Potential new Potomac crossing pits Maryland against Virginia

WASHINGTON — A new way to drive across the Potomac River that avoids the traffic-clogged Beltway has the support of Virginia transportation leaders, even if Maryland says it is not going to happen any time soon.

The Virginia Department of Transportation floated the idea of extending the I-495 Express Lanes over the Legion Bridge to the Interstate 270 Spur in Maryland at a Commonwealth Transportation Board meeting this week. Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue said his staff would really prefer to add an entire new crossing miles to the west, connecting Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

“Tysons Corner is located right off of 495 in central Fairfax, and as the development takes place there, because of the Silver Line investment [and] Beltway HOT Lanes, it’s really anticipated that you’ll have a lot more people commuting from Maryland into Tysons Corner and back,” Donohue said.

“Our focus, looking at river crossings, is addressing the issues at the American Legion Bridge. It has the worst congestion; it has the largest projected growth into the future,” Donohue told the board.

But Maryland has said it is not interested in building another crossing, especially into the rural areas of northwestern Montgomery County between the Potomac River and 270.

Other groups opposed to a new Potomac River crossing argue it would simply create more traffic and draw more cars to areas the plan is intended to help.

Donohue suggested that a new bridge could connect one of the high-capacity corridors that end in the area of Route 7, to the Intercounty Connector around Gaithersburg.

He says any future roads in Maryland that extend toward the river would be an early sign that Maryland leaders may have changed their minds.

Gary Garczynski, who represents the Northern Virginia District on the board, believes a crossing somewhere in the approximately 30 miles between Route 15 and the Beltway would help with future growth, and protect Route 15 from getting overwhelmed.

“The Silver Line has opened; it’s going out to Reston, [eventually] going all the way to Dulles, and that’s going to continue to be an employment hub for economic development in Northern Virginia, and on the Maryland side it’s the same thing — they eye their 270 corridor as their bio-med corridor, and there is expansion all the way up to Frederick,” he says.

“Historically … the worst-congested spot in the metro region [is] once you cross the Legion Bridge and get up near that spur. Maryland supposedly has worked on that as long as I’ve been in Northern Virginia — 38 years; there’s no improvement,” Garcynski said.

Virginia recently opened a shoulder lane to help with the traffic on the Inner Loop of the Beltway where the Express Lanes merge into the general lanes.

Garcynski says the state should “not let Maryland off the hook, on just saying we don’t want to discuss” a new crossing.

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne emphasizes that Virginia does not control the crossings, since Maryland has jurisdiction up to the Virginia shore. So not only would Maryland have to be on board with a new bridge; Annapolis may also have to take the initiative.

Board member Scott Kasprowicz, who lives in Loudoun County, questions why Virginia would keep pushing for a bridge that Maryland does not want.

“Planning dollars are scarce; relationships with surrounding jurisdictions are challenging. Does it make sense to continue to pursue something that Maryland doesn’t see a need for, and will not ultimately fund?” he asked Layne.

Layne says decisions will be driven by transportation needs and data, as well as political realities.

James Dyke, another Northern Virginian on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, says that it will take support from large bloc of the business community on both sides of the river to get a new crossing built.

“This has to be as much a business, economic development issue as it does a transportation issue,” Dyke says.

He cites the successful efforts of the business community to convince Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan not to cancel the Purple Line rail project that is planned to connect New Carrollton to Bethesda.

Virginia is focusing on the Legion Bridge because it is among the most congested in the region. Donohue says other bridges that face traffic issues, such as the Key Bridge or 14th Street Bridge, are unlikely to be widened — due both to the District’s opposition and the impracticality of extensive changes.

“There’s not a lot that can be done with regard to these bridges in the core, the ones that really go from Virginia to D.C. … on the other side you run into a grid of city streets,” Donohue says.

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