This Week On Metro Connection: Bridges (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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This Week on Metro Connection: Bridges

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:06:40
Welcome to "Metro Connection," I'm Rebecca Sheir. And for the next hour, we'll be talking about something we cross over, we pass under, something we build to connect places, people even phases of our lives. We're talking about bridges. We'll find out why all those traffic jams on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge might be a good thing and visit a rooftop garden bridging the divide between city dwellers and their food.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:07:05
Plus, we'll hear about local bridges that could use a seriously extreme makeover and learn how some rather distinctive companies are helping people cope with bridge phobia.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:07:16
But first, here in the Washington region we have seven bridges that cross the Potomac River and it's been that way for half a century even as the number of people zipping back and forth and back and forth has grown by leaps and bounds. So the obvious solution you might think would be what, you know, more bridges, or is it? That's the question of the day on our weekly transportation segment, "From A to B."

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:07:46
See the idea of building more bridges across the Potomac River isn't really a new one. Transportation planners have been floating the idea for decades. But somehow those plans never seemed to get off the ground. So we have WAMU transportation reporter David Schultz hit the road to find out why.

MR. DAVID SCHULTZ

13:08:04
If you head down I95 in Northern Virginia, all the way to Dumfries and then make a left turn you'll eventually run into a small master-plan community called South Bridge on the Potomac. That's where I am right now, the little town of South Bridge.

MR. DAVID SCHULTZ

13:08:17
It's kind of a weird name actually. There's no bridge over the Potomac anywhere near here for at least 20 miles. So why is this place called South Bridge? Well, this is where a bridge was supposed to be. Twenty years 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.

MR. RONALD KIRBY

13:08:40
Every time those ideas come up, there tends to be a very immediate, you know, line of resistance to them.

SCHULTZ

13:08:47
That's Ron Kirby, the top transportation planner at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. He says 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

13:09:04
There's been resistance to building new highways including the bridges associated with them all around the country. And so everyone got kind of frozen at where they were, you know, with the completion of the interstate system.

SCHULTZ

13:09:18
Of the seven bridges that cross the Potomac, four were built in the 50s and 60s before the backlash kicked in, since then, none. Seven bridges may seem like a lot but 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. For example take the main river in Portland, Ore., the Willamette, one bridge, two bridges, three, four, five bridges, six, seven, and eight. Or take the Mississippi River up in Minnesota's Twin Cities, nine, ten, 11, 12, 13, have to zoom in here, 14, 15, 16 or the Three Rivers in what's known as the City of Bridges, Pittsburgh, Pa., 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20.

SCHULTZ

13:10:12
Kirby says these cities probably built most of their bridges in the pre-war era.

KIRBY

13:10:17
Well, I think those bridges were probably built before the interstate program started. I mean, I think the big...

SCHULTZ

13:10:23
They're older bridges?

KIRBY

13:10:23
Yeah, they're older bridges.

SCHULTZ

13:10:24
Once the interstate backlash began in the late 1960s, the clock basically struck midnight and plans to build new highways and bridges turned into political pumpkins. So what does this mean for the future? Will there ever be a new bridge over the Potomac? Sean Connaughton, the secretary of transportation under Virginia Governor Bob McDonald certainly hopes there will be. He says the McDonald administration wants to revive the idea of a new Potomac River crossing as a way to divert long-distance freight traffic.

MR. SEAN CONNAUGHTON

13:10:52
Unfortunately, a lot of the debate about these bridges has focused on trying to contain growth and looking at commuting patterns without really understanding that the biggest issue is to somehow get a bypass to move around, particularly on the eastern side, of Washington.

SCHULTZ

13:11:09
Connaughton says he would 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 Beverley Swaim-Staley.

MS. BEVERLEY SWAIM-STALEY

13:11:22
We're focusing on the priorities and the needs that we have in the next, that we believe that we have, frankly, in the next five to ten years.

SCHULTZ

13:11:28
And a Potomac River crossing would not be one of those?

SWAIM-STALEY

13:11:32
It's not at the top of our priority list.

SCHULTZ

13:11:34
In other words, not happening. Swaim-Staley says she's focused on Maryland's big public transit projects, 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 is what's happening now with the 14th Street Bridge project. Kirby says there may be a way to build a new river crossing with the public on board, make it look amazing.

KIRBY

13:12:00
If you go back far enough, you know, new bridges in Manhattan, places like that they were seen as engineering marvels, you know, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Those times, they were seen as far from being a negative to the landscape, being iconic.

SCHULTZ

13:12:16
But 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. I'm David Schultz.
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