Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Elephant In the Room on Regional Traffic: New Potomac River Crossing Off The Table for Maryland

Transportation Planners in Maryland and Virginia continue to be at odds about the prospect of a new Potomac River Crossing.  Leaders in Virginia have long been calling for a new bridge, however officials in Maryland and particularly Montgomery County have kept this off the table.

Virginia has again been looking closely at the issue, claiming that a new bridge is necessary to support future economic growth and address traffic concerns.  But Montgomery County officials and many residents have claimed that a new crossing would increase sprawl.  From Virginia's perspective their hands are largely tied, since Maryland and DC actually own the river.  As past efforts to open a dialog with Maryland about a new crossing have gone nowhere, Virginia is now looking at the possibility of extending the I-495 express lanes over the American Legion Bridge as a possible alternative solution.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett has been particularly cold to the idea of any new river crossing.  In September 2014 Leggett was asked in an online discussion about a Potomac River Crossing, Leggett acknowledged the problems caused by the region's ever worsening traffic congestion but stated “The question whether a second bridge will seriously alleviate these concerns without impacting our environment and agricultural reserve has been deemed to be not worthy of the tremendous risk.”  In a December 2014 discussion, Leggett was asked about a Potomac River Crossing and responded  “The idea of a bridge crossing the Potomac River through Montgomery County to Virginia has been debated for decades, and ultimately it was decided not to build it. The view is that such a bridge would destroy our Agricultural Reserve, which is one of the features of our County of which I'm most proud."  And in April 2015, when a resident complained about the cost of the purple line and Silver Spring Transit Center suggested  that the priority should be a new bridge into NoVa, Leggett declined to even address the idea of a new bridge at all, and instead said the solution is to spend more on transit.

Of course in reality elected officials in Montgomery County do not consider transit to be a solution to their own transportation needs.  Neither County Executive Ike Leggett nor any members of the County Council take transit to work.

So why is this such a big deal?  Well, right now it is a bare minimum of 35 miles driving distance, or a minimum of 48 minutes driving time, between the American Legion Bridge and the next river crossing to the north at Point of Rocks on the Maryland side, or 43 miles on the Virginia side of the river.

This means that anyone trying to get from Montgomery County or Prince George's County into any point in Virginia must cross the same single bridge, no other viable option exists without adding at least 35 miles to the trip.  The result of this is known to anyone who commutes south on I-270... even if they don't actually cross the river themselves they must still confront almost daily traffic backups which on a bad day can extend all the way into Frederick County.

As bad as the scarcity of river crossings is for Virginia and Maryland motorists, the situation is EVEN WORSE for transit users.  A commuter trying to take metro from Gaithersburg to Reston is in for an over two hour ride, since one must transit all the way to the center of DC to change from the red line to the Silver line (that is assuming you are both starting and ending somewhere transit actually goes).  And without additional river crossing there is virtually nothing that can be done to improve the situation for transit users in suburban Maryland and VA who must cross the river, since the funny thing about buses and trains is that they can't swim.

So what do you think?

Do Maryland and Virginia need a new Potomac River Crossing west of the American Legion Bridge?

(Note: poll results may take up to 1 minute to update)