VDOT to Study Potomac Crossings

Area covered by VDOT Potomac-bridges study.

by James A. Bacon

Three days ago the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) issued an innocuous press release announcing that it would sponsor and fund a study of future travel demand across the Potomac River. Specifically, the study will focus on cross-river traffic and demand between the Route 15 crossing north of Leesburg to the Route 301 crossing some 60 miles to the southeast.

Stated the press release: “The study will develop a common set of data from which Virginia, D.C. and Maryland can discuss approaches to ease congestion and increase multi-modal mobility among the three jurisdictions. The study will define the problem, not recommend the solution.”

Can you spot the asymmetry in this arrangement? Virginia, Maryland and D.C. will collaborate to study the demand for cross-river transit but Virginia will pay for the study.

Why would Maryland not help chip in to cover the cost? An October letter from Maryland’s Acting Secretary of Transportation Darrell B. Mobley to Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton provides a clue:

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.  We are interested in the study of potential improvements to existing crossings, including: The Governor Nice Bridge along the U.S. 301 corridor, the American Legion Bridge on the Capital Beltway, and the potential addition of transit across the Wilson Bridge. … We believe that exploring the concept of additional crossings of the Potomac at this time could create unrealistic expectations and defer the time and resources that should be dedicated toward addressing regional needs by improving our existing crossings.

… I recognize that this may alter your willingness to pursue the study as you envisioned, but our staff participation would be contingent upon constraining any analysis to the existing crossings.

The VDOT press release does not state that the study is motivated by a desire to explore an additional crossing, but that’s the conclusion of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and a passel of other environmentalist and smart-growth organizations from the Piedmont Environmental Council to the 1000 Friends of Maryland.

Connaughton, states a joint press release, “is intent on pursuing new bridges.” Last spring Gov. Bob McDonnell had met with Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to discuss the topic of another Potomac River crossing. McDonnell and Connaughton have been “relentless in pursuit” of a bridge crossing in association with an outer beltway. Meanwhile, VDOT is studying the practicality of building the Tri-County Parkway, a southern link in the outer beltway that would bridge the Potomac.

“It is very odd that Virginia officials keep pressing for new bridges upriver for that would divert scarce public dollars away from urgent needs like fixing existing roads, highways and transit,” stated Dru Schmidt-Perkins of 1000 Friends of Maryland in the press release. “Maryland has consistently pointed out, as they do in their recent letter, that they have much more urgent needs, and this isn’t one.”

28 Responses to VDOT to Study Potomac Crossings

  1. Maryland is broke. It has no money for new roads. It’s struggling to maintain what its existing roads. In addition, the State’s political and union interests are so anti-business, they refuse to do public private road building.

    And the current governor of Maryland is captive of political interests who oppose new roads, particularly one across the Potomac. He also thinks he’s going to be our next President. Last thing he wants is to rile up his base.

  2. Another reason why Maryland won’t build Til Hazel his long-wanted bridge over the Potomac is Marshall BWI Airport. The State of Maryland wants to promote BWI. If another bridge were built over the Potomac, it would be easier for Marylanders to use Dulles Airport. So no bridge; less competition for BWI.

  3. the east coast travelers are screwed when they try to navigate through the DC/Md/NoVa region and that’s what is driving this effort.

    It may well be that with the advent of HOT lanes the “find another path” idea (which does meld with the Til Hazel motivation also) might go away.

    Anything that is done will be toll road and likely congestion toll road (HOT lanes).

    At the end of the day, most folks from outside this area that are trying to navigate through it would GLADLY pay a few bucks to escape the traffic hell of of the DC area.

  4. It’s a very old story, of course, but the first mistake was turning the beltway into Washington’s Main Street. That was not the original intent. The original intent was quite the reverse, that is to detour interstate traffic around the city, and also through it by limited access highway. The latter was defeated politically by neighborhood groups. The former was defeated by business. Hence the first mess.

    Having made the mess, the fallback solution many year ago was obvious. And outer beltway became essential since the purpose of the original beltway had been thwarted due to local traffic. A deal then should have have been made for an outer beltway to siphon off the now “frustrated” interstate traffic, provided that this second beltway had strictly limited assess so as to protect the vital Piedmont area most particularly.

    The battle lines were tightly drawn however by events such as the Disney battlefield despite which never should have been proposed, that it was to late for thoughtful accommodation. So we live with the consequences.

  5. Correction to above – The battle lines were tightly drawn however by events such as the Disney battlefield dispute. This project never should have been proposed. Afterward it was to late for thoughtful accommodation. So we live with the consequences.

  6. important to recognize that what happened to DC/environs with the beltway has also happened to every single urban area with a beltway in the country.

    And although what evolved seemed to surprise many, it was not like they did not already have experience with spoke roads – and even rail where – if you put in a transportation corridor – it will attract people who want to live or work – and traffic.

    the only thing so far that modulates the use and development and the consequently damage to transportation utility – is tolls.

  7. Actually, Larry, at the time the DC beltway was built in the early 1960, no one anticipated the sudden flash flood of suburban office buildings that followed. It revolutionized the American landscape, creating whole new cities in the space of a few decades.

  8. Reed – urban beltways are common these days and they all do the same thing to the landscape.

    Whether you’re visiting Indianapolis or St. Louis or Dallas or DC – it’s the same story.

    it’s not unique to the DC area.

  9. I understand what has happened, Larry. I get around. But at the time of the building of the Washington beltway, the outward ring explosion of suburban office parks and resultant satellite cities had yet to occur. Tyson Corner was a corn field with a bit of modest strip retail. A little more than twenty years later Tyson had more office space than Washington DC. None of this was expected.

    The outward urban explosion lasted essentially three decades, to about 1990, save for infill. Quite possible (I believe likely) we’d never live to see anything like it again.

  10. Virginia should pick the site, build the access road and cantilever half the bridge over the river. If Maryland does not want to play, take the options away from them.

    Connecticut did this when Rhode Island would not play. Built a highwya up to the state line and said there you go, your problem now.

  11. The need and value of new bridges is beyond obvious. PEC/SGC have their head in the sand as usual.

  12. the only thing so far that modulates the use and development and the consequently damage to transportation utility – is tolls.

    ==============================================

    If you do not want the use and development, put up a forest. That is the only kind of transportation system that PEC/SGC will approve of.

    Face it: a road ahs transportion utility and it has development utility. Using tolls to enhance the transportation utility while reducing the development utility is robbing Peter to pay Paul. There is one optimum value, and the question is how to set about finding it. At present there is no method for doing so, and no plan to devise an agreeable method.

    However, if you believe that tols preserve the transportation utility by limiting the development utility, then what you are really saying is that you prefer to pay for — nothing— than to have development happen. And continue to pay for it indefinitely.

    A far better expenditure of money would be to simply buy a forest, and be done with it. Operate it as a forest and save yourself the money that would have been spent on supporting development and transportation: in short people doing something valuable.

  13. A little more than twenty years later Tyson had more office space than Washington DC. None of this was expected.

    ==============================================

    You are kidding, right? SOMEBODY expected it. All that stuff did not happen by accident. And at that time, DC was crooked as a Scottish cane: I leved there, aand I got the hell out, so did businesses. And any business that moved here was not about to go into DC, if there was a choice.

    You can watch the decline of Fairfax and the ascendancy of Loudoun, even now.

    Meanwhile, Fauquier County has just told their burgeoning and succesful Vineyards to go stuff it – too commercial. And they cant even hire an Economic Development Director – because they don’t really want one.

    • You are kidding, right? SOMEBODY expected it.

      No, I’m not kidding. The Beltway was a 1950′s decision.

      • So the Beltway was designed not for local traffic but for Interstate Traffic. Hence the name Interstate Highway.

        Later, a great and largely successful idea, the Interstate Highway, was to a degree hijacked by the unexpected, and by the unintended consequence of the Interstate Highway system that empowered that random event.

        Of course, the results were not all bad. It’s just that we could have done a whole lot better had we not be blindsided by the unexpected event the carried so much promise, and hidden cost if not properly managed.

        • If the beltway interstates were originally tolled as Eisenhower wanted – it would have had a good effect on tamping down sprawl.

        • So what’s this suggest? Not that Interstate Roads are bad. Nor that their unexpected consequences need always be bad. Indeed many hold unintended benefits. The question is balance and thoughtful compromise. Between to build and/or to preserve? Can a Ying and Yang be fashioned from those two essential needs?

          What happened here, going on some 40 years, is that our local and regional political systems have failed. And so have our experts. To date the extremes have prevailed. Gridlock on all levels has ensued. So far Everybody’s lost.

          • every local and regional political systems everywhere there is a beltway have failed?

            or would you like to be more precise?

            It’s easy to blame one set of political leaders in one locality.

            It’s quite another to say that everywhere there is a beltway – that political process has failed.

            can you be more specific?

          • reed fawell III

            Actually no, Larry.

          • Reed – when you make a claim that SOUNDS LIKE you are saying that EVERY local/regional political process FAILED, EVERYWHERE there is a beltway – it sounds so over the top that I’m sure that’s not exactly what you meant..

            that’s why I was asking for a little more explanation of your view.

            For myself – since the same problem occurred everywhere a beltway was built – no matter how good or bad local/regional politics were – I see it as a much more difficult issue than just a failure of politics.

          • reed fawell III

            Larry, the subject is the failure to build more bridges over the Potomac River per Virginia’s newly proposed study, a subject that has been ongoing for forty years . . . That’s is what I’m talking about. Period.

          • reed fawell III

            And I consider it a failure since the need for such twin bridges has been obvious for nearly 40 years. And now everyday people who need to make a living suffer mightily trying to do so, because of that failure. And the opponents appear intractable as ever, despite that suffering of others.

  14. I’m not opposed to development. Development is good. but so is transportation utility.

    roads are very, very expensive and tolls help focus true need.

    it becomes a cost like anything else – like the cost of fuel, or the cost of time used – if something is important and has economic utility – it’s worth the costs required and if it is not – especially at rush hour – then that leaves the road to those who truly need it for economic reasons.

    and don’t give me the Lexus argument either.. In the General Assembly, as I predicted, there is a bill allowing tax credits for tolls for low income people and students – up to a max – as it should be.

    so they get their transponder – and as long as they don’t waste their stipend.. they are not penalized.

  15. Pingback: Around the Corner | The Tysons Corner

  16. “it becomes a cost like anything else – like the cost of fuel, or the cost of time used – if something is important and has economic utility – it’s worth the costs required and if it is not – especially at rush hour – then that leaves the road to those who truly need it for economic reasons.”

    Question – How about if everyone still needs it for economic reasons at “rush hour” (a constantly expanding reality by the way)?

  17. I thought you were talking about beltways in general.

    re: the bridge – if you build it – what will happen to the land on both sides that is currently not desirable for heavy development because it’s not conveniently accessible.

    re: “economic” rush hour. Not every trip at rush hour is economically justifiable and that’s what congestion pricing is about. It puts an economic value on time.

    re: Potomac Bridge – I’d sign on to it if it’s total construction, operation and maintenance costs were paid by the people who used it.

  18. No one dislikes sprawl more than I. No values rural small town Virginia Piedmont and tidewater more than I.

    But The economic and social cost that directly and adversely affect our people (particularly those unable to escape it, which is the great majority) – as a direct results of our failure to add these bridges is absolutely staggering. The fixes are many, but the bridges are way up at the top in terms of direct positive impact.

    Re your questions.

    re: “the bridge – if you build it – what will happen to the land on both sides that is currently not desirable for heavy development because it’s not conveniently accessible.”

    Answer – the primary object is moving north south interstate traffic around the current mess afflicting much of everything between Baltimore and Richmond. This means limited access and affect location.

    Without in anyway diluting the primary importance of above Answer, I believe (with some substantial exceptions) that the question oftentimes is not development but the kind of development. Building wonderful places for people to live, prosper, and achieve their dreams is a noble calling.

    Hence my belief in smart growth and historic preservation. If done right, these bridges can be used to promote these concepts and, at the same time, they can be used as a tool (carrot and stick) to help defeat our current myopic fixation on “mindless land planning & irresponsible development.”

    re: ““economic” rush hour. Not every trip at rush hour is economically justifiable and that’s what congestion pricing is about. It puts an economic value on time.”

    Answer: Larry, I see your point and insofar as concerns the DC beltway and perhaps 95 from Richmond to Baltimore, I believe that very little of this traffic is not economically justifiable. Otherwise most sane people would not endure it. Most of these folks are simply trying to survive (feed themselves and their families.)

    re: “Potomac Bridge – I’d sign on to it if it’s total construction, operation and maintenance costs were paid by the people who used it.”

    Answer: I have not thought out, nor do I have much experience with, this issue and related ones such as Private Public Roads. But I suspect that what you suggest makes good sense given that the primary purpose for which these bridges would be built is to move Interstate traffic out of our cities.

  19. re: economic justification – it’s not static.

    it’s prioritization.

    you have limited capacity and it’s very expensive and even more expensive to increase.

    the question is – how should you allocate it?

    this is why I like congestion pricing.

    it encourages people to consider costs – time and money and it incentivizes the operator to provide as high a level of service as they can – and in return – profits.

    It’s supply/demand – based – and I like that a lot and it’s a situation where it can be implemented and works.

    re: the “right” kind of development vs “sprawl”.

    how do you get the former without incentivizing the latter?

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