Fifty years ago, regional planners envisioned more bridges connecting Maryland and Virginia. This 1960s map of the D.C. metropolitan area shows a devised plan for the year 2000.
Anyone who gets stuck in traffic on the Beltway today might wish the Year 2000 Plan would have been realized: three circumferential Beltways ringing the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area with multiple bridges crossing the Potomac River, connecting Maryland and Virginia.
The Year 2000 Plan never made it out of the 1960s, leaving present day drivers with a single, traffic-jammed Beltway that contributes to the region's worst-in-the-nation traffic congestion, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute.
The failure to build two more Beltways is the main reason why there are only two bridges spanning the river in close proximity to the District: the American Legion Bridge to the north and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the south. The idea of building a new bridge north of the Beltway has received another public airing recently, but it remains just an idea to be debated by advocates of transportation improvements.
"Currently there are no plans for additional crossings between the American Legion Bridge and Point of Rocks," says Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
"From our perspective, there has been no initiative to study these crossings on the part of our board," he says. "We could do it if we were asked, but it's never been a priority."
Maryland and Virginia's plans for a new bridge
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-Md.) recently discussed the idea of building another bridge, but his public remarks led AAA Mid-Atlantic, a group that favors road projects, to issue a press release calling for more than just talk.
"How can we get tens of thousands of vehicles a day off of the Capital Beltway? When you think about it, there are very few ways to cross the Potomac River in the Washington suburbs," says AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson.
"We got the planning board to model a bridge across the river in the Gaithersburg-Germantown area," says Anderson, referring to a task force that he was a member ten years ago. "The modeling showed that the day that bridge opened, it would have 100,000 vehicles. If you talk about 100,000 vehicles that are using that, those are largely vehicles that are right now making that horseshoe commute onto the Beltway just to cross the river. We can get that traffic off of the Beltway by building a bridge across the Potomac River north of the American Legion Bridge."
The closest officials in Maryland and Virginia have come to considering a new bridge was a discussion in March between the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Maryland State Highway Administration officials.
Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, says officials "outlined the potential conflicts such a project could create regarding established land use policies and smart growth."
"Maryland's priority regarding its Potomac Crossings is the eventual replacement of the 71-year-old Nice Bridge in Charles County," he adds. "An additional northern crossing of the Potomac is not a priority for Maryland at this time."
Virginia is more receptive to a new bridge crossing the river. The state's Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton says the increased traffic, population growth and job centers on both sides of the Potomac require that both states study the issue.
"The Potomac is a river, not an ocean, and new bridges can be built across it," Connaughton says.
Challenges of building a bridge today
Such talk may be encouraging to some transportation advocates and commuters, but plans for a new bridge remain on old maps from the 1960s.
"I think the McDonnell administration is very committed to doing this and recognizes the value of this," says Bob Chase, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group that supports building new to roads to alleviate congestion. "I think regional planners in general see the logic still exists. Clearly the commitment at this time does not exist in Maryland."
Chase says they've evaluated the area, and believe several possible options could be achieved. He says the best place for a new span north of the Beltway would be Route 28 in Loudoun County, near Dulles Airport across to I-270 in Maryland.
At the Council of Governments, transportation planner Ron Kirby says building a new bridge now would be far more difficult than it would have been a half century ago for two main reasons: a new right of way would have to be established, and environmental impacts.
"I think what we've seen is a major shift away from highway-oriented planning, which we had with the interstate system in the early '60s," Kirby says. "The major concerns about the crossings are, firstly, land use impacts; it will stimulate more growth further out, although to some degree that can be controlled with zoning and limiting the interchanges."
He says the second concern is the environmental impact associated with building new crossings.
"Those have become more significant as time has gone on because there's been more development out along those alignments," he says. "So it becomes increasingly difficult to find a location where you could put these crossings without causing a significant amount of disruption on some communities that have grown up along those corridors."
Not until there is a commitment from the governors on both sides of the Potomac can plans for a new bridge develop, Kirby adds.
Mass transit and smart growth advocates oppose a new bridge because, in their view, it would not alleviate traffic on the American Legion Bridge.
“When you expand a particular highway or add a new bypass you don’t necessarily reduce the traffic at the existing road. You can certainly shift development and induce new development in that new corridor,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Schwartz says extending the planned Metro purple line would offer commuters the transit option the need to leave their car at home.
“Most of the studies have shown that commuters on a very congested beltway on the American Legion Bridge need an option in that specific area. They are trying to get to job locations that are concentrated at or near the beltway or inside the beltway,” he says.
David Alpert, the blogger of Greater Greater Washington and a smart growth advocate, also opposes building a new bridge over the Potomac because, he says, it would not cut down on traffic congestion but would induce more sprawl further out from D.C.
“A lot of the impetus for building this outer beltway proposal comes from people who have a personal interest in developing a lot of houses at the edge of the region. That’s not good for the people who live in the neighborhoods that exist today,” he says. “Just about every American city has discovered that when you build more roads at the edge of the region, traffic doesn’t get any better for anybody who is driving on the roads currently.”
There is also the issue of money. New bridges aren't cheap. Mass transit advocates and environmentalists say finite transportation budget dollars in Maryland and Virginia should be used to develop better rail options and improve existing roads.
According to AAA Mid-Atlantic's Anderson, the failure to improve and expand the road network, bridges included, is to ignore the mode of transportation used by an overwhelming majority of commuters: the automobile.
"We have set aside no corridors, even though we have known back to the 1950s this would be needed," says Anderson. "Let's remember back in the 1950s we had not one, not two, three beltways that were envisioned by planners in the metropolitan Washington area. We erased two, built one and we are suffering the consequences: worst congestion in the United States."
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