After the Beltway was paralyzed by a tanker crash near the American Legion Bridge last Thursday, questions have again surfaced about the possibility of a new connection between Northern Virginia and Maryland.
Potential solutions have included expanding the proposed “Purple Line” from Maryland down to Tysons. But this type of connection doesn’t come without a share of difficulties, and Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust says Virginia can’t afford to take its eye off the more attainable prize of fixing the American Legion Bridge first.
“The first priority has to be fixing the issues at the American Legion Bridge,” Foust said. “We have the cooperation of Maryland on that. But based on what just happened with the shutdown, it’s critical that we consider building a parallel bridge as opposed to just widening the one we have. That gives us some redundancy in the event of a crash like this or a terrorist attack, so we don’t shut down Northern Virginia.”
But an expansion of the American Legion Bridge, much less an entirely new one, has raised concerns that another crossing would add new roads through the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve on the Maryland side, though some have said this impact is likely overblown.
“It raises serious environmental issues that have to be addressed, but it takes both sides of the river to cooperate and agree,” Foust said. “Historically, Virginia has been more inclined to do it than Maryland, who has been more insistent that they do not want another bridge.”
Frank Shafroth, director of the Center for State and Local Leadership at George Mason University, said there’s political momentum to push for the new connection despite the obstacles.
“Foust is correct about the challenge — not a challenge all that different from the initial challenge of the Beltway itself,” Shafroth said. “But leaders in this region have demonstrated, over the years, a practical ability to be creative in resolving these kinds of governance challenges: they tend to be far more practical than many federal elected officials, and much more accountable to constituents.”
Foust is far from alone in pushing for a new route over the Potomac. Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity expressed frustrations at the crash’s impact on regional traffic on Twitter.
Yesterday was yet another reminder of the critical need of the region to build a northern crossing over the Potomac River. It is past time to build the crossing. pic.twitter.com/r26JqQx0xp
— Supervisor Pat Herrity (@PatHerrity) March 29, 2019
In an ideal world, Foust said he would like to see more transit options on the Beltway, like dedicated bus lanes. However, transit options like a new Metro line are too far off to consider in transportation plans, Foust argues.
“I don’t think we can wait to get light or heavy rail to make that route from Maryland to Virginia,” Foust said. “We have to move forward with the bridge if possible, and provide the ability to add rail at a later date.”
Virginia recently approved new express lanes that will extend to the American Legion Bridge. Though unlikely to do much to relieve the crush of rush hour traffic, Foust says the lanes should offer some relief by giving Beltway drivers headed to the George Washington Parkway rather than the American Legion Bridge another option to get around traffic.
“But nobody thinks we’re going to solve the problem until Maryland does what they need to do with regards to that bridge and the capacity for the Beltway on the Maryland side,” Foust said. “Virginia is prepared to move forward. Maryland I think is talking as early as 2022 to begin construction, but realistically they have a lot of issues to resolve first. But I think [this crash] put an exclamation point on the fact that we need a solution.”
In January, Maryland’s highway administrator Greg Slater told WUSA9 that a new bridge should be built within the next few years and that it was a top priority of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.