Is a Second Potomac River Bridge in Montgomery Dead in the Water?
A lack of political will is called a roadblock in option to ease Cabin John Beltway bottlenecks
Longtime proponents of a Potomac River bridge connecting upper Montgomery County and Loudoun County, Virginia say the bridge would bring significant relief to traffic crossing the Beltway’s American Legion Bridge near Cabin John.
The main obstacle, they say, has been the lack of political will.
Questions about a second river crossing are resurfacing as a proposal by Maryland’s governor to widen Interstates 270 and the Beltway is being rolled out at public hearings and an overturned tanker blocked traffic for 12 hours last month, leaving drivers wondering about the best way to relieve regional bottlenecks.
The closest crossing upriver is the Route 15 bridge at Point of Rocks in Frederick County, 30 miles upstream from the Legion Bridge.
A number of studies have been conducted over the past three of decades examining the merits of a second crossing. Former Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, commissioned a study of the idea in the early 2000s and later killed the study, saying it was not feasible to construct the bridge without disrupting parkland.
It isn’t clear where the bridge would be placed, but it would likely extend the Intercounty Connector from Gaithersburg to Reston, Virginia, close to Washington Dulles International Airport.
“As soon as you begin to pinpoint allocation, immediately opponents pop up,” said Rockville resident Jennifer Russel, who chairs the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance — an advocacy organization that works to improve transportation options for commuters in the Maryland suburbs.
The main reasons politicians have opposed the crossing, Russel said, is the perception that the highway would cut through the county’s agricultural reserve, a 93,000-acre area in upper Montgomery County that was set aside in the 1980s to be protected from excessive development. But Bethesda’s Sam Raker, the vice chair of the transportation alliance, said this argument is a nonstarter.
“I-270 goes through the ag reserve, and I don’t think you destroy an ag reserve by a narrow piece of concrete,” he said.
Raker said he was part of a task force under the Park and Planning Commission that met from 2000 to 2002, and studied the possibility of the ICC and a second Potomac crossing.
Former County Executive Douglas Duncan, he said, supported the ideas, but that was not the sentiment of either the County Council or former Gov. Parris Glendening (D). The task force ultimately chose to pursue the construction of the ICC, which was ultimately supported by Glendening’s successor, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
“In those four years of the Ehrlich administration, the studies got done and the legislature funded the project,” Raker said. “The decision to go ahead and fund it or not is largely the governor, and that was Ehrlich’s choice.”
Should a second crossing be constructed, the bridge may not disrupt the ag reserve, but could face the obstacle of having to cut through two regional parks or the Trump National Golf Club on the Virginia side of the Potomac.
Local officials in Loudoun County have supported the crossing idea, including Matthew Letourneau, who represents the Dulles District on the county’s Board of Supervisors.
Letourneau said last week on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show” that the board had studied the idea recently, and that the Point of Rocks crossing can be “a parking lot all the way to Leesburg” at peak times.
Virginia’s former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), told Bethesda Beat in 2016 that he would never fund a new Potomac crossing because the river is within Maryland’s jurisdiction.
“I take responsibility for bridges in Virginia,” he said at the time.
U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat who represents Loudoun County, could not be reached.
The debate over construction has shifted to Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) $9 billion proposal to relieve congestion on the Beltway and I-270 by adding two toll lanes in each direction.
While there is universal agreement on the proposed widening of the Legion Bridge, the County Council and Montgomery’s legislative delegation has largely opposed the other aspects of the project. The council and County Executive Marc Elrich, have instead suggested increasing the amount of bus rapid transit, which will complement Metrorail and Purple Line, a light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton scheduled to open around 2022.
Raker said the arguments for transit resemble the ones he heard 17 years ago.
“A lot of county elected officials would tell you that we don’t need more roads. We need transit. But they [County Council] had 16 years in office, where if you look at the long-range plans in the region, we’ve made very little progress in bringing the transit that elected officials have wanted,” he said.
A 2016 survey of 800 people conducted by the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance found that 70% favored adding toll lanes to I-270 between Frederick and the Beltway as well as the Montgomery portion of the Beltway. Almost 60% favored widening the Legion Bridge, and the same number were in favor of constructing the upriver Potomac crossing.
Russel said the need for better road options exists in the public, particularly upcounty.
“People are angry, but they haven’t voted,” said Russel, a former planning director for Gaithersburg.
Dusty Rood, the CEO of Germantown-based Rodgers Consulting, said having a better route to Dulles would improve commerce and lead to job growth in an “underserved area of the community,” in upcounty Montgomery and Loudoun county.
Rodgers Consulting assists clients that specialize in urban planning, engineering and development. Projects they have worked on include the Kentlands development in Gaithersburg and Brightwell Crossing in Poolesville.
“Having that access to the airport is a critical thing,” he said.
Rood said having the second Potomac crossing would dramatically improve the quality of life for his 75 employees and others upcounty. He said “everyone he talks to” wants to see the issue of traffic congestion addressed. The main priority currently, he said, is to ensure that the governor’s 270/495 widening project happens, but the second Potomac crossing, he said, should be a future priority.
“As a longer-term thing, when you have a little over a million people in Montgomery county and 1.1 million people in Fairfax County, you have to scratch your head when you have a dozen ways to get from Montgomery to Prince George’s County,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org