A long-awaited project to lessen congestion at an intersection near the American Legion Bridge in McLean is nearing completion.
The Virginia Department of Transportation expanded the intersection by 550 feet to include a left turn and right turn lane, as well as an option for traffic to go straight into the nearby neighborhood. The renovations also include an area where law enforcement can safely pull over traffic.
Crews worked on the three-month-long project at the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Balls Hill Road over the summer. Politicians gathered Thursday morning (Aug. 22) to survey the scene and celebrate the project.
Allison Richter, a VDOT liaison for Fairfax County, attended the event and said that people in the nearby neighborhood struggled to get home when others were trying to turn onto American Legion Bridge or onto the freeway. The addition of turn lanes is expected to ease traffic around rush hour, she said.
Richter said that this was part of a $500,000 project to improve traffic flow in the area, which should be completed in the next couple days. She also said that roughly $250,000 of the funds came from Fairfax County while the remaining $250,000 came from an operations safety budget.
“This is one of the rare occasions we meet at this intersection on a happy note,” Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust told the gathering. “This has been a challenge to deal with the intersection and try to meditate the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods from the American Legion Bridge and back up on the ramp.”
Crews are still working to repair Kirby Road, which is still closed due to flooding damage, he said, adding that the floods completely rerouted the river, which now flows underneath the road.
The city needs to get permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to fix the damage.
“There is only so much we can expedite,” Foust said, adding that he believes that the residents have been patient with the process.
As for the road crews, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen VDOT so focused,” Foust said.
Just in time for #backtoschooll! VDOT crews completed improvements incl a dedicated left-turn lane to help ease congestion at Balls Hill Rd & Georgetown Pike in McLean. Take a look! Thanks to our partners @fairfaxcounty @FairfaxCountyPD @johnfoustva @kmurphyva @BarbaraFavola! pic.twitter.com/es74W6OVfJ
— VDOT Northern VA (@VaDOTNOVA) August 22, 2019
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.
The I-495 Express Lanes are pushing north to the American Legion Bridge.
As part of a suite of new agreements signed between Virginia officials and Transurban, the private company that operates the express lanes. According to an announcement today from Gov. Ralph Northam’s office:
Four general purpose (GP) lanes and two new Express Lanes will run in each direction of the Capital Beltway starting from the current terminus near the Dulles Access Road and ending at the American Legion Bridge. With no public funding by the Commonwealth, the Express Lanes network will be extended to the Maryland border, helping address one of the worst bottlenecks in the region and reduce cut-through traffic in local McLean neighborhoods.
The express lanes have tolls that range from 20 cents per mile to $1.25 per mile during rush hour with no official cap. Cars with three or more people do not have to pay the toll.
The announcement follows Maryland’s $9 billion investment announced in 2017 that included toll lanes on the northern side of the bridge.
The area of McLean on the Virginia side of the American Legion Bridge has long been an infamous congestion hotspot. An average of 239,000 people use the bridge every workday, and Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust warned that the bridge is “grossly over capacity” and in dire need of expansion.
“I am delighted that Governor Northam and his team have found a way to expand capacity on I-495, heading up to the American Legion Bridge,” State Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) said in a press release. “This improvement demonstrates Virginia’s commitment to easing traffic throughout the region and provides further incentives for Maryland to help address congestion on the Bridge.”
As part of the deal, Transurban agreed to construct a new southbound lane on I-95 near the Occoquan Bridge in the Woodbridge area, another infamous bottleneck for regional traffic.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is looking for public input on ideas to cut down congestion in McLean.
At 7 p.m. on Oct. 18 in McLean High School, VDOT will hold its second meeting on a series of proposals to improve traffic in the area. Among the potential solutions is limiting access to and from Georgetown Pike from McLean, a proposal that drew controversy at an earlier meeting in August when hundreds of residents showed up to voice concerns that the plan would eliminate access to the Beltway from McLean.
Several short-term solutions have already been implemented in McLean, including installation of traffic cameras and increased signage. Small traffic improvements have also been made throughout McLean, including widening the shoulder on westbound Route 193.
Intermediate solutions listed by VDOT include:
- Begin cut-through restriction process with Dead Run/Carper neighborhood, two neighborhoods in McLean that met the volume criteria for Fairfax County’s cut-through restriction process.
- Improve the Balls Hill Road and Georgetown Pike intersection, an intersection frequently congested with traffic turning onto the Beltway.
- Additional coordination with local stakeholders and Fairfax County Public Schools to improve safety around Cooper Middle School, which is only 300 yards from the the Beltway and the congested Balls Hill Road and Georgetown Pike intersection.
- Make improvements to Douglass Drive and Georgetown Pike intersection, currently an intersection of two busy two-lane streets whose only traffic control measure is stop signs on Douglass Drive.
The longer-term solutions involve coordinating with Maryland on regional transit projects, namely improving the American Legion Bridge. The American Legion Bridge is a chokepoint for traffic going to and from Tysons, but making substantial improvements is going to be a challenge.
Images via VDOT
(Updated at 10:50 a.m.) As neighbors, McLean and Tysons couldn’t be more different. The former has a reputation as a quiet, suburban town with a long history and deep community roots, while the latter is a comparatively young and bustling pseudo-city in its own right.
But what happens in one will have a profound impact on the other, and Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust, who represents McLean, said that has become particularly clear with regards to regional traffic.
“Our plans say that Tysons development will be limited to Tysons and that the neighborhoods should be protected,” said Foust, “but the traffic that goes there goes through McLean and it has gotten worse.”
In discussions with members with the McLean Citizens Association, traffic was almost universally one of the most discussed items. The impact of the growing Tysons can already be felt in McLean, where both highways and residential streets are becoming increasingly clogged with commuter traffic. One of the big problems, on both a county and inter-state level, is the American Legion Bridge.
An average of 239,000 people use the American Legion Bridge every workday, according to a letter sent from the Fairfax Board of Supervisors to the Maryland Department of Transportation.
“The bridge is grossly over capacity,” said Foust. “It’s the responsibility of Maryland now. We’ve been encouraging them to expand… expansion would be a huge difference.”
Maryland has previously announced a $9 billion investment in reducing traffic congestion, including adding toll lanes north of the bridge, but the bridge itself remains a roadblock for commuter traffic heading to or from Tysons and McLean.
But expanding, supplementing, or replacing the bridge all come with difficulties. VDOT engineers have said that the bridge cannot be expanded and that it has reached capacity. Adding a new bridge to the site would also be difficult, if not impossible, given the low-density zoning in the area aimed at protecting the Potomac River. Fully replacing the bridge is a popular suggestion, but one that could take decades of planning, environmental, and financial work.
In the meantime, Foust said that traffic improvement projects in Tysons, like the Jones Branch Extension currently underway, will also help regional traffic flow. The new extension should take some pressure Route 123 and hopefully reduce congestion in McLean.
Ultimately, Foust said Tysons and McLean are going to need to rely on non-car transportation to help take some of the pressure off local roads. But paradoxically a lack of car-supporting infrastructure, at McLean Station on the Silver Line especially, makes that difficult.
“There’s a lack of parking at the stations here,” said Foust. “There’s no plan in place to build a lot [at McLean Station]. It’s very inconvenient. Generally, the Board does not want to encourage more traffic to drive into Tysons, but that means my constitutes can’t utilize the Metro.”
Foust said the County is working on expanding bus transportation, but that it will take a long time to get that to a convenient level. Given the growing pressure of traffic coming in and out of Tysons, it’s time McLean may not have.