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McAuliffe Administration Reopens Possibility Of New Potomac River Bridge

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The American Legion Bridge, which connects Northern Virginia and Montgomery County is a frequent bottleneck in the region.
(AP Photo/Leslie E. Kossoff)
The American Legion Bridge, which connects Northern Virginia and Montgomery County is a frequent bottleneck in the region.

The McAuliffe administration's top transportation official says the state will seek to complete a study of one of the region's most controversial ideas to reduce congestion.

Legislation to consider the construction of a new Potomac River bridge connecting Virginia and Maryland, backed by State Del. Tom Rust (R-86), stalled last week in a House committee in Richmond. But in an interview with WAMU 88.5, new Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said the administration would pursue the study using existing funds in the state's current six-year transportation plan, even though officials across the river in Maryland continue to oppose the idea.

"I am onboard with continuing to look at it," Layne said. "It is different when you go across the river into Maryland. It's their rural area. They have a different view of their land planning, but in terms of mobility and traffic, we will try to continue that study so in the future we will at least have that down as political realities may change in the future."

Layne's decision is a surprise to opponents of studying, let alone building, a new Potomac crossing west of the congested American Legion Bridge. They say the idea has been studied and rejected several times over the last 15 years and pushing ahead again would amount to a waste of taxpayer money.

Most recently, the House of Delegates rules committee rejected a similar bill in 2012, but then Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton initiated his own study later that year. VDOT has not released the results of that study and Del. Rust's legislation would expand on its findings "to study the costs, feasibility, and transportation impacts" of a new bridge.

In 2001 a Potomac bridge study was stopped by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) who said a new crossing would damage existing neighborhoods. In May 2004 VDOT concluded another study on the origins and destinations of commuters that showed most commuters needed to use the American Legion Bridge corridor, meaning building a bridge to the west would not satisfy traffic demand, according to Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supports public transit projects instead of highway expansions to reduce congestion.

"Previous studies have shown new bridges could not be built without negative effect on communities from McLean to Leesburg and from Potomac to Point of Rocks in Maryland," Schwartz said. "Moreover, studies have shown that the real need is to provide multi-modal solutions to the congestion on the American Legion Bridge."

In a statement issued today, the Maryland Department of Transportation did not express interest in building a new bridge over the Potomac.

"Maryland is focusing on current and future demand across the Potomac and how the existing bridges that cross the Potomac can continue to meet the needs," the MDOT statement said.

In an October 2012 letter to then-Secretary Connaughton, acting MDOT Secretary Darrell Mobley said the state was not interested in pursuing Connaughton's push for a new bridge.

"MDOT does not intend to revisit the years of debate regarding new crossings of the Potomac River," Mobley said.

Del. Chris Peace (R-97), the chairman of the committee that considered Del. Rust's bill, said Virginia still has other priorities more important than a Potomac crossing.

"We try to avoid studying things over and over again." Del. Peace said. "We know there is critical need for multi-modal solutions in the American Legion Bridge corridor. There is a long-standing history here."

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