Maryland and Virginia agree on plan to rebuild American Legion Bridge, expand Beltway tolling

Maryland and Virginia have reached a significant funding agreement on a plan to speed up clogged commutes by renovating and expanding the Capital Beltway’s American Legion Bridge.

The plan calls for the bridge, which connects he Northern Virginia suburbs to Montgomery County, to be widened with room for toll lanes extending across the Potomac, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday.

In addition, Maryland is using the new funding agreement to again change plans for toll lane construction around the Capital Beltway. The state is now planning to award two separate contracts to private companies to build and operate toll lanes around the top side of the Capital Beltway over the Legion Bridge to Interstate 95 North and separately up and down Interstate 270. The schedule for construction would be set by the private companies.

The state had recently suggested the toll lanes on the Beltway would be done later, but Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said the state would only be able to make the financing and operations work if all three of the American Legion Bridge, Beltway toll lanes and I-270 toll lanes are all done at the same time.

Montgomery County had strongly opposed the construction on the Capital Beltway, but has urged construction of a new Legion Bridge.

Plans for the new bridge

Officials touted the $1 billion bridge project.

“A new bridge means commuters will get to work and back home faster,” Northam said Tuesday. “This is about helping people see their families more, grow their businesses and further unlock the region’s vast economic potential.”

The Legion Bridge crossing connects the Northern Virginia suburbs of McLean and Great Falls with Maryland’s Montgomery County and is one of the largest traffic bottlenecks in the D.C. area.

The project would widen the Beltway for about three miles between the George Washington Parkway in Virginia and near River Road in Maryland.

The bridge would also include a path to walk or bike over the Potomac, similar to the path on the Wilson Bridge.

No homes or businesses would be taken for the road widening, a statement from the governors said.

The entirely new bridge, likely at the same location as the current one, would keep four regular lanes in each direction, plus two toll lanes in each direction and the bike/pedestrian path, Rahn said. The exact design is far from finalized.

“Without these improvements, our horrendous congestion will only get worse,” Rahn said.

Actual details of any construction plan would still have to be worked out, Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine said.

That would also require National Park Service and other approvals, but the goal is to break ground on the project in 2022, Rahn said. Construction would likely take five to six years depending on the method of construction.

States sharing costs

Maryland will issue initial contracting documents “soon” based on current Beltway toll lane studies, once the state Board of Public Works approves the plans, Rahn said.

Officially, Maryland owns 79% percent of the bridge, and going along with that, it will absorb most of the cost of the project’s general purpose lanes. However, the two states will evenly share the costs of the Express Lanes over the river.

The states will also share the costs of the roadway leading up to and after the bridge as follows: Virginia will cover the costs going northbound from the George Washington Parkway in Virginia to the River Road interchange in Maryland. Maryland will cover the costs going the other direction.

The long-discussed construction still requires a number of formal approvals before it can actually happen, but the agreement outlines how the project could be paid for.

Virginia plans to extend its 495 Express Lanes to near the bridge, and has already gone through most of the required approvals for that project. Construction on that extension could begin in 2021, and the initial extension of the 495 Express Lanes to the George Washington Parkway could open prior to the opening of a rebuilt Legion Bridge.

Maryland has yet to finalize how toll lanes would extend around the Beltway and up Interstate 270, or the order in which the toll lane segments will be built. Maryland plans to fund the Legion Bridge project using tolls from the toll lanes, likely through a long-term public-private partnership agreement that allows the private companies that build and operate the lanes to collect the toll revenue.

The rules could be different in Maryland’s toll lanes than in Virginia’s toll lanes, and Maryland has not committed to allowing free travel for HOV users or tour buses. Maryland has promised free travel for transit buses.

WTOP’s Dan Friedell contributed to this report. 

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