No Easy Answers for American Legion Bridge

American Legion Bridge
American Legion Bridge

The last bridge built to span the Potomac River in the Washington region was the American Legion Memorial Bridge, part of the Capital Beltway, in 1962. The population of Montgomery and Fairfax counties, which the bridge connected, totaled about 600,000. In the intervening six decades, the combined populations now exceed 2.1 million, accounting for 36% of the region’s population and 44% of its personal income.

It would seem logical to promote connectivity between the two dominant jurisdictions in the Washington area, if only to facilitate mutually beneficial commerce. In 1992 the bridge was expanded from six to eight through lanes, but traffic has continued to grow since then, from 172,000 vehicles per day to 226,000. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments projects another 43,000 by 2040.

In a new paper, David E. Versel, senior research associate with George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, evaluates alternatives for addressing the worsening congestion on the bridge. Along the way, he debunks a commonly held theory: that the disparity in job creation between Fairfax and Montgomery counties — Fairfax created roughly 130,000 more jobs between 1990 and 2010 — led to an increase in community from Montgomery to Fairfax. In fact, the number of people commuting between the two jurisdictions declined.

The best explanation for the increase in traffic, Versel says, is the growth in the number of commuters from “fringe” jurisdictions such as Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia and Frederick County, Md.

As for alternatives, widening the bridge and adding lanes would cost an estimated $1 billion to $2.65 billion. While those improvements would improve congestion at the bridge, several other segments of Interstate 495 would remain in system failure. Concludes Versel:

Any solution will need to involve the reduction of vehicle trips during peak periods. In the short term this can be accomplished by encouraging carpooling, vanpooling, transit use, alternative work hours, and telecommuting. In the long term it will require concentrating both residential and commercial development around transit and shared-ride facilities to ensure that more people can get to an from work without driving in single-occupancy vehicles. Though both counties are already aggressively pursuing such transit-oriented development policies, the success of these policies will depend upon having better inter-county transit connections.


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10 responses to “No Easy Answers for American Legion Bridge”

  1. In the fall of 2010, the Federal Highway Administration hosted a meeting with VDOT, the Maryland State Highway Administration, the McLean Citizens Association, Congressman Wolf’s office and Congressman Van Hollen’s office to discuss congestion at the American Legion Bridge. MSHA stated the Bridge cannot be widened. It cannot support more lanes. The GMU person is wrong.

    MSHA further stated that a new bridge would need to be constructed if the Beltway is to have more lanes. Maryland does not believe there is an engineering need to replace the bridge for the foreseeable future as it is structurally sound. Also, a wider bridge could not provide any relief so long as the Maryland Beltway is not widened and there is not sufficient RoW to widen the road. There is a possibility of restriping the road and taking shoulders to add a lane in each direction, at least to I-270.

    Without dedicated lanes in Maryland (Express Lanes), there can be NO reliable express bus service from Maryland to Tysons. Further, the construction of the Express Lanes in Virginia effectively eliminates the ability to construct rail in the RoW. VDOT does not have the RoW to handle both Express Lanes and rail on the Beltway. Nor is it likely that acquiring such additional RoW would be reasonably possible in either Maryland or Virginia – short of starting a war with some fairly affluent and influential people who live near the Beltway in Fairfax and Montgomery Counties.

    And yes, I was at the meeting and am writing with first-hand knowledge.

  2. larryg Avatar

    Not sure why additional R/w cannot be obtained either at the current physical site or up or downstream.

    but the problem in my view is a dilemma.

    How would you add infrastructure to relieve the current demand congestion – without encouraging even more from wider/farther commuting?

    Denying the need or denying ways to meet that need are not solution-driven IMHO.

    This is why I support tolls and dynamic tolls.

    First you have to pay for the additional capacity and there is no real way to do that without a toll facility. We can blather on about “free roads” and roads that are “paid for” and all that blather but at the end of the day, you are not going to get more money from Va/VDOT while we are telling Hampton/Tidewater than there is no money for tunnels.

    the only way to deal with this is TOLLING. That’s how you pay for a new facility, maintain it and operate it without asking the state for more money.

    It’s also how you allow people to decide where to live and how much it will cost to commute.

    Some people will still commute. Others will decide that living closer in is better for them.

    the point is to let each person decide – and to provide a road that is paid for without relying on non-existent – funding from the state (that is never going to happen).

    Every minute/lane of new/additional capacity is going to have to be tolled.

    It ought to be the starting point for all proposals. I predict if it is – that both proponents and opponents will adopt a different attitude…

  3. Larry,
    The needed RoW would necessarily come from mainly upper income neighborhoods, populated by extremely aggressive activist residents. I don’t think elected officials in either Virginia or Maryland would be willing to take them on. Case in point, Transurban proposed to extend the north end of the Express Lanes close to the AL Bridge. Neighborhood opposition killed the proposal in only a couple of months. Reality is, well, reality.

  4. larryg Avatar

    Okay.. makes sense..TMT.

    Do you think that is true pretty much all along the Potomac from Georgetown to Great Falls and beyond?

    1. Larry, I believe there would be very strong opposition from the American Legion Bridge west into Loudoun County to the construction of a new bridge. These areas contain nice and often very expensive homes, populated by people motivated to preserve and protect what they own. This opposition has even checked Til Hazel in his efforts to gain his Outer Beltway connection to Maryland. I know a strong booster of an additional bridge who privately worries it’s too late to make it happen because of strong opposition and expensive homes in the way.

  5. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    The problem with the American Legion Bridge is quite simple, and how the bridge negatively impacts connectivity between Montgomery County and Fairfax, is also quite simple: The bridge and its approaches are are far too unreliable and time wasting to use during Rush Hour as as commuter route, or as an interstate route. The reasons for this are several fold.

    1. As of 2005 Tyson’s Corner spewed out 250,000 (a quarter million) daily commuter trips, stealing the Capital Beltway from most other users. (the Tyson’s generated traffic is of course substantially higher now.)

    2. The Capital Beltway from Silver Spring west around to the American Bridge is highly unreliable and wasteful commuter wise. This is due to the confluence of the Beltway within a span of short distances with: Georgia Ave, Connecticut Ave., US 270 headed east, Old Georgetown Road, Us 270 headed southwest, River Road, MacArthur Boulevard, and the Clara Barton Parkway, before the frazzled traveler hits the American Legion Bridge.

    3. This nightmare on the Maryland side is compounded by extremely poor roadway engineering from Silver Spring to the bridge by reason of topography and long ago boneheaded political influence of Senator who lived in the neighborhood (said to be now long departed Sen. Nye who lived in North Chevy Chase in the area of the Mormon Temple)

    4. Similar confluence problems are encontered on the Virginia side, including Geo. Washington Parkway, Rt. 127, Dulles Toll Road, and I-66.

    4. All of this mess is further compounded by Fairfax County’s heist of the Capital Beltway (an interstate highway) as its “Main Street.” Originally seeded from a Sinclair Lewis novel, Fairfax has over the years morphed the quaint small town American icon of “Main Street” into an apocalyptic monstrosity of hell straight out of a Cormac Mccarthy novel.

    Yet another result of Interstate 495’s abject failure to serve interstate traffic on its west side has been its gross overloading of interstate and commuter traffic onto its eastern side. This now is causing near abject failure there as well. From the intersection of I-495 and I-95 to Baltimore on its north side, gridlock can extend for a total of 60 miles going south on I-495 into Virginia and continue on I-95 all the way to Quantico, Virginia.

    In essence, all interstate commerce by road between Virginia and Maryland on US Interstate Roads in the Nations Capital is coming to a slow grinding halt. Each side, north and south, now stares at the other across the Potomac Divide, each camp equally mad and furiously blue in the face.

    1. Interesting comments. I would have to agree that the federal government never considered the Interstate Highway System to serve as the main commuter routes throughout the country.

      I wonder what would have happened had the government had the ability to toll all commuters on the Interstates, while permitting long-distance travelers to drive without a toll.

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        This disaster been going on for almost 30 years.

        Back in 1985 when I started working in Tyson’s Corner I lived in Sen. Nye’s north Chevy Chase Neighborhood but soon moved to another house on the Potomac River 8 or so + miles around the Beltway close to the American Legion bridge. That 8 or so miles taken off of my Beltway Commute saved me typically anywhere from 25 to 50 minutes each way to Tyson’s Corner.

        This 30 years of horrible waste of citizens time speaks to the gross dysfunction of our local governments, and indeed our society generally.

  6. larryg Avatar

    As usual my perspective differs a little from Reeds.

    I-95 South of DC was finished in 1963 – 50 years ago.

    but first I direct folks to the FHWA “myths” page which does put a different light on our perspectives.

    there is another good history that talks about tolling the original interstates here:


    ” Construction of the interstate system moved slowly. Many States did not wish to divert Federal-aid funds from local needs. Others complained that the standards were too high. Some of the heavily populated States, finding that Federal-aid funding was so small in comparison with need, decided to authorize construction of toll roads in the interstate corridors”

    the two big mistakes IMHO:

    1. – not understanding that roads like interstates DIRECT growth in addition to serving existing roads

    2. – not tolling – which led directly to messes like the American Legion Bridge which would function very differently if it had dynamic tolls as would the Fairfax “Main Street”, as would the longer distance commuting from Fredericksburg and environs.

    Think about the mess we have got ourselves in – by NOT tolling.

    We have created an entire generation of people who think that roads are “paid for” once and after that “free” no matter if those roads become de-facto main streets and commuting routes.

    there is no end game answer to the problem – other than tolling.

    We just had the biggest transportation tax increase in 3 decades and ask yourself how much mega money is now available to add capacity to the beltway?

    how much?

  7. It appears Virginia is doing something on its side of the American Legion to help congestion issues.

    I would hope Maryland is helping fund this, since is mainly benefits its residents during the evening commute.

    Connecting Tysons and Bethesda via light rail should be considered.

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