When elected leaders from Montgomery and Fairfax counties met in July for what many said was their first joint discussion of regional transportation concerns, it was only natural that the conversation focused on the American Legion Bridge. Each day, the counties use it to exchange tens of thousands of commuters.
The Wilson Bridge, part of Interstate 95, the East Coast’s Main Street, is just emerging from a major makeover that widened not only the bridge but also its approaches. The last big thing that happened to the Legion Bridge was in 2007, when it got a paint job — underneath, where nobody could see it.
Now, with Virginia widening the west side of the Beltway for the high-occupancy toll lanes, the bridge just north of the new lanes may be in for a new round of attention. So let’s look at its history, its role in regional traffic and some visions for its future.
The span is approaching its 50th anniversary. It opened Dec. 31, 1962, completed at a cost of $2.8 million. “I’m nostalgic already,” Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said during the county leaders’ meeting when he heard that price tag.
In the early years, it was called the Cabin John Bridge. The name was officially changed to American Legion Memorial Bridge in 1969.
Opened with six lanes, the bridge now has eight through lanes, matching the configuration of the Beltway on either side of the Potomac, though the highway narrows farther north. Traffic is more than four times heavier than in the early years. In 1965, the bridge was used by 47,990 vehicles a day. By 2010, that number had grown to 232,000.
At the meeting between the Fairfax and Montgomery officials, Ronald F. Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, described several studies that have examined bridge traffic over the past decade. The studies show the complexity of driving patterns and suggest that solutions also may be complex:
●Among the Virginia drivers entering Maryland, 7 percent were heading for the Clara Barton Parkway and River Road, commuter paths into the District; 27 percent were bound for Interstate 270, Montgomery’s tech corridor; and 63 percent continued east on the Beltway.
●Among Maryland drivers, 11 percent were bound for Interstate 66; 23 percent for the Dulles highway; 3 percent for Route 7; and 24 percent for other destinations on the west side of the Beltway; 35 percent continued east on the Beltway.
●About three of every four trips are made by commuters. About eight of 10 motorists are driving alone. Carpoolers and vanpoolers don’t make up a big percentage of travelers. There’s no Metrobus service across the Legion Bridge.
●The most congested hour on the bridge is 8 to 9 a.m. A majority of the drivers are bound for Virginia. The direction of travel begins to reverse in the 2 p.m. hour.