Opening of Potomac Yard Metro nears

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Opening of Potomac Yard Metro nears
Photo/City of Alexandria
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By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

A string of controversies and delays have long dogged the Potomac Yard Metro Station, but Andy Off, vice president and chief infrastructure officer of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, on Tuesday confirmed that a May opening is planned.

The May date was announced late last year, but concerns with soil stability under the tracks, the latest problem with the project, had jeopardized the ribbon cutting.

“We’re still looking good for that time period. We’re starting to work through the details of establishing a specific date,” Off said. “… Certainly it’s a beautiful new station that’s been planned for a long, long time, so we certainly want to make it a special event.”

This past weekend, WMATA used single-tracking – running both north and southbound trains on a single track in a specific area – to complete the final power outage for the Potomac Yard Metro Station. To do this, crews used the recently installed crossover interlocking to run the trains from Ronald Reagan National Airport to Potomac Yard.

According to Off, this capability represents an added benefit in terms of operational flexibility.

“We’re definitely getting close and certainly looking forward to opening that up and being able to serve that part of the community,” Off said.

A Metro station at Potomac Yard was on the city’s wish list for at least a decade before the project moved into the formal planning process in 2017 and 2018. However, controversies have abounded from the start.

The first and most enduring point of discord has been the placement of the station on slightly more than five acres of wetlands – although the loss of two of the acres is supposed to be temporary as they have been used to stage the project. City documents show that this site, known as “alternative B,” was the preferred location of developers.

From the start, a host of environmental activists have opposed the wetlands location and the project’s environmental methodology. Rod Simmons, who is the city’s natural resource manager, spoke with the Times as a private citizen.

“They missed everything. They missed the tidal marsh. They missed rare species. They missed everything, because they didn’t look for it,” Simmons said. “… That’s why buildings fail – because engineering and geologic considerations are ignored.”

In addition to environmental concerns, in 2018 it was announced the project’s cost had increased by $50 million. There was an additional controversy in 2018 surrounding the elimination of the station’s south entrance – the side of the station closest to adjacent residents – though the south entrance was later restored. A resident-filed FOIA request, which the Times reported on in 2018, showed that Alexandria officials had not been forthcoming in notifying the public about these alterations.

Then on Sept. 30, 2022, WMATA announced that the Potomac Yard station opening would be delayed until 2023 due to unexpected site conditions. Three weeks prior, the process had begun to connect new tracks to the future station, but as site work progressed “crews discovered issues with the underlying soil that affected the structural stability of the ground beneath the tracks,” WMATA said in a statement, adding that the construction delay was due to “the contractor’s failure to meet the project delivery schedule.”

“This work was beyond the initial scope of the tie-in work. Reinforcing the ground below the tracks required removing any work already completed, excavating additional soil beneath 1,400 feet of track and installing new subgrade materials to provide the required stability,” the statement reads.

Off explained to the Times that the unsuitable soil did not provide the necessary compaction to support a stable foundation, so WMATA delayed the shutdown for another two weeks.

“We took that extra time, i.e. this two weeks in extending the shutdown, to fully dig out all those old soils, add some special geotextile materials and then backfill with better soils,” Off said.

When asked about preliminary analysis of the site, Off said that WMATA conducted many studies before any work began – just not under the current tracks.

“Obviously it’s a huge site, and we did extensive geotechnical evaluations and borings before we started, but we didn’t do any under our existing tracks. Of course, those tracks were built upwards of 35 years ago and certainly have taken a pounding over the years. And typically those types of things are just not going to rear their head – it’s like remodeling your house and you pull apart the wall and find out you have some bad copper pipe. There are just some things you’re not going to dig up until you really get into it.”

According to Off, the remediation efforts happening now will likely prevent future work at the site.

“We don’t see that being a problem in the future. It did cause a two-week delay, but hopefully in the long run it was the right move and we think we got it taken care of,” Off said.

Prior to the most recent delay, WMATA announced on July 26, 2021 that original plans of opening in spring 2022 would be pushed back five months to fall 2022. At the time, WMATA cited safety concerns with the design of the automatic train control systems.

“[The ATC system] did not meet all of the important safety requirements to ensure the safe operations of trains. The ATC system prevents trains from getting too close to one another and ensures trains always maintain a safe distance,” the statement reads.

Although the various delays are far from ideal, Off said, it’s not a terrible outcome in the grand scheme of things.

“[We’re looking at] roughly a year to 14 months delayed [for the station], which is not obviously where we want to be, but we have worked through a host of issues and through a lot of challenges over the course of the past five years that [we] feel pretty good about that,” Off said.

However, Simmons contended that problems with the Potomac Yard Metro are part of a larger and deeper regional issue with environmental destruction.

“Whether it be stream construction projects or putting inappropriate projects on slopes that are unstable, putting structures in wetlands, it’s all the same problem,” Simmons said. “My main concern is that sound science is just ignored as an inconvenient truth.”

As the scheduled opening date inches closer, the City of Alexandria is winding down some of its Metro monitoring committees. For instance, the Potomac Yard Metrorail Implementation Work Group, which meets regularly to discuss issues related to the Potomac station, held its final meeting last month.

But according to Mayor Justin Wilson, city staff is still constantly meeting with WMATA to check in on the status of the station, and has so far not observed any derailments.

“It was a preventable, frustrating and very, very expensive delay. That’s why we have been working very, very closely [with] WMATA to not repeat some of those mistakes and make sure that at least on this very delayed schedule, we meet the schedule,” Wilson said.

With a budget of $370 million, Potomac Yard Metro Station is expected to finally open this year, but Wilson said that conversations will not end when it does.

“Our expectation is that they meet the timeline they’ve provided to the residents and businesses of our community, and that’s what we’re going to hold their feet to the fire to do,” Wilson said. “There will be a substantial amount of time when this is done to go through what went wrong, why it went wrong and who is accountable for what went wrong, but I think at this point our focus is [to] get this station open as quickly as we possibly can.”

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