A Story of Bridges

The allocation of resources for adequate public infrastructure is a fundamental government responsibility. In Maryland, for example, the condition of existing bridges, let alone need for the construction of new and/or expanded ones, is acute. The State is planning to replace the Harry Nice Bridge across the Potomac River between Charles County and King George County, Virginia, because of its condition and capacity issues. That facility is an important alternative to I-95 for crossing the Potomac River to the south of the immediate DC area. Last year Baltimore City authorized a study to rehabilitate or replace the deteriorating Hanover Street Bridge, a key facility for accessing South Baltimore, including the Port of Baltimore. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge’s reconstruction, completed a few years ago, illustrated the importance of that existing crossing between Prince George’s County and Alexandria.

Two other major bridges that are a special focus in Maryland are the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the American Legion Bridge. Last September, the Governor announced another study for an additional crossing of the Bay. As I discussed in a blog post on this subject at the time, the importance of the Bay Bridge goes beyond the seasonal migration of tourists to the Delmarva beaches. However, even considering locations other than the existing Sandy Point to Kent Island crossing is foolish. The existing facility was built there, versus other points along the Bay, for a reason. In addition, the totality of existing circumstances at the Bay Bridge hardly compares to other facilities, like those cited above.

Unlike the Bay Bridge, conditions at the American Legion Bridge are grave. Along with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the crossing between Cabin John and Tyson’s Corner links the Maryland and Virginia segments of the Capital Beltway across the Potomac River. What ideas for substantively mitigating the almost daily fiasco on the American Legion Bridge that are worth studying are a bone of contention, however. Some ideas focus on direct approaches to the existing crossing. The “elephant in the room” is the concept of a new, additional, crossing between Upper Montgomery County and Loudoun County, Virginia.

The catalyst for renewed attention to a new, Second Crossing between Upper Montgomery County and Virginia is a pending agenda item before the region’s Transportation Planning Board. Its advocates emphasize that the proposal is only for a study of the concept’s feasibility. The rationale is that the desperate conditions on the American Legion Bridge justify studying a range of ideas, at least in combination. The implication is that only a formal study will determine if a Second Crossing is a promising idea or not.

As a Montgomery County Council resolution (introduced yesterday) against the proposed study describes, there is a history to this idea underscoring its foolishness. A Second Crossing of the Potomac River into Montgomery County will inevitability come with a new tollway between the new crossing and the ICC. That, in turn, logically results in overwhelming pressure for new development that is counter to the County’s land use and economic development policies for decades. Specifically, the idea is not assumed in the County’s applicable master plans. It is actual contrary to the purpose of the County’s Agricultural Reserve, established over thirty years ago, that the connecting tollway would likely cut through.

My first job after graduate school was in Quantico, Virginia, while I lived in Gaithersburg (1997-98). Obviously, conditions on the American Legion Bridge have not improved since then. I had no idea at the time that I would subsequently transition into local government. Yet I knew even then that on its face, a Second Crossing into Montgomery County was contrary to the overall interest of the County and Maryland.

A prerequisite for meaningful collaboration between Maryland and Virginia on regional congestion, including the American Legion Bridge, are concepts that are mutually beneficial. An idea like that pending at the Transportation Planning Board is not mutually beneficial. Any Marylander who needs/desires to drive across the American Legion Bridge daily is best served by the study of ideas that do not “cut off our nose to spite our face” on our side of the River.

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