(Updated at 1:45 p.m.) While the planned Columbia Pike streetcar has been making local headlines, Arlington County has been quietly moving forward with a project that’s bringing significant infrastructure improvements to the busy thoroughfare.
Arlington County’s Columbia Pike Multimodal Street Improvements Project seeks to implement “streetscape and related improvements for pedestrians, bicycles, transit, and vehicles along Arlington’s 3.5 mile Columbia Pike corridor.” The improvements include a completely reconstructed roadway, new left-turn lanes, planted medians, additional street trees, and so-called bicycle boulevards.
The $80 million project is currently in progress, and expected to run through 2018. About $72 million of the $80 million price tag coming from the county’s commercial tax-funded Transportation Capital Fund.
The turn lanes in particular are expected to “lessen delays and improve traffic flow,” said Bill Roberts, Transportation Program Manager for Arlington County. Meanwhile, the bike boulevards, which will run parallel to Pike along 9th and 12th Streets, will combine with planned 10-foot-wide shared bike and pedestrian sidewalks to make it easier for cyclists to traverse the Pike away from traffic. But residents might be happiest to learn about the roadway reconstruction.
The project will ultimately result in the reconstruction of the entire stretch of Columbia Pike from the Pentagon to Fairfax County. That should be welcome news for road users, who have been grumbling about the pockmarked state of portions of the Pike.
Currently, road crews are working on the stretch of Columbia Pike between S. Wakefield Street and Four Mile Run Drive. That work is expected to wrap up this fall, according to Roberts.
The stretch of road is in especially bad shape, Roberts said, thanks to runoff from multiple water main breaks, which seeped into the project area, and heavy bus traffic, which has caused depressions in the roadway, particularly around bus stops. Even with plans to reconstruct the roadway, Roberts said crews will be doing some temporary repaving in the westbound lanes in the next 2-3 weeks.
Following that work, the county expects to start road reconstruction between the Fairfax County line and Four Mile Run Drive. That portion of the project is slated to start in the spring of 2014 and end 24 months later, in the spring of 2016.
Next up after that is S. Wakefield Street to S. Oakland Street, and Walter Reed Drive to S. Scott Street. Those projects will happen concurrently between early 2015 and early 2017.
The work is necessary, Roberts says, because the underlying roadbed has become uneven due to its age and the patchwork nature of previous roadwork. Some of the existing infrastructure along the Pike dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, while the Pike itself was first built in 1810.
“What we’re going to be doing is installing a consistent sub-base and a thicker layer of asphalt,” Roberts said. “We’re completely reconstructing the roadbed.”
While the road improvements will be the most visible part of the project, much of the funding will actually going to work well below the roadway. Aging and leak- prone 8-inch water and sewer pipes under the road will be replaced by new 12-inch pipes, and existing overhead utilities will be placed underground. The utilities are all being placed in the middle of the roadway, so that water main breaks or other utility work doesn’t disrupt the future streetcar.
The timeline for the final piece of the multimodal project — from Washington Boulevard to S. Joyce Street — is still up in the air. The county is currently in talks with the federal government about a land swap that would allow the county to “realign” Columbia Pike to make a straighter, more direct connection with S. Joyce Street. If all goes well, Roberts says that work could be completed in 2018.
The Multimodal Improvements are a necessary warm-up act for the ultimate construction of the planned Pike streetcar, but the project is being run independently of the streetcar project. County Board member Chris Zimmerman, who lives along the Pike, said that improvements to the Pike are necessary regardless of whether the streetcar gets built.
“We’re going to have big traffic challenges in the next few years on the Pike, streetcar or no,” he told ARLnow.com late last year. “It’s been a good road for a long time but it’s really old now. The street itself has to be upgraded.”
Zimmerman said the county will do whatever it can to minimize disruptions to traffic and local businesses along the Pike, but it will not be a cakewalk.
“I’m anticipating a few years in which there’s going to be a lot of parts [of Columbia Pike] torn up at different times, from one end to another,” he said. “That’s going to provide some challenges and some inconvenience for us at times as residents down there. But it’s something that just has to get done.”
“It will get worse before it gets better,” he continued. “But when it’s done it’s going to be a whole lot better than it was before.
When the streetcar does get built, the disruptions will be minimal compared to those caused by the multimodal project, Roberts said. Installing streetcar track will be done in short sections and is only expected to close one lane at a time, he said. It will involve milling the track area, but not tearing up the entire street.
“It’s going to be much less invasive than what we’re doing now,” he said. ”All they’ll really need to do is lay the track and install some power traction stations. The majority of the roadway will be not be affected.”
Roberts was asked about the streetcar getting all the media attention while his project seems to fly under the radar.
“We’ve had lots of public meetings about it,” he said of the project. “But I guess it’s not as exciting to people — it’s just roadwork.”