Virginians are used to hearing that a new bridge over the Potomac River could never happen because Maryland is against it, but Marylanders showed cracks in that wall in a vote at the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board yesterday.
Representatives from three Maryland cities—Gaithersburg, Rockville, and Takoma Park—voted to keep plans to further study a new bridge.
The Transportation Planning Board’s Long Range Planning Board had recommended 10 topics for further study, such as regional bus rapid transit, extending Metrorail, and express toll lanes. Among those is an additional bridge crossing.
Members of the Maryland delegation attempted to strike that topic from that proposal, but fell just shy, 12-17.
“It’s obviously worth study,” said Gaithersburg City Council member Neil Harris, one of the three dissenting votes. “There are many challenges—the route would be a challenge, and the issues of land preservation, land use, expense, all that—but that wasn’t part of the charter here. The charter here was to think outside the box.”
Harris is also a member of TPB’s Long Range Planning Board, which he said found part of the region’s transportation problem comes from parochialism among jurisdictions in the region. He also commutes from Gaithersburg to Reston for work—a commute which he describes as “probably 10 miles as the crow flies, but unfortunately I’m not a crow.”
“We did not see a lot—or any significant amount— of regional planning going on, and that’s our job,” Harris said. “So we took it upon ourselves to say, let’s form a taskforce and try to form six to 12 projects … that might move the bar. So the bridge was viewed as a regional project, not a parochial project.”
The three Maryland votes were enough to sway the result. If all three had voted to strike the bridge from the proposal, they would have succeeded by one vote.
“The people over there are shifting, and because the people are shifting, the politicians are starting to come over, especially the ones that are newly elected, versus entrenched,” said Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run), Loudoun’s representative on the Transportation Planning Board. “To be honest with you, I wouldn’t be wasting time on something that the Montgomery County Council is totally against if I didn’t think there’s a real possibility to get it into our long-term planning.”
The Transportation Planning Board includes representation from Virginia, Maryland, and DC. It is only the latest regional body to take another look at the idea of a new bridge—an idea that was first proposed in the 1950s. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which funnels hundreds of millions of dollars into transportation projects every year, recently identified an “Outer Potomac River Crossing” at Rt. 28 on its long-range wish list, and Loudoun County supervisors have voted unanimously to add a new bridge to the Countywide Transportation Plan.
The Montgomery County Council—in the other county where a new bridge is most likely to be built—reaffirmed its longstanding and unanimous opposition to a new bridge the day before the Transportation Planning Board’s vote.
The majority of the Maryland delegation on the Transportation Planning Board, nine members, also voted against studying a bridge.
Harris said the thing he hears most often from his constituents when he asks how to fix traffic is to build a new bridge. On Friday afternoons, he said, it can take him two hours to get home from Reston.
“That’s really what it’s all about,” Harris said. “We just can’t go on the way we’re going on.”