As long as traffic congestion remains of one the Washington area’s most vexing problems, the idea of building another Potomac River bridge may be the most divisive potential solution, guaranteed to spur contention whenever it resurfaces in ongoing efforts to improve regional mobility.
This was in evidence on Wednesday, when the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) voted to include the bridge idea on a list of 10 major highway, transit, and land use initiatives warranting further study to assess their possible benefits to the region’s transportation system.
During the two-hour TPB meeting, the bridge was the only issue debated, completely overshadowing the other projects to be studied, including toll lanes on the rest of the Beltway, I-270, Dulles Toll Road, and Route 50; bus rapid transit in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties and Northern Virginia; free public transit rides for poor residents; and placing more offices and housing near undeveloped Metrorail stations.
While no specific location for a new span was decided upon, some officials on the northern side of the Potomac condemned the possibility that it could be built upriver from the American Legion Bridge, connecting Rt. 28 in Virginia to the I-270 corridor in Maryland through Montgomery County’s agricultural reserve.
Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich, who represents his county at the TPB, proposed removing the bridge study from the final list of initiatives but his amendment failed to garner adequate support. On Tuesday, the County Council unanimously passed a resolution to oppose another study.
Indeed, opponents argued on Wednesday that the idea already has been studied for decades by both Democratic and Republican administrations in Virginia, who repeatedly failed to convince their neighbors in Maryland to support such a project.
And a recent study, which focused not on a new span but instead on traffic and transit volumes at 11 existing Potomac River crossings, cast doubt on the potential benefits of building another bridge upriver from the hopelessly congested American Legion Bridge.
The study by the Virginia Department of Transportation concluded in 2015 that extending toll lanes across the American Legion to I-270 “be the top priority for addressing western Potomac River crossings,” although the recommendations did “not eliminate the benefits of a future ‘outer crossing’ to address the needs for interconnectivity/crossing the Potomac River.”
The conclusion was based on research that showed only a fraction of cars crossing the American Legion Bridge during rush hour originated from western Loudoun and Fairfax Counties with destinations, after crossing the river, to the north and west.
More study to come
Mountains of past studies notwithstanding, the Transportation Planning Board’s staff and consultants will take another look at it. To supporters, it is a no-brainer: a region expecting another million residents in the coming decades needs more ways to cross the Potomac.
Evan Pritchard, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said the region should have built multiple bridges across the Potomac decades ago to avoid the current traffic quagmire.
“The need for additional river crossing north of the American Legion Bridge is as apparent today as it was half a century ago,” Pritchard said in testimony to the TPB.
To opponents, another bridge would pave the way to more suburban sprawl, minimal congestion relief, and drain finite dollars away from more pressing transportation needs, including Metro.
Stewart Schwartz, the head of the Coalition for Smarter Growth which opposes major highway projects, said the region’s future lies in public transportation.
“If you build it, you will certainly induce new land use in those outer areas that will induce more traffic, and you will be left with a new crowded bridge plus an old crowded American Legion Bridge,” said Schwartz, who said the idea of ‘outer beltway’ belongs in the 1950s.
After studying the 10 initiatives for next few months, the TPB is expected by the end of 2017 to decide which ones should be added to the region’s long-range transportation plan, likely provoking another public debate like the one that engulfed Wednesday’s meeting.
But TPB chair Bridget Donnell Newton, the mayor of Rockville, sought to refute the notion that Marylanders have made up their minds. She called on officials on both sides of the river to approach the study with an open mind.
“It behooves us to take off our parochial hats, put on our regional hats, and work together,” she said. “It is difficult for people to do that. Sometimes it is because we become entrenched in our decisions and we don’t want to hear new information.”