The anticipated opening of the Washington & Old Dominion trail bridge over Route 29 along the City of Falls Church and Arlington’s border is finally here, letting pedestrians and cyclists alike breathe a sigh of relief.
A ribbon was cut for the bridge on Friday, signaling the completion of one major part of the Dual Trails project that is being started in Falls Church and eventually expanded to other sections of the W&OD, according to NOVA Parks executive director Paul Gilbert, the agency that primarily manages the trail.
But more importantly, the bridge’s construction removes one of the 45-mile trail’s harrowing road crossings that lies at the intersection of Route 29 (Lee Highway) and the exit ramp from eastbound Interstate 66, allowing for safer passage for the 1,500 – 2,000 users it sees each day.
It’s been a running theme for NOVA Parks to find these sketchier spots along the path and build either a bridge or an underpass to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians. Gilbert said that started with the Citizens Bridge over Route 7 in the City of Falls Church back in the early 90s, but has really picked up in the past decade to address areas such as the underpass at the Route 7 and Route 9 junction just west of Leesburg and another one running underneath Belmont Ridge Road in Ashburn.
Future sites that have been targeted include a bridge over Wiehle Avenue in Reston and one going over Sterling Boulevard in Sterling.
“We have 70 cross streets on the W&OD…and we’re trying to prioritize the busiest and most challenging roadways and have great separation. So either the road goes over the trail or the trail goes over the road,” Gilbert said.
What the bridge would eventually look like went through multiple iterations. Gilbert said he wanted a railroad trestle-style bridge. Falls Church City Councilmember David Snyder, who sits on the Transportation Planning Board for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, was more in favor of a bridge that resembled Victorian or Colonial architectural styles. But the public shook their heads at both of those preferences and Gilbert said they wanted something “more modern, more sleek,” with the main idea being that the bridge would serve as a gateway into Falls Church.
Doing something about the Route 29 crossing was initially a solo effort taken on by Falls Church City years ago, but the Transform 66: Inside the Beltway Project Eastbound Widening Project made it into a regional endeavor back in the fall of 2017.
The Virginia Department of Transportation came through, in Snyder’s words, on delivering the bridge with minimal funding needed from the City.
Other parts of the project that have materialized are the direct ramp to the West Falls Church Metro station on eastbound I-66, with the overarching goal of widening the interstate to three lanes an ongoing process.
“It’s a very complicated and dangerous intersection. This bridge just takes people right over that,” Snyder said. “It’s a great example of how you can achieve a lot with one project, and especially in the funding of that project was made possible due to its relationship to much larger entities because of 66.”
The new gateway bridge to Falls Church is also intended to decongest I-66 traffic by giving commuters an environmentally friendly route to the East Falls Church Metro. The station lies about a half mile away from the Lee Highway intersection.
The uncertain future of that station does take away from the bridge’s opening, if only slightly.
With its ridership plummeting by more than 90 percent due to the coronavirus pandemic throughout most of 2020, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said it needed to cut $200 million from its budget. In response, WMATA’s board began weighing permanent service cuts and station closures last fall. East Falls Church was one of those stations.
That situation appears to be looking up thanks to an influx of federal relief funding that came with $610 million at the start of the year and now $1.4 billion in the American Rescue Plan bill. One would think that Metro announcing that it was building new rail cars would mean the transit agency is feeling healthy again.
But in a March 10 news release, Metro Board of Directors Chair Paul C. Smedberg only committed to averting the expected service cuts and layoffs for its revised Fiscal Year 2022 budget. While the budget itself won’t be finalized until April, F.C.’s Snyder didn’t plan on entertaining a discussion about shutting down one of the two stations associated with Falls Church, calling it a “non-starter.”
Fortunately, Snyder doesn’t anticipate the station will be lost given recent relief money; however, he was vocal about the poor configuration of the latest proposed budget.
WMATA originally front loaded all the December relief money to get Metro through FY2021 — which still only managed to carry out 80 percent of its normal service — but would then resume its plan to cut half of bus service, put 30 minute gaps between trains and close East Falls Church and 18 other stations come FY2022 in July.
“This is the second time that budget proposal has shown up. The first time was prevented [by federal stimulus funding in December]. And now they trot out the same agenda. The same approach and they’re bailed out a second time by the federal government,” Synder said. “Well…at some point, they’re not going to be bailed out. And when it occurs then they have to make service cuts.”
Again, Snyder isn’t as concerned about the station’s future. But he did say he would recommend the City Council pull its own budget commitments to Metro as a part of its WMATA Compact if the East Falls Church station remained a target for closure.
For FY2021, the City’s direct subsidy to WMATA is $4,244,618, however, $400,000 is provided as a credit by WMATA from the CARES Act passed last spring.
For FY2022, the City’s proposed direct subsidy to WMATA is $3,867,143, which is about $23,000 more than FY2021 once CARES Act funding is discounted.
Snyder said he restated his position about the possible station closure to Metro during its budget’s public comment period on March 9.
The Dual Trails project, which was originally supposed to be completed prior to the opening of the bridge over Route 29, is expected to be finished by June, according to Gilbert from NOVA Parks.