By 2040, regional planners expect a two-thirds increase in the amount of freight cargo traveling to, from, within, or through the Washington region, outpacing forecast population and job growth by a two-to-one margin.
Much of this surge in freight traffic will be to support and fuel the region's service-based economy. Another sizeable portion will come in the wake of a widening of the Panama Canal, scheduled to be complete next year, which will allow much larger ships to reach East Coast ports like Baltimore and Norfolk. Much of the new cargo arriving at these ports will pass through the Washington region by truck or rail on its way to inland destinations. Together, these increases will further strain an already crowded transportation system.
Recently, the Transportation Planning Board's Freight Subcommittee, created in 2008 to look at freight-related challenges facing the region, updated its "top ten" list of road, rail, and other initiatives needed to improve goods movement in the region. The list, first developed in 2011 and revised earlier this year, includes a mix of short-term and long-term projects in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Its aim is to highlight projects that the states and major freight railroads in the region are pursuing and funding, or have begun to study, but that aren't necessarily included in regional transportation plans.
One of the most significant projects on the list is reconstruction of the CSX rail tunnel under Virginia Avenue SE in the District to accommodate double-track, double-stack freight movements. Right now, only trains carrying single-stacked cargo containers can use the 100-year-old tunnel due to height restrictions, and those trains must often queue at either end while waiting to use the tunnel's single track. The Virginia Avenue tunnel is a major bottleneck for freight movements on the East Coast and creates back-ups that interfere with Amtrak, MARC, and VRE passenger trains leaving from or approaching Union Station.
Another major rail project, this one more long-term in nature, is the expansion or replacement of CSX's Long Bridge over the Potomac River. Currently the bridge is the only rail connection between the District and Virginia, requiring freight trains and Amtrak and VRE passenger trains to share the same tracks. A current study by the District Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration has identified a number of possible alternatives for increasing the bridge's capacity, especially for passenger rail. Some of the alternatives include accommodations for streetcars, bicycles and pedestrians, and automobile traffic.
The Freight Subcommittee's "top ten" list also focuses on improving truck freight movement, especially in critical highway corridors that also link airports and seaports to major markets.
In Virginia, for example, the state plans to upgrade the 18-mile "loop road" around Dulles Airport, where air freight traffic by tonnage is expected to double by 2040. The "top ten" list emphasizes, in particular, a nearly 5-mile stretch of VA 606, which the state plans to widen soon to four lanes and eventually to six as one of three main segments of the full loop.
In Maryland, officials are aiming to alleviate widespread shortages of truck parking along key freight routes, a growing problem that has recently been made worse by new federal rules requiring truck drivers to take longer breaks, and to take more breaks during nighttime hours. In the long-term, Maryland is planning upgrades to interchanges along a 3.5-mile stretch of I-70 near Frederick to improve a critical truck link between the Port of Baltimore and markets in the Midwest.
Finally, the District of Columbia has plans to launch a new real-time motor carrier information system to provide drivers of freight trucks and tour buses with up-to-date information on traffic conditions and the availability of commercial loading zones and bus parking spaces. Officials hope the new tool will help move freight trucks and tour buses more efficiently through the District and mitigate the impact of truck and bus traffic on surrounding neighborhoods.
Other initiatives on the list include broad efforts to alleviate bottlenecks and reduce congestion in critical corridors, like I-495/95 in Maryland, I-95 and US 1 in Virginia, and Norfolk Southern's "Crescent Corridor" rail corridor connecting the Northeast and the South.
Some of the "top ten" freight initiatives identified by the Transportation Planning Board's Freight Subcommittee are underway or slated for construction. Others will require ongoing study and future commitments of funding. These projects will be essential in addressing anticipated growth in freight traffic in the region in coming decades.