Eight Reasons to Put an End to the Potomac River Bridge Project (before it bites)

placeholder imageSpeculative real estate developers are once again pushing for a new Potomac River bridge crossing. Photo by Ted Eytan, Flickr

As their name implies, zombie projects have a way of coming back every few years. Proponents of these projects keep spending money, they gin up PR campaigns and they eventually convince policymakers that the project deserves another look. In the transportation world, these zombie projects usually share an unfortunate set of characteristics: they benefit few, siphon off limited transportation funding from real solutions, and worse yet, they often lead to increased congestion by contributing to sprawl.

The new Potomac River crossing between Loudoun County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland is one such zombie project. During the summer of 2017, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors brought the project back into focus by voting unanimously to add the project into the Countywide Transportation Plan (LoudounNow).

The bridge, a long sought-after component of the Outer Beltway, is a bad idea. Here are just some of the reasons:

  1. Limited dollars means we can’t build everything. We have to pick. There are limited transportation funds and an endless stream of traffic problems that need to be addressed. To best serve the region’s residents and employers, projects should be scored and prioritized based on congestion relief, mobility improvement and community impacts.

In Loudoun, there are several options for projects that would help commuters by increasing access to transit:

  • Improve the Waxpool Rd/Loudoun County Pkwy intersection
  • Extend Prentice Drive from Lockridge across to Greenway transit
  • Extend Shellhorn Rd
  • Provide transit connections to the Metro stations
  • Construct Moorefield Blvd
  • Construct Greenway loop
  • Loudoun Metrorail Station Pedestrian improvements
  • Complete planned park and ride lots for commuters

There are also road improvement projects that would do more to relieve commuter congestion. For example:

  • Complete Riverside Parkway
  • Construct VA 606 ramp
  • Complete Russell Branch Pkwy
  • Construct grade-separated interchanges along Rt 50 at Loudoun County Pkwy and more
  • Complete improvements on Rt 15 and Rt 9 to better manage traffic

Investing in our existing road network, providing better access to transit, and figuring out how to increase capacity on the American Legion Bridge are all options that deserve more focus than a new bridge (particularly one in a state that doesn’t want it — see LoudounNow for Montgomery County’s reaction to the project).

2. The bulk of the traffic is east-west. The numbers speak volumes:

  • 47% of Loudoun residents work in the county, 92% work in VA or DC
  • 46% of Fairfax residents work in Fairfax; 96% work in VA or DC
  • 49% live and work in Montgomery County; approximately 8% work in Fairfax and inner suburbs out of 9.3% total employed in Virginia
  • 62.9% of Frederick residents work in Frederick and Montgomery Counties; 90.4% work in MD or DC, 5.9% work in Virginia

3. Sprawl. New and ever-widening roads create development pressure and induce sprawl. Instead of supporting walkable, thriving communities, they become physical barriers and incentives for people to move farther away from work.

Furthermore, when combined with the Bi-County Parkway to form the Outer Beltway, a new bridge would promote increased development in the Loudoun Transition Area, Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve and the Prince William County Rural Crescent, all areas that citizens have long supported for conservation, not sprawl.

4. It would devalue other transportation investments and strain local road networks.

Inserting a new bridge undermines prior and ongoing investments in congestion relief projects on Rt 7 and Rt 28. These projects weren’t planned to handle additional cross-river commutes and long-haul traffic. It would also disrupt non-peak hour mobility in eastern Loudoun and lead to more traffic all the time.

5. It’s a threat to drinking water. There are short-term and long-term considerations, such as:

  • How would our regional drinking water source (and others downstream) be adequately protected during construction or in the event of a spill on the bridge?

The additional development this sort of project brings with it will result in more impervious surfaces –making it ever harder to provide clean, safe, and affordable drinking water.

Per the Loudoun Board’s direction, staff is looking at sites for a bridge within 8 miles upstream of the intake, and some sites could be within a mile. Depending on location, pollution could hit the intake with little time to react. Just keep in mind that Fairfax Water serves Loudoun, Dulles, Herndon, Alexandria, Falls Church and the City of Fairfax as well as Fort Belvoir and Prince William from two intake sites. The northern intake for the Corbalis treatment plant is mid-river in the Potomac, just upstream from the Loudoun Fairfax county line.

6. Direct impact on neighborhoods near the bridge.

Noise, pollution, new traffic and lower home values are all issues existing homeowners would face. In addition, how many would be threatened with eminent domain in order to create a path for both the bridge and connecting roadways? Put yourself in their shoes. Why should they sacrifice their homes, property values, neighborhoods, clean air and water for a boondoggle project?

7. Who would pay for it?

Bridge boosters suggest making this a toll project would avoid the drain on limited regional funds. Adding a $10 dollar or more toll for the bridge on top of tolls on 95, 66 and the Beltway seems unrealistic. And whatever the initial toll, Loudoun residents also have some experience with ever-rising rates on the Greenway… Even worse than high tolls, there is a real possibility that the region’s taxpayers will be asked to absorb the cost through a regional tax or a large share of all funds available for transportation from Federal and state sources.

8. Old-fashioned, outdated.

Outer beltways are transportation solutions out of the 1950s. A majority of businesses now prefer transit-oriented locations, moving away from isolated campuses scattered along access roads radiating out from the Beltway. Maintaining and improving our existing roads and highways PLUS adequately maintaining and funding Metro are better investments for today that will help reduce traffic now and into the future.

So how do we put an end to zombie projects like this one and focus on better solutions for our congestion woes? A simple comparison of our options is a good start (instead of just deciding yes/no on one mega-project). The pros and cons of the various transportation projects should be brought to the forefront, allowing for an informed decision on how we spend our limited dollars. Any comparison should factor in things like induced development and traffic, community disruption, access related to affordability, and east-west congestion needs, to name a few.

These boondoggles are primarily supported by speculative developers seeking to increase the value of scattered parcels.  We can’t afford a diversion of our resources to construct them, particularly when it means a delay in the funding of real solutions to address existing congestion in the region.

It’s time this zombie dies for good.