‘It’s Not a Bridge Study’

‘It’s Not a Bridge Study’

Virginia Department of Transportation releases study of commuting patterns on the American Legion Bridge.

A new study, this one by the Virginia Department of Transportation, raises the recurring issue about building a new bridge across the Potomac River.

This study is one in a long series of studies and proposals that have galvanized opposition from Potomac activists, environmentalists and the Montgomery County Council.

The Montgomery County Council has unanimously opposed a second river crossing for years.

“The Council remains unalterably opposed to a second river crossing through Montgomery County,” said County Council President Steve Silverman on Tuesday. “I think it would be destructive to our communities and our Agricultural Reserve.”

ON MONDAY, the Virginia Department of Transportation released a study of commuter traffic on the American Legion Bridge.

“This study was conducted to identify and quantify current morning commuting patterns of Virginia and Maryland residents crossing the Potomac River via the American Legion Bridge,” according to the executive summary of the report. “It is hoped that data and findings will be useful in traffic management decisions and ongoing and future studies.”

The study, "Morning Commuter Traffic Crossing American Legion Bridge," used infrared imaging to record the license plate numbers of cars at 15 points in Maryland and Virginia during the hours of 6-9 a.m. in October and November 2003. These license plate numbers were then compared to state records to determine the zip code where the car was registered, assuming that traffic at that time of day would be coming from home.

VDOT officials say that they are only gathering data. “We’re not making any recommendations,” said Ryan Hall, spokesperson for VDOT. “We’re just gathering data for other groups to use.”

But the call for a new bridge began almost immediately.

Hall said the $122,000 study was done at the request of elected officials in Northern Virginia, but he declined to name which ones. “We had some extra money in our planning section,” Hall said. “Local elected officials were looking for data.”

One of those officials is U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). “It was just his position that you can’t make accurate transportation decisions without accurate data,” said David Marin, communications and policy director for Davis.

Marin says the study shows that there is a definite need for another bridge, and that the only question is where to put it. He said that Davis plans to study the data in coming weeks and will then call a meeting with area officials to discuss prospects for a new bridge crossing.

In May 2001, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), however, called for the cancellation of his $2 million federal transportation study, which looked at the feasibility of building a new bridge across the Potomac River, north of the American Legion Bridge. Preliminary plans proposed a dozen possible routes connecting I-270 and the Dulles corridor, most passing through Potomac and developed neighborhoods in Virginia. (See timeline.)

"How many homes are you willing to take out to build a bridge? 100, 200, 300, 400, 500? How many is worth it?" wrote Wolf.

"If you can find a place to put a bridge, show me," said Wolf, looking over aerial maps.

Del. Jean Cryor (R-15), said this week’s VDOT study is flawed, and shouldn’t lead to any conclusions.

Cryor, who was aware of the study at its inception, said that its results would be almost meaningless because of the limited scope. “I knew then that the study was regarded as being inadequate,” Cryor said.

Identifying information about the person to whom the car was registered was not included. Drivers were not contacted, which is another of Cryor’s criticisms of the study. “It doesn’t say anything about, ‘Would you use transit if it was available?’ or any questions of the drivers,” Cryor said. Cryor represents most of Potomac and the upcounty.

The commute most often used to justify construction of a new bridge is the hypothetical Gaithersburg to Loudoun County, Va. “horseshoe commute,” with a commuter driving down I-270, onto the Beltway, across the American Legion Bridge and back out the Dulles Toll Road.

“The growth is all out the Dulles Corridor,” Marin said. “We know where the growth has been, we know where the growth is coming and the American Legion Bridge doesn’t get the job done.”

In terms of this study, the horseshoe commute is generalized as a “Maryland West” to “Virginia West” commute.

Already the proponents and opponents of a new bridge are each interpreting the data to support their positions.

“I THINK there are huge flaws in the way the report is presented,” said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Someone traveling from Tyson’s Corner to some parts Bethesda would be considered a West-West commuter for purposes of this study.

“It is not fair to count Tyson’s [Corner] as a western suburb,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said his group added up parts of the study and looked at how many drivers go between areas which they consider to be western suburbs and I-270/Gaithersburg. They found that 342 cars go from Virginia to Maryland in this way and 1,637 go from Maryland to Virginia.

“Those are the people making the U-shaped commute. That is less than 2,000 cars, that hardly justifies a $1 billion bridge crossing,” he said.

Marin thinks Schwartz is mistaken.

“[Schwartz] doesn’t think new pavement is the answer to anything,” Marin said.