Spurred by Amazon’s HQ2 choice, Virginia is putting up $785 million for transportation upgrades in the National Landing corridor of Northern Virginia. The investment builds on pre-existing plans to expand the area’s non-car transportation options. However, Amazon DC won’t likely allay DC’s growing pains.
Amazon in DC Means New Metro Entrances and Expanded Bus Service
1. A second entrance to the Crystal City Metro Station at the corner of Crystal Drive & 18th Street South. Arlington’s Transportation Commission applied for a grant last year but only got design money. (Page 4 & Page 45)
2. A second entrance to the Potomac Yard Metro Station being added to the Yellow Line. The two-entrance design was scaled back this year. That station will be a cornerstone for transit access in the neighborhood. Until now, the rash new residential construction there has been stranded between Braddock Road and Crystal City stops. Unless you took the bus, it wasn’t easy to get there. Unless you knew how to get off or around the Route 1 rail overpass, you’d end up at the Glebe Road intersection before you knew it.
3. A pedestrian bridge between Crystal City and National Airport. There’s some dispute about how useful this will be, but it’s not easy to reach Reagan as a pedestrian. Unless you get to DCA’s doorstep via car, bus, or Metrorail, there’s no inviting path to walk there. If you’re at Crystal Drive and 18th Street South, and you know where to look, there’s an entrance to the Mount Vernon Trail. Walking along the trail at a leisurely pace isn’t safe, especially one that tunnels under the GW Parkway with blind, narrow corners. If you find the Airport Access Road on-ramp from Crystal Drive, you can use the sidewalk to cross over to the airport. But, that route takes you along a completely car-focused entrance. I have, on foot and bike, gotten lost there several times.
4. The Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway is getting extended in Pentagon City and Alexandria. The network of “premium surface transit” includes bus-only lanes and sheltered stops for the bus-rapid transit Metroway service. Funding was already there to extend the route north to Pentagon City (Page 66). Right now, the blue Metroway buses travel in mixed traffic along Potomac Avenue through Potomac Yard. The new investment will dedicate lanes for the blue bus crew. Finally, the changes extend the “transitway from East Glebe to Evans Lane in Alexandria.” That’s a segment along Route 1 less than a quarter mile. Right now, the bus-only lanes terminate at Glebe, and the buses make a right toward Potomac Avenue. It’s not clear from the map what they mean by “extending” the route (Page 5).
5. Improvements to Route 1 for Pedestrians. Exact plans will be hammered out later and depend on the segment/intersection. Here’s what they say on the map: “Modifies Route 1 to improve pedestrian, bicycle, and transit connectivity between Pentagon City and Crystal City” (Page 6).
Amazon a (Large) Drop in the Bucket of DC’s Job Growth
The most important thing to know about Amazon to DC is that it’s not a jobs game-changer. The retailer will add a significant number of jobs over several years, but only half the new workers DC’s added every single year.
Amazon plans to relocate or create 25,000 jobs to their Crystal City offices. That’s a lot, but not in the grand scheme of DC’s growth trajectory. According to the DC Policy Center, DC has added more than 55,000 jobs in the last three years. In fact, over DC’s recent 2000-17 boom, the region gained more than 580,000 jobs. As the popular press described in criticizing Amazon’s choice of DC/NYC, the e-commerce giant is betting on cities already rising fast regarding jobs and people.
Amazon will make it marginally more crowded than previously projected in the DMV. Moreover, Bezos will probably add jobs in bunches of thousands rather than a 25K airdrop of employees. National Landing’s housing and transportation will be pressured over several years by Amazon, instead of just one. Insert your own boiling the frog joke here. But, NoVA and the greater DC area has already been stressed by rapid job growth without concomitant transportation and housing growth.
Amazon Isn’t a Cure-All or a Death Blow
The other most important thing to know about Amazon to DC is that it’s delivering marginally more capable transit service to Northern Virginia—and that’s it. As described above, Virginia governments are investing in previously discussed projects that serve the Crystal City, Potomac Yard, and Alexandria neighborhoods specifically. DC and Maryland aren’t doing anything to improve transportation in their boundaries. At least, they haven’t declared meaningful changes of course from pre-existing plans thanks to Amazon’s announcement.
Internet searching with “Amazon” and transportation keywords yields a mountain of DC-area speculation regarding commuters. DC cycling advocates say Amazon’s choice in NoVA means a greater need for their unfunded Long Bridge restoration with a new Potomac pedestrian crossing. Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak says WMATA needs to fix Metrorail, so Amazonians and other commuters have respectable service. I kid you not: people are saying Amazon might kill dating in DC.
Amazon’s choice of DC is ancillary to most of DC’s commuting problems. Virginia hasn’t planned to invest transit upgrades beyond the National Landing area. And the Commonwealth’s elected aren’t significantly more ambitious now with the plans they envisioned for NoVA’s future. Like criticism of Obama-era Cash for Clunkers, Amazon’s choice probably brought investment forward in time, rather than inspire governments to chart courses of much-improved commuter experience. These are upgrades that would’ve already happened.
Crystal City is a transit-rich pocket of NoVA, bounded by car-centric Route 1 to the West, DCA to the East, Alexandria to the South, and the Pentagon to the North. The corridor will get even better with these investments. But Amazon isn’t a cure-all to commuter woes in the DMA. It’s not a death blow, either. Amazon chose Crystal City specifically because it has good transportation.