2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Board should heed the many voices supporting American Legion Bridge project

The longer the delay, the more Montgomery County lags behind its neighbors

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A National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board vote on Wednesday will determine the fate of the only major uniquely transformational road project for the entire Washington metropolitan region.

Wise voices from the past have recently openly expressed their support for the improvements to the American Legion Bridge: former Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and former County Council President Roger Berliner.

Both have urged our current elected leaders in the county to compromise, as without the private funding for the project, our generation and that of our children and grandchildren will be condemned to traffic conditions worse than the ones we experience today.

The majority of our members need to exercise their invaluable powers of persuasion and common sense to change the vote of the council’s representative at the meeting and support the implementation of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, at no direct cost to taxpayers.

It is astonishing to me that Council Member Sidney Katz, representing my council district, is either opposed to the project or has not openly supported it, while a council member in Gaithersburg, where Katz was once mayor, supports it.

The great majority of residents north of the Beltway support and would benefit from the improvements. They should not be ignored.  

Our ability to attract new businesses to the county lags behind Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia and our neighboring counties of Prince George’s and Frederick.

Our lack of investment in a balanced transportation system is a major cause. Montgomery County’s chances of attracting any national or international business to the area will be lost for a long time.

The project is key to access two of the three major airports in the region: Reagan National and Dulles. It plays a critical role in the movement of truck traffic and the provision of services between the two states.

The HOT lanes will provide the only practical and reasonable option for a transit solution between the economic centers of our county and Northern Virginia.

With the recent programming in the county’s capital program of the North Bethesda Transitway, we will have the opportunity to have a seamless and rapid bus ride between White Flint, North Bethesda and Tysons Corner. The Purple Line will connect Bethesda to Silver Spring, the University of Maryland and the rest of Prince George’s.

There will be transit balance on both sides of Rock Creek, the county’s natural divide.

Construction of the HOT lanes with private investment will permit state funds to be used for other public transit priorities, including the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), that otherwise would disappear from the funded projects in the state’s program for the next 25 years.

Can we afford to wait 30 or more years to see the promise of development of the “Science City” at the Johns Hopkins campus in Gaithersburg? The answer is a resounding no.

Opponents charge that the Maryland Department of Transportation is engaging in “blackmail” in listing other regional projects that will be killed if the public-private partnership fails. It is not blackmail — it is simple arithmetic: $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion of the investors’ money goes to rebuilding bridge structures (the American Legion Bridge and bridges over the interstate) nearing the end of their service life, as well as repaving and maintaining the existing lanes.

If the investors’ money is not available for such system preservation, then the state has to find the money it has not programmed. With a fixed pool of funds, arithmetic dictates that some projects will have to be dropped to do the essential rebuilds investors would otherwise finance. 

The 300,000 users of I-270 and I-495 traveling every day between Montgomery County and Northern Virginia deserve better from their elected officials. The last chance to provide leadership on the issue will be on Wednesday. May they vote the right way.

Edgar Gonzalez of North Potomac is executive director of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, an organization created in 2011 to support a balanced approach to investments in transportation in the Maryland counties in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

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