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Leggett catches heat for comments about a potential Potomac River crossing in Montgomery County.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett ran his campaign last year with the pledge that if elected his government would be open: open to citizen access, open to change, and open to discussion on any and all ideas. Two weeks ago, that openness gave many Potomac residents a scare.

Leggett appeared on the WTOP radio show “Hands Across Potomac” with Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly. The pair discussed the possibility of a second Potomac River bridge crossing in Montgomery County to ease congestion for daily commuters who travel between Maryland and Virginia .

“Our folks are going over for medical research and the jobs at NIH, and so forth, and a lot of Ike's folks are coming over for IT jobs and defense contractors, and so forth. And, they're cluttering up the Beltway. It's a very difficult route they have right now and we can make it a more direct route,” Connolly said.

Leggett said that he was open to the idea of building another bridge across the Potomac River to facilitate that commute.

“No one disagrees that we should have another crossing. The question is the location,” Leggett said on the show.

During the show Leggett said that he strongly opposed putting a second crossing in the rural Agricultural Reserve in the northern part of the county, and that finding an exact location further south is difficult because it is such a hot-button subject.

Leggett’s statements quickly drew the ire of many local organizations, and the following day Leggett sent out a letter stating that he does not in fact support a second bridge crossing in Montgomery County, but would support one at Point of Rocks, which is just above the county line, in Frederick County.

DESPITE LEGGETT’S explanatory letter, many remain concerned by Leggett’s remarks.

“We are strongly opposed to a second bridge crossing anywhere in the county,” said Andrea Arnold, managing director of Celebrate Rural Montgomery. “The Ag Reserve is already under incredible pressure. This would be additional pressure.”

Arnold said that a bridge located at Point of Rocks would not be a good alternative, as it would have a ripple effect that would spread development and congestion both up-county and down-county.

“Everyone makes this big deal about the Ag Reserve, and that’s appropriate, [but] everything from the urban center to Point of Rocks is environmentally sensitive,” said Ginny Barnes, the incoming president of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association. “What is Ike thinking? Where is Ike thinking that thing could go? You don’t go saying things like that unless you’re entertaining the notion on some level. I don’t get it,” Barnes said.

ARNOLD SAID that a 2004 traffic study conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation showed that out of 50,000 Maryland commuters, only 24,000 commute to Virginia; of those 24,000 commuters, only 2,000 make the U-shaped commute from the northern part of Montgomery County, onto the Beltway, across the American Legion Bridge , and back up the Dulles corridor.

The limited transportation funds of Montgomery County, Fairfax County, and both Maryland and Virginia should be directed toward improving existing roads and funding for other future projects such as the Metro Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transit Way, Arnold said.

“Based on those 2004 numbers, [an additional bridge crossing] doesn’t seem to be something that should be prioritized,” Arnold said. “I think it’s really important for elected officials in Montgomery County to be taking a stand against something like this.”

Leggett did his best in his letter to illustrate that he does not support another crossing.

“I do not support an additional Potomac River bridge crossing into Montgomery County,” Leggett wrote. “Quite simply, there’s no place to put one. Such a bridge would either cut through our crown jewel Agricultural Reserve that we have worked so hard to build and preserve, or it would plow through existing neighborhoods on both sides of the river, adversely affecting thousands of residents. And, I believe, it would provide little, if any, additional relief.”

Leggett said that his comments were intended to foster a spirit of cooperation.

“In the WTOP interview, I said that I was willing to talk with Fairfax County about the issue of an additional crossing,” Leggett wrote. “Why? Because I do not believe that we build regional cooperation on issues across the board by saying that we are not even willing to discuss that issue — period. I am willing to talk to leaders of other counties about issues of mutual concern, at which point I will share our county’s perspective and seek to educate them about what is possible and what is not.”

COUNTY COUNCILMAN Roger Berliner (D-1) said that the issue is not going to be up for serious debate anytime in the near future.

“No, no, no,” said Berliner about whether he would ever support another bridge crossing in the county. “There are so many questions about it. It is obvious that the American Legion Bridge is one of the chokepoints, [but] this is probably not a solution to that problem. It’s not a solution that has political support on either side of the river. Frankly, it always concerns me when people get riled up about what I see as such a nonstarter. This should be put to bed.”

Barnes said that she, too, hopes the issue can be put to bed, because a second crossing either in Montgomery County or at Point of Rocks would disrupt the Potomac Subregion Master Plan as designed by the Montgomery County Planning Board and would have an adverse affect on the C&O Canal. Barnes said that she worries that Leggett’s comments indicate that the issue, which had been largely dormant for several years, might be up for discussion again.

“Now it’s like, ‘Okay, which community is on the chopping block?’”