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New Potomac River Bridges? Don't Count On It

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The town of Southbridge in Northern Virginia has tennis courts, a swimming pool and a Walmart; what it doesn't have is a bridge.
David Schultz
The town of Southbridge in Northern Virginia has tennis courts, a swimming pool and a Walmart; what it doesn't have is a bridge.

So why is this place called Southbridge?

This is where a bridge was supposed to be. Two decades ago, back when this suburban community was still being planned, this is where Virginia and Maryland were going to build a new Potomac River crossing. But then, a lack of money and, more importantly, a lack of political support got in the way, and it never happened.

"Every time those ideas come up there tends to be a very immediate line of resistance to them," says Ron Kirby, the chief transportation planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Opposition to new bridges dates back to the late 1960s, when people began to see the effects of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system on their neighborhoods and on the environment, Kirby says.

"There's been resistance to building new highways, including the bridges associated with them, all around the country," he says. "And everyone got kind of frozen where they were with the completion of the Interstate System."

Of the seven bridges that cross the Potomac, four were built in the '50s and '60s, before the backlash kicked in. Since then, there's been none. Look at an online map of the rivers that run through other big cities, and you can see, seven is actually on the low end.

Take the main river in Portland, Oregon, the Willamette. Eleven bridges, and a 12th is in the planning stages. Up in Minnesota's Twin Cities, there are 10 near the Port of Minneapolis. In Pittsburgh, Pa., known as the "City of Bridges," these folks stopped counting at 29 bridges over three rivers.

Kirby says these cities probably built most of their bridges in the pre-war era.

"Well, I think those bridges were probably built before the interstate program started," he says. "They're older bridges."

Once the interstate backlash began in the late '60s, the clock basically struck midnight, and plans to built new highways and bridges turned into political pumpkins.

So what does this mean for the future? Will there never be a new bridge over the Potomac? Sean Connaughton, the Secretary of Transportation under Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, certainly hopes there will be. He says the McDonnell administration wants to revive the idea of a new Potomac River crossing, as a way to divert long-distance freight traffic.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the debate about these bridges has focused on trying to contain growth and looking at commuting patterns," Connaughton says. "Without really understanding that the biggest issue is to somehow get a bypass to move around -- particularly the eastern side -- of Washington."

Connaughton says he'd like to see another crossing somewhere south of the Wilson Bridge. But to do that, he'd need cooperation from his counterpart on the other side of the river, Maryland’s Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley.

"We're focusing on the priorities that we believe we have, frankly, in the next five to ten years," she says. "[A Potomac bridge] is not at the top of our priority list."

In other words, not happening. Swaim-Staley says she's focused on Maryland’s big public transit projects, and not new highways.

In recent years, planners chose to widen existing bridges rather than propose new ones. That's what happened a few years ago with the Wilson Bridge reconstruction, and that's what's happening now with the 14th Street Bridge project.

But Kirby says there may be a way to build a new river crossing with the public on board: make it look amazing.

"If you go back far enough, new bridges in Manhattan and places like that - they were seen as engineering marvels," Kirby says. "You know, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. At those times, they were seen as, far from being negative to the landscape, being iconic."

Given how closely highways and bridges are linked to fears of sprawl and pollution, any proposal short of iconic probably won't make it very far. So if you're out there stuck in traffic and looking for a new way to cross the Potomac, your best option might be to invest in a boat.

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