New Potomac River Bridge Back on the Table?

Loudoun supervisors are putting plans for a new Potomac River crossing between Leesburg and the American Legion Bridge back on the county’s legislative priority list.

It’s an idea that has waxed and waned over the years, but it’s getting renewed attention in the business community. The county’s Economic Development Advisory Committee hosted a panel discussion Friday with developer Bob Buchanan, Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance CEO David Birtwistle, and Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance Vice Chairman Richard Parsons exploring the topic.

Those panelists had enough sharp criticism of governments in the DC metro area to go around.

“There seems to be a real disconnect between the decision makers in Congress and their care for their employees in the federal agencies around here,” Birtwistle said. He said the region also suffers from a loss in seniority in Congress.

“There needs to be something more than the (Metropolitan Washington) Council of Governments thinking about this,” Parsons said. “They don’t think top-down, they don’t think regionally.” He said COG is ruled by parochial interests and unable to form a truly regional transportation plan.

He said that in his surveys residents on both sides of the river overwhelmingly support a new bridge.

“The people who show up at the public hearing are not representative of the public, and a lot of local officials don’t really get that because they’re not very sophisticated in politics,” Parsons said.

Panel members said it would take pressure from businesses to make a new bridge happen. Buchanan gave the example of hotel giant Marriott, which won multi-million-dollar incentive packages from the Montgomery County and Maryland’s state governments when it was looking for new headquarters and threatened to leave the state entirely.

“The Marriotts have got to step up and say, ‘the bridge continues to be one of the biggest aggravations we have’… They moved here because of the workforce, they moved here because of the proximity to the federal government, and they’ve got to start acting like corporate citizens,” Buchanan said.

After the panel, Parsons said any realistic prospect for a bridge also includes a toll to cover the costs.

“There’s so much demand for that crossing that the revenues it would produce from even a modest toll would more than pay for the facility,” Parsons said. “So this isn’t a question of this taking away money from other projects. It’s actually a potential future funding source.”

But while Virginia’s government—including the Loudoun and Fairfax boards of supervisors and Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration—support a new crossing, Maryland leadership isn’t so sure. McAuliffe and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan have debated in the past which state should pay for the bridge, and Hogan and the Maryland Department of Transportation have said they are focusing on improving the existing bridges across the Potomac.

From the Virginia perspective, the most likely spots for a new bridge cross into Montgomery County, MD. Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen said the American Legion Bridge that carries I-495 across the river needs to be expanded. However, she doesn’t see the demand for a bridge that some in the business community claim to see.

“I’m one of the few people who believes that we should construct more roads, but at the end of the day, I don’t see a bridge over the Potomac as gathering any political traction,” Floreen said. She said that aside from a few business leaders, “I have not been approached by hordes of people from up the county saying ‘build that bridge.’”

Floreen pointed out that the official position of the Montgomery County Council has long been that any bridge construction work should be in Point of Rocks, MD—the site of Rt. 15’s bridge. She said the council hasn’t had a discussion on a new crossing in years. In fact, she said, Maryland might even stand to lose from a new bridge.

“Frankly, from my perspective, it would create a big sucking sound in terms of jobs in Northern Virginia,” Floreen said. “It would get people from that part of Maryland.”

Loudoun Economic Development Advisory Committee Chairwoman Sharon Virts said the panel plans to assemble an ad hoc committee to look at next steps to plan and lead initiatives for a new bridge crossing. But Virginia ends on the Potomac’s southern shore—and so far, so might any hope for a new bridge.