WASHINGTON — After a section of Atlanta interstate collapsed amid a massive fire last week, a group is calling for more backup options here in case something similar happens, such as adding a bridge over the Potomac River.
While the D.C. area has faced changes over the last year due to Metro’s track work and a March 2016 emergency shutdown, drivers could face more significant issues without additional roads and bridges, warns Nancy Smith, the policy director for the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.
“Absolutely. It’s scary to see how fragile our transportation infrastructure system is. What could happen in Atlanta absolutely could happen here. It could happen anywhere. We have aging infrastructure,” she said.
In Atlanta, the collapse of Interstate 85 blocked direct highway access to the core of the city and has led to an immediate spike both in transit use and in traffic on local roads. On Monday, impacts were slightly less dramatic than feared, because most schools across the region are now on spring break.
A man is charged with arson in the case. No one was hurt.
A new bridge for D.C. area?
The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance generally pushes for more roads to be built or widened, and it has long supported building another bridge connecting western Fairfax or eastern Loudoun counties in Virginia to Montgomery County, Maryland, so drivers would be less reliant on the Capital Beltway’s American Legion Bridge.
On the Maryland side, that proposed bridge would end in what the county has designated as an agricultural reserve, which has made the suggestion largely a non-starter.
“What would happen here if we didn’t have the American Legion Bridge or the Woodrow Wilson Bridge or a portion of the Capital Beltway was out of service because of a major disaster?” Smith asked. “Our entire region would shut down.”
The nearest alternatives to the Legion Bridge are to go out to Point of Rocks, Maryland, to reach Loudoun County, Virginia, or to go in through D.C. and over the Chain Bridge to reach Fairfax County, Virginia.
Smith still hopes the suggestion of an additional bridge could be revived. Maryland has considered separate plans to build toll lanes like those on the Virginia side of the Beltway over the river with a connection to Interstate 270, which could include rebuilding the Legion Bridge.
Some long-range simulations for Tysons, Virginia-area development have included a potential extension of Maryland’s planned Purple Line across the river from Bethesda, Maryland, to move even more people and offer a potential option, but the loudest advocacy for another crossing between Maryland and Virginia has focused on car traffic.
“We know how bad things are on a daily basis, I can’t imagine what the Memorial Bridge or the Wilson Bridge or the 14th Street Bridge would look like if we didn’t have an American Legion Bridge,” Smith said.
Virginia leaders and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser have recently moved to ensure increased federal funding to repair the Memorial Bridge. The bridge has already crumbled to the point that weight limits are in place, and the National Park Service has warned it could be completely unusable within a few years.
“At some point we need to be replacing all of our major infrastructure, similar to how we did on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge,” Smith said.
‘We can’t let this fall to the wayside’
She acknowledged that similar concern faded even after a bridge collapse in Minnesota and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks raised security and evacuation concerns.
“We have cause for alarm, and people get concerned, and then we forget about it and things don’t happen,” Smith said, “This is something where we can’t let this fall to the wayside. Our region’s economy is dependent on us being able to move.”
The difficult decisions on how to fund any construction could include privately operated toll lanes that are free to drivers who carpool (similar to the express lanes in Virginia), combined with tax dollars, Smith said.
“Infrastructure investment is not cheap, but certainly it would have to be a combination of state, local and federal dollars,” she said. “Certainly particularly when it comes to the replacement of major interstate highways and bridges and the building of new ones, the federal government has to be a player in that financial mix.”