The soaring Air Force Memorial (its top 402 feet above sea level) has been comfortingly easy to visit since it opened in 2006. The entrance just off the start of Columbia Pike offers quick generous parking for a spectacular view of the D.C. skyline.
But that is going to change. Under the Army Corps of Engineers Southern Expansion project, the Air Force’s stainless steel spires, by 2026-27, will become part of 70 acres being enveloped by an Arlington National Cemetery long pressured to create more grave space.
That means visitors will be confined to tourist hours 8 a.m..– 5 p.m. and will be required to go through airport-style security screening. The current easy parking for cars and tour buses will be replaced by a new visitors center, with most parking relocated to the main cemetery lot a hike (or a tram ride) away.
Though military organizations support the cemetery’s goal of adding 60,000 burial sites, at least one group is miffed. The Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C. recently presented complaints to the Arlington Park and Recreation Commission and the National Capital Planning Commission.
The volunteer guild escorts troops of 56-58 tourists on motorcoaches to area monuments, and a favorite is the “beautiful Air Force Memorial, to which many of the guides take groups in the early morning or evening,” I’m told by member Ella Schiralli. “Generally, guides spend 15-20 minutes at a memorial that’s open and accessible” to seniors and student groups, including many military vets. Because the rest of the day’s activities often includes timed entry at museums, “we generally use the outdoor memorials when everything else is closed.”
The removal of motorcoach parking at the entrance to the Air Force Memorial will present mobility issues,” she said.
“It will ultimately limit the number of people visiting the memorial,” added guild colleague Maribeth Oakes. Walking from the main cemetery entrance to the Air Force Memorial is a round trip of three miles and the trams, which cost $15 for adults, can fill up before the group of 58 could board. The guild would like a southern expansion with short-term parking for motorcoaches.
Asked for comment, an Arlington National Cemetery spokeswoman said the project is “seamlessly expanding Arlington National Cemetery and creating a culturally rich and thoughtfully designed corridor encompassing the surrounding memorials.” Future events held outside daytime hours will involve special invitations, Barbara Lewandrowski said. The new security checks are required because of increased threat levels in the capital area.
“Tour buses have always had space at ANC, as there are dedicated lanes in our secure parking garage, which allows patrons to easily access our security screening,” she added. “Additionally, the proposed 9/11 Visitors Education Center, adjacent to the cemetery and close to the Air Force Memorial, is scheduled to have bus parking. We will be working with the tram’s contracting officer to add the Air Force Memorial to its route.”
The Arlington-based Air Force Association, which supports expanding the cemetery, did not respond to inquiries.
Arlington County leaders were disappointed at not getting any land exchange from the cemetery expansion.
But the community is gaining road realignment and widening of Columbia Pike from South Oak St. to Washington Blvd. This January, the county board voted unanimously to approve a multi-agency agreement for the expansion.
Its execution is now out of county hands.
Arlington environmental consultant Peter Harnik just published a four-year labor of love. “From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network,” is available from the University of Nebraska Press.
It can be found online at nebraskapress.unl.edu/nebraska/9781496222060/ for $19.95.
The paperback “might provide you with some surprises regarding railroads, bicycling, and the politics of transportation and land use that you never knew,” writes the director of the Center for City Park Excellence. Our own W&OD Trail, Harnik told me, “played an outsized role in the history and evolution of the whole national movement.”