Traffic congestion knows no jurisdictional boundaries – that’s a fact repeated often by local and regional leaders in metro Washington.
One of the most obvious examples of this comes in the form of the highly-traveled American Legion Bridge, which traverses the Potomac River to connect Fairfax County, Virginia with Montgomery County, Maryland.
At the first-ever joint Montgomery County Council and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting held yesterday at WMATA, elected officials from the region’s two most populous jurisdictions had a frank and honest discussion about the major transportation challenges they face as well as opportunities for solving these challenges together.
Montgomery County President Roger Berliner opened the meeting by noting that although the two counties are “fierce competitors” vis-à-vis economic development, they need to be “just as fierce when it comes to collaboration.” Fairfax County Chairman Sharon Bulova echoed Berliner’s call for cooperation, saying the “next-door neighbors” have much more in common than they have differences.
It was unanimous among the participants that the American Legion Bridge is a good starting point for such collaborative problem solving, given its importance to both counties and to the region as a whole.
Following the opening remarks, Ron Kirby, MWCOG’s Director of Transportation Planning, provided a report with statistics on the Legion Bridge itself, as well as on the commuting patterns between Fairfax and Montgomery Counties.
More than 230,000 people crossed the bridge every day in 2010, an increase of 10% over the 2000 level. And it’s not just the bridge that is experiencing this increased traffic – almost the entire section of the corridor, from Chain Bridge Road in Fairfax to River Road in Montgomery, is “congested” or “severely congested” during peak traffic periods, according to MWCOG figures.
When the project formerly known as HOT Lanes, now rebranded as the 495 Express Lanes, comes into service in Northern Virginia later this year, it will add two lanes of additional capacity in each direction, from the Springfield Interchange to just north of the Dulles Toll Road. The project will hopefully alleviate congestion for some commuters, though it is likely going to create difficulties for others.
The Express Lanes terminate before the Legion Bridge and do not continue into Maryland. What is already a major traffic headache is likely to become even more frustrating as commuters heading from job centers like Tysons and Dulles back home to Montgomery County experience major bottlenecking at the bridge.
That’s the major impetus behind yesterday’s gathering. Participants acknowledged that widening the bridge is unlikely to happen quickly, though there was interest in seeing if additional capacity could be generated on the existing bridge by narrowing lanes and making room for a dedicated bus and HOV lane. During yesterday’s meeting, WMATA noted that the lack of a dedicated right of way is one of the primary reasons why former Metrobus service in the corridor failed.
However, a longer-term solution – widening the bridge and extending the toll lanes into Maryland – also received support from several of the participants. This could potentially be part of a larger regional network of variably-priced lanes (VPL).
Although no “silver bullet” solution came about from yesterday’s first-ever meeting of its type, the participants had a very substantive discussion, pushed forward analysis of options for the bridge and the corridor, and agreed to make the joint meeting a regular occurrence.
In a region with two states, the District, and numerous localities, cooperation like this isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.