WASHINGTON — Over strong objections from Maryland, Montgomery County and other leaders, the region’s Transportation Planning Board voted Wednesday to study a new Potomac River crossing north of the Beltway’s Legion Bridge.
It is part of a broader effort to identify big-ticket, regionwide projects that could improve the region’s terrible traffic.
Virginia business groups, AAA Mid-Atlantic and groups that generally lobby for increased road construction across the region spoke in support of the additional Potomac crossing, which has been considered for years.
Speaking against it were environmental groups; groups that support transit options; the Coalition for Smarter Growth; and representatives from Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland.
“A northern crossing is antithetical to everything our county, and I believe our region, is committed to: smart growth, environmental stewardship, preservation of agricultural lands, and greenhouse gas reductions,” said Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner during a public comment period.
‘We need real solutions’
“We need real solutions to address [terrible traffic], not fantasy solutions that will never happen — I repeat — never happen. And, just as importantly, [that] don’t truly contribute to solving the problem,” Berliner said.
Berliner cited Virginia Department of Transportation studies that found most drivers on the congested Legion Bridge are going to or from a point near the Beltway.
He and his Montgomery County Council colleagues support a greater focus on toll lanes along I-270 that would connect across a widened Legion Bridge to the I-495 Express Lanes in Virginia.
Expanding toll lanes even more to cover the entire Beltway as well as other roads like U.S. 50 is a separate part of the 10-item proposal.
Transportation Planning Board Staff Director Kanti Srikanth said that toll and express bus expansion is based on the idea that most highways around the region are “hopelessly congested” at rush hour.
Supporters of an additional bridge crossing argue it could be built along with improvements to the Legion Bridge and that it could provide an important backup option in the event of any issues.
“I hope that we don’t go another 10, 20, 50 years without looking at filling the missing gaps in our transportation system in this region,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer. “This has been a missing gap for 70 years. Our role as the Transportation Planning Board is to look at long-term plans, so talking about who’s governor now for the next year … it’s not a part of the conversation we’re having … we have to look long term here.”
Prince William County Supervisor and Northern Virginia Transportation Authority Chairman Marty Nohe supported keeping the outer crossing on the list of projects for further study because the list is expected to be narrowed down in December based on preliminary analysis.
“If in fact this project is so terrible, if it really is that bad, then the analysis will prove that and Ron and I will look really stupid,” Nohe said. “But I don’t know that yet because I don’t have the analysis yet.”
While the plan does not provide a specific location for the bridge, the expected location is between Virginia State Route 28 near Dulles Town Center and somewhere just across the river in Maryland that would allow for the construction of a highway connection to Gaithersburg.
Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich, who unsuccessfully moved to remove the outer crossing from the board’s analysis, said there is no money or political will to pave over parts of Montgomery County’s agricultural reserve.
Montgomery County and the state of Maryland have consistently opposed the idea of a bridge, but would be responsible for much of the cost because the river is technically controlled by Maryland.
“Why would we put this into something to study? I would not do this to any other jurisdiction,” Elrich said. “For a lot of us, this is just a bridge too far.”
Concerns over who benefits
Prince George’s County Councilmember Dannielle Glaros expressed concerns that the project would only help Fairfax, Loudoun or Prince William counties rather than serving as the type of regional project the TPB is hoping to champion under this new aspirational section of the region’s long-range plan.
“It really talks about a narrow portion of the region … that has been the most-favored region, and could actually exasperate the east-west divide that clearly exists in our region,” Glaros said.
“I wish I could take you all out to Sterling and Herndon, Virginia, and walk you through those neighborhoods where we just had a young girl killed by an MS-13 gang member, and you can walk those neighborhoods and tell me that we don’t need economic empowerment in those neighborhoods,” Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer responded.
“If you want to empower Sterling, empower Herndon, empower one of the most economically depressed areas in our region, this bridge would be the No. 1 thing that could do it, that could give them access to jobs and give jobs access to them.”
Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette reminded the board that it has no real power to force even the plans that are ultimately selected as priorities, but he hopes regional agreement and pressure could lead to changes that cut down on traffic issues.
“Nothing we do … can require any jurisdiction to alter any existing or future plans … we don’t have the authority to do it,” Fisette said. “We do have the authority to say no to a project.”
Fauquier County Supervisor Peter Schwartz worries that the analysis that will be done over the next few months may not show the true impacts of some of the proposals because planners have struggled to accurately project how the addition of a new road or transit project would change people’s choices and habits.
“That future behavior has always sunk all of our projects by overwhelming the additional capacity because it led people to change,” Schwartz said.
He worries that means people will read the analysis to support pre-existing views on certain projects like the outer crossing.
“It will be the same food fight that it’s been every time it’s come up in the past, and was frankly evidenced by the public comments and some of the discussion that’s gone on today,” Schwartz said.
Hopes for wide-ranging solutions
As the list is narrowed down, business groups hope for wide-ranging solutions.
“The Express Lanes travel network, the commuter and Metro rail enhancements, and a northern bridge crossing will serve as major opportunities for our region to preserve and attract talent and business,” said Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce vice president Mike Forehand. “It’s our hope that further study will beget action, as we do not have time to wait.
Whatever options are chosen, Metro planner Shyam Kannan emphasized that the region’s existing issues need to be addressed first.
“Before we get ahead of ourselves and start to think about these wonderful things that could make this region much more mobile, I think it’s important to remember … we can’t even begin to think about these things until we resolve the funding crisis that is WMATA,” Kannan said.
“We are beyond levels of incredulity with regard to the conversation. The Board discussion last week … involved essentially trying to raise money by holding bake sales at Metro parking lots on Thanksgiving. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel. That’s how bad it’s gotten.”