Opposition is beginning to build against a regional transportation group’s plan to study a second Potomac River crossing in Montgomery County.
On Tuesday morning, Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner introduced a resolution that would formally put the council in opposition to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board’s plan to study the feasibility of a bridge that would help connect Virginia Route 28 to the Intercounty Connector in the county. Supporters of the proposed bridge say the connecting route would help ease traffic on I-270 and the American Legion Bridge on the Beltway and provide better connectivity to Dulles International Airport.
But opponents say building the bridge and connecting roads could damage Montgomery County’s protected agriculture reserve, tear up neighborhoods and end up as a costly, potentially multibillion dollar boondoggle that wouldn’t solve regional congestion issues because most of the traffic congestion is created by motorists traveling to and from areas inside the Beltway.
The crossing could potentially connect the ICC with Route 28 in Northern Virginia, but a route hasn’t been determined. (Red line drawn by Bethesda Beat).
The council resolution points out that there are “numerous previous” studies on the crossing, including one pursued by former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia who pulled the plug on it in 2001 after he said it “turned into a process that is frankly out of control.”
On Monday afternoon, Gov. Larry Hogan said the state has no plan to build a new Potomac River crossing in the county and said any such crossing would require federal funds even if it were supported by the state and local governments. He noted that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has refused to provide funds to support a new crossing.
“Maryland is not going to pay for it on our own,” Hogan said. The Maryland line is on the western edge of the Potomac River, making the proposed bridge largely Maryland’s responsibility to pursue.
McAuliffe previously told Bethesda Beat in October, “I don’t fund bridges that aren’t in our state. It doesn’t touch our border. I take responsibility for bridges in Virginia.”
Council members Roger Berliner, George Leventhal, Nancy Floreen and Marc Elrich all spoke out Tuesday against the plan to study the river crossing—noting the project was removed from the county’s master plan for highways in 1974.
“It’s a zombie bridge,” Berliner said. “It keeps rising from the dead. It’s time to stop this conversation because it’s stopping us from things we need to do.”
Berliner said he’d rather see the county and state focus on adding reversible high-occupancy toll lanes that stretch from I-270 to the American Legion Bridge.
Leventhal said the connecting roads to a new northern crossing would slice through “some of the most valuable real estate in the world in Potomac” as well as the agriculture reserve, which would likely result in expensive, cumbersome litigation pitting the county and state against residents.
He said the crossing would more likely benefit real estate developers in Northern Virginia, which doesn’t have a protected agricultural reserve in that area, as well as Dulles International Airport.
Bob Buchanan, a Gaithersburg-based real estate developer with holdings in Northern Virginia who chairs the 2030 Group, an association of Washington, D.C., area business leaders, said the group supports the crossing.
Buchanan pointed to a 2016 poll of 800 regional residents conducted for the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance that found 59 percent of those polled supported a new bridge crossing north of the American Legion Bridge, while only 11 percent opposed it and about 30 percent were neutral.
“I don’t think the status quo is acceptable to any business CEO that I know,” Buchanan said. “They’re having difficulty attracting workers. If part of their commute involves the river crossing, it’s a miserable commute and it’s not going away until we address it.”
He added that he recalls hearing similar complaints about the impact of building the Capital Beltway before it was built.
“I can remember all the naysayers saying the Beltway would ruin this region—but where would we be now without a Beltway?” Buchanan asked.
Buchanan, who also serves as the chair of the board of directors for the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp., which is tasked with attracting employers to the county, said the board hasn’t taken a formal position on the potential new crossing.
The idea for another crossing is already popular in Northern Virginia. Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer, a Republican, told The Washington Post on Monday that the crossing is his “number one for the region.” Meyer said he believes there’s a disconnect between the political leaders in Montgomery County and their constituents who have to travel on the American Legion Bridge to commute to their jobs.
Berliner, however, said he believes fixing traffic problems on I-270, the Beltway and the American Legion Bridge should be the region’s priority because studies have found that a majority of commuters are heading to locations inside the Beltway. Therefore, their commutes wouldn’t be significantly reduced by access to a northern crossing.
He noted a task force working on the Transportation Planning Board’s long-range plan recommended the crossing for further study and the proposal comes before the full board on July 19—one day before the council is scheduled to pass the resolution opposing the crossing.
“Our job now is to convince the full Transportation Planning Board that it would not be in the public’s interest to create this regional tension,” Berliner said.