A New Potomac River Bridge? Same Old Argument

An old transportation idea is back, and it remains as divisive as ever.

On Wednesday, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board is scheduled to decide whether to include a proposed new Potomac River bridge among nine other major transportation projects on a list for further consideration.

Studied and debated for decades, the idea to build a new span west of the congested American Legion Bridge, is again splitting officials on either side of the river who have different visions of improving regional mobility.

In Virginia, some public officials and business interests are calling for another study of a bridge that could connect Rt. 28 in Virginia to Maryland. In Maryland, key decision makers remain steadfastly against even studying, let alone building, a multi-billion dollar bridge.

The mere presence of a bridge study on the planning board’s agenda spurred the Montgomery County Council to unanimously approve a resolution on Tuesday condemning the idea.

The county opposes building a new span west of American Legion Bridge for several reasons, according to Council President Roger Berliner: First, the bridge would land in an agriculture reserve; second, it would contradict the county’s smart growth principles, and third, it would drain state transportation dollars from more pressing priorities, namely WMATA.

“We do have real problems with congestion. We need real solutions, not fantasy bridges that will never happen,” said Berliner, who said the idea has been studied many times over the years, most recently in 2014. Virginia shut down that study because Maryland officials remained opposed to the bridge concept amid disagreements over its actual congestion-relief benefits.

“It should not be studied for another nanosecond,” Berliner said.

Bob Buchanan, a real estate developer and president of The 2030 Group whose members include regional business leaders, said it would be wrong to dismiss the potential benefits of a new bridge for regional mobility and the economy.

“It’s really a shame that one jurisdiction wants to hold the rest of the region hostage to its political views,” said Buchanan, who said business leaders in Montgomery County may differ from the stance of their elected leaders.

“Let’s study and understand what our options are. I think it would be unwise not to do that. Our congestion is getting worse,” said Buchanan, who said Metro’s troubles have received attention disproportionate to its importance to ordinary commuters.

Metro “constitutes less than 20 percent of all our daily trips. No one is talking about some of the big regional priorities when it comes to roads.”

In a news release, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which derisively calls the bridge idea an “outer beltway,” criticized Buchanan and other real estate developers for lobbying for new road construction to open up rural land to development.

“The upper Potomac Bridge and other segments of an outer beltway are back, as a result of the latest multimillion dollar lobbying campaign that began back in 2010,” said the coalition’s executive director Stewart Schwartz in the statement.

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