Watching, Tracking Commuters

Watching, Tracking Commuters

American Legion Bridge study could be first step to a Techway study.

Chances are, drivers who commute between Virginia and Maryland across the American Legion Bridge every day had their license plates photographed at least once during the last two weeks of October.

Some fear that this is a first step toward building a new bridge across the Potomac.

The photographs are part of a transportation study conducted jointly by the Virginia and the Maryland departments of transportation, trying to determine the commuting patterns of the 200,000 people who cross the bridge every day.

With the study, transportation officials hope to be able to offer some solutions to the bridge's gridlock, said Tom Farley, VDOT's Northern Virginia administrator.

"Everybody's been talking theory with regard to the movement back and forth across the river," he said. "This is a way to talk about facts."

One of Potomac’s State Delegates, Jean Cryor (R-15), dosen’t think it will present many facts to talk about.

She points out that the study will not differentiate between people making a daily commute, or just going on a one-time shopping trip.

“All it will tell us is how many cars were on the bridge that day and what county they were in,” Cryor said.

Cameras mounted at strategic points near the bridge, along the Beltway, I-66, the Dulles Toll Road and I-270 in Maryland will snap photos of license plates, which will be sent to state departments of motor vehicles to learn the zip codes of registered owners. The study will cost Virginia $123,000.

When the study was proposed Maryland Department of Transportation officials stated that they would not be contributing funding to the project.

VDOT officials expect to produce a report early next year.

When the study was first discussed this spring, officials had talked about sending short questionnaires to the vehicles' owners but that idea was dropped because of privacy concerns, said Farley.

The zip codes will tell officials where the commuters who cross the bridge live. With that information, planners can start devising solutions to make the commute easier, said Farley.

Cryor rejects his idea. “We’ll know nothing from it that we wouldn’t have known if you just stood there and counted cars,” she said.

They hope to learn "whether or not there's any merit to considering another crossing or if in fact there are ways to fill that … need perhaps by public transportation as opposed to considering building a new northern crossing first."

"It could be, again, something as simple as additional bus service," he added. "It could be again some kind of rail system, whether it be light or heavy rail."

Cryor thinks another option is on the table for this study. “I do hear [the idea of] trying to widen the Beltway,” she said.

ENVIRONMENTALISTS, who have been fighting proposals to build a new bridge over the Potomac, aren't convinced. To them, the study is a bridge study in disguise.

"We consider this the first step towards additional studies of bridge crossings," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "They're simply trying to avoid lines on a map to avoid concerning the public."

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) called off a federal study before it was completed in May, 2001, after maps and aerial photos generated by the study showed that possible locations for new Potomac River crossing and connecting highways would pass through established neighborhoods, requiring the demolition of many homes. Hundreds of homeowners turned out at meetings to protest the proposals.

Possible routes for a new crossing at the time would have connected to the Fairfax County Parkway or Route 28.

It may be that the study will ultimately lead VDOT to recommend more transit options rather than a new bridge, Schwartz said, but he thinks it is more likely that it will be used to renew proposals for a new bridge crossing between Northern Virginia and Montgomery County.

<1b>Ari Cetron contributed to the article