Northeast Corridor — which currently carries about 12 million passengers annually— would make a trip from New York to Washington possible in just 94 minutes, instead of the current three hours.

Other regions are undertaking similar projects.  California broke ground in January for a massive $68-billion high-speed rail project that will connect Los Angeles and San Francisco. When it’s completed, it will allow passengers to travel between the two cities in less than three hours, at top speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.  Illinois lawmakers last week passed a resolution championing a high-speed project that could bring 220-mile-per-hour trains to the state and urging Congress to invest $2.5 billion in high-speed rail.

These rail projects however, remain a dream because of their high cost and uncommitted funding sources. The Obama administration’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program has made $10.1 billion available to projects across the U.S., so far investing in more than 150 projects to advance high-speed plans. But with no permanent solution in sight to replenish the nation’s dwindling transportation fund, significant progress in high-speed rail appears unlikely anytime soon.

Supporters of high-speed rail say it’s time the country make investments in rail infrastructure to stay competitive. Foreign systems where high-speed rail networks have been around for decades continue to make strides in the industry.  This spring a high-speed Japanese bullet train  reached a top speed of 374 mph.  Advocates say that while the bullet trains are a popular mode of travel for long journeys in major foreign cities, in the United States well over 85 percent of all trips are for journeys of less than 250 miles.

“Across the globe, high-speed and higher-speed trains are not only an essential mode of transportation in such corridors, but also a significant driver of local development and economic growth,” Anthony R. Coscia, chairman of the Amtrak Board of directors told a Senate committee in December. Amtrak estimates that its proposed upgrades to a true high-speed system would cost $151 billion.

“And yet America has yet to fully embrace investments in passenger rail as a tool to grow our regional and national economies, reduce traffic congestion on other modes, and create new travel opportunities,” he said.  “As a nation, we are squandering opportunities to improve our economies and quality of life by failing to make investments in the type of high-quality rail service that Amtrak plans for the (Northeast Corridor) and that we see in existence or under development in nearly every other major economy in the world.”

A study to build high-speed rail between Washington and Richmond, is part of a larger larger higher speed intercity passenger rail plan for the Southeast.

In Virginia, high-speed rail advocates say investing in rail is critical in addressing traffic congestion and supporting the state’s population growth and the demands for diverse modes of transportation, as well as the need to move goods along the East Coast.

An analysis from Virginians for High Speed Rail, a nonprofit coalition of citizens, businesses, localities and community groups, found that while the state’s population grew about 42 percent in a 24-year period, highways only grew by 34 percent.

“We have limited ability to pave our way out of congestion, which we as a state and as a country have attempted to do many, many times,” said Danny Plaugher, the group’s executive director.  “We really have to look at a diverse transportation system with roads, rail, and airlines all contributing to moving people and commerce.”

The priority, Plaugher said should be to getting the trip from Richmond to the District to under 90 minutes and pushing the maximum speed to 90 mph so that the trip is shorter than by car. Improving reliability and adding trips also are key to passenger rail, advocates and transportation officials say.  Currently, there are few daily Amtrak trips between Richmond and Washington, and trains are often delayed due to capacity challenges.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation says it hopes the federal environmental study, which is expected to be completed in 2017, will deliver a plan detailing the improvements and cost. By then, the state would be able to seek federal funding and implement the recommendations in phases. Officials say they expect improvement over the next decade.