The Virginia Department of Transportation will study traffic volume over the Potomac River in an effort to determine where the most people and goods will cross as the region’s population grows, the agency said Tuesday.
The study – scheduled for completion next spring – will not recommend a solution but instead provide a basis for consultations with transportation officials in the District of Columbia and Maryland about how best to improve transportation across the river from Point of Rocks in the west to the Route 301 bridge in the east.
“We want to essentially gauge and develop the data from which we can make some informed decisions regarding the best alternatives to deal with the current traffic conditions and what we expect in the future,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton in an interview with Transportation Nation.
Connaughton downplayed the possibility his office would push for the construction of a new bridge over the Potomac.
“We’re really not prejudging anything. In fact, we’re not really getting into what’s the best alternative,” he said.
The study already has its critics, who say the Republican administration of Governor Bob McDonnell has been pushing for a new Potomac River bridge for years.
“They are pushing for another bridge even though the real fixes we need to make are at the American Legion Bridge,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supports expanding mass transit instead of road expansions. To Schwartz, a new bridge connecting Virginia and Maryland would lead to more congestion and sprawl. He favors implementing transit options on the American Legion Bridge.
“In the near term, that can be buses on dedicated bus lanes with frequent service, connecting the Red Line and the Silver Line, connecting Tysons Corner and Fairfax County job centers with the Montgomery County job centers,” he said. “Fortunately, Fairfax County and Montgomery County have already met and are pursuing the transit investments that are needed both short term and long term.”
Connaughton disputes the allegation the McDonnell administration is after a new “outer beltway” at the expense of mass transit investments.
“This is one of the things that will be the hallmark of the McDonnell administration, is that we are pursuing increased transit opportunities, as well as dealing with congestion on our roadways, and looking for bike paths and pedestrian paths. We are doing everything. This is not a one-solution-fits-all,” he said.
If Virginia officials privately favor building another Potomac River span, they may meet resistance across the river. In an October letter to Secretary Connaughton, Acting Maryland Secretary of Transportation Darrell Mobley clarified his agency’s position.
“The Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT's) highest priority remains the preservation of our existing infrastructure and the safety of the traveling public. MDOT does not intend to revisit the years of debate regarding new crossings of the Potomac River,” the letter said. “We are interested in the study of potential improvements to existing crossings, including: the Governor Nice Bridge along the US 301 corridor, the American Legion Bridge on the Capital Beltway, and the potential addition of transit across the Wilson Bridge.”
Connaughton said he believes D.C. and Maryland officials are in agreement that a study of future traffic volume is necessary. As far as a possible solution, he said, “we haven’t gotten there yet.”