By Adam Pagnucco.
The long-discussed second bridge across the Potomac may never truly be dead. Dubbed “the Zombie Bridge” by Council President Roger Berliner, the creature will continually claw from the grave as long as its living minions keep trying to shovel it out. And this time, the zombie’s targets will include county candidates for office.
First, a bit of background. Discussions of a second bridge date back to at least the time of the American Legion Bridge’s construction in 1962 as part of a possible Outer Beltway. Montgomery County and the state even included the second bridge in their master plans until it was removed in 1974. Nevertheless, the bridge has been examined several times. Twenty years ago, the bridge and its associated roadway was known as “the Techway” and was the subject of a 2000 federal study requested by Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf. Within months, Wolf asked that the study be canceled after constituents fearful of property seizures mobilized against it. But the bridge was awakened yet again by a 2004 study of the American Legion Bridge which showed some demand among travelers in points west.
Anyone have any brains in Maryland?
The bridge’s supporters are clustered in two organizations. The first is the 2030 Group, an organization of major developers and construction firms with property in both Maryland and Virginia. Members of the 2030 Group have significant overlap with the board of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, which also supports the bridge. Advocates for the bridge cite a 2015 poll by OpinionWorks of 800 adults in the Washington region that shows substantial support. According to the poll (shown below), 59% of respondents favor the bridge, including 39% who strongly favor it, and 11% oppose it. In Montgomery County, 68% favor (52% strongly) and 12% oppose. The poll does not mention the bridge’s cost (a figure that may not exist in any reliable form yet) or its location.
Opponents, including smart growth groups and environmentalists, point out that the project is not just about the bridge itself but also its connection to the county’s road network. The bridge, proposed to extend north from Route 28 in Virginia, is not supposed to terminate at River Road but is intended to connect northeast to I-370 and the Intercounty Connector. How much is that likely to cost? (The ICC cost $2.4 billion.) How much property will have to be seized for its route? (Much of the right of way for the ICC was already in state or county hands as that road had been planned for decades.) Another factor for consideration is that the State of Maryland owns the entire Potomac River between the District and West Virginia. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe told Bethesda Magazine, “I don’t fund bridges that aren’t in our state. It doesn’t touch our border. That’s your simple answer… I take responsibility for bridges in Virginia.” That leaves Maryland and MoCo to figure out how to pay for any new bridge.
Connect the red stars. How would you plan a route from a new Potomac bridge to I-370?
Despite the unanimous opposition of the Montgomery County Council and no apparent support from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board just voted to study a new Potomac bridge. That has effectively resuscitated the project, which now shambles from the grave into the 2018 elections. Because it is now under study, it is certain that we have not heard the last word on the bridge until the June primaries. The deep-pocketed real estate and construction interests who support the bridge may fund an advocacy campaign to sway both candidates and voters on its behalf. Meanwhile, environmental and smart growth groups will include questions about the bridge on every questionnaire they send to candidates and will likely consider it a litmus test issue. All of this will squeeze candidates between major progressive organizations and traffic-hostile voters looking for alternatives to I-270 and the Beltway.
MoCo politicians may try to run, try to hide and cry out for help as they flee from the monster, but it will continue to stalk them no matter how hard they try to escape. The Zombie Bridge has returned.