By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 9, 2007
Rising along the banks of the Potomac River in Prince George's County are swanky condominiums and restaurants, a tree-lined promenade, marinas, piers, offices, specialty stores and one of the largest hotel-and-convention centers to be built on the East Coast.
Transportation planners predict that nearly 10,000 cars will go in and out of National Harbor daily during morning and evening rush hours. And more than $500 million worth of road improvements -- including new ramps off the Capital Beltway, Interstate 295 and Indian Head Highway -- are planned to carry those visitors.
But despite the half-billion dollars' worth of improvements, which are becoming apparent to commuters snaking around the Beltway, neighbors in the nearby Oxon Hill community continue to protest that their suburban streets, already clogged with traffic, will become shortcuts for what county leaders predict will become a major tourist destination when the first phase opens in April 2008.
"Traffic is already horrendous," said Susan McDonald, a longtime Oxon Hill resident. "It's the people and the community that are held hostage. . . . I don't know what will happen when National Harbor opens."
Developers and county planners say the fears are unwarranted, and they note the efforts made to send traffic directly to National Harbor, away from the surrounding neighborhoods.
When completed, National Harbor will include 7.3 million square feet of mixed-use community space, with 4,000 hotel rooms, 2,500 homes, 500,000 square feet of office space, 1 million square feet of retail, dining and entertainment space, and 10,000 parking spaces.
David C. Kersey, vice president and director of design and construction for National Harbor, said the rebuilding of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is key to easing the congestion. The reconstruction of the bridge includes $467 million for the expansion of I-295 and Indian Head Highway, according to bridge officials.
Interstate ramps will steer traffic directly into the development.
"It doesn't make sense" to think that local roads will see more traffic, said John Undeland, a spokesman for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project. "People tend to logically follow the signs if they are in an unfamiliar area. . . . They won't hop off to try to find their way around."
Donna Edwards, who lives in Fort Washington and founded the Campaign to Reinvest in the Heart of Oxon Hill, disagrees.
"To get out of the gridlock, people cut through on the local roads," she said. "Imagine what will happen when National Harbor comes. It will create more difficulty and stress on our community."
In addition to the work at the bridge, Kersey said, $100 million is being spent for roads leading into and throughout the 300-acre project.
Of that money, $30 million is coming from state grants. The grants are also being used for shoreline improvements and the construction of the two piers. The county will be pitching in about $50 million for the roads, raised through a special taxing district. About $20 million is being spent by the Peterson Cos., the developer, on the construction of the private streets in the development.
Prince George's designated the area a special tax district three years ago and issued $160 million in bonds to pay for roads, sewers and other infrastructure at the site. A portion of the tax revenue generated by the development will pay for the debt service on the bonds issued for the project.
Undeland said the 12-lane expansion across the bridge and the revamping of interchanges into Maryland were planned with the "assumption that there would be a major development" on the banks of the Potomac.
Alexandria has appropriated money to create a shuttle to transport visitors to National Harbor, and private water taxis will ferry passengers from Maryland, Virginia and the District, which officials say should also help with traffic.
"Is [National Harbor] going to add traffic? Of course it's going to add traffic to the Beltway," Undeland said.
Most of that traffic on the highways will be generated during the late morning and evenings, he said.
According to the county planning board, the Beltway parcel of the project would not be not allowed to produce any more than 1,226 trips during the peak morning hours and 2,565 during the peak evening hours. If traffic counts exceed that amount, National Harbor would have to improve the roads to accommodate the vehicles.
The waterfront area of the resort is expected to produce no more than 3,073 peak morning hour trips and 3,134 peak evening hour trips.
A 2001 traffic study, the last required for the project, said the traffic along Route 210, also known as Indian Head Highway, would grow about 2.1 percent each year. The growth rate along Route 414 would amount to 1.25 percent each year.
Undeland said the "ramps were designed . . . to facilitate the movement of traffic."
The ramps, which will have local and express lanes and signs for exiting at National Harbor, will provide direct access to sections of the development.
There will be an interchange from northbound Interstate 95 to the waterfront parcel of National Harbor, where the promenade, boutiques and restaurants will be located, and the west side of the Beltway parcel of the development, where Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, is situated.
Similar interchanges will lead traffic out of the development and back onto I-95, either north or south.
Ramps will also come into National Harbor from southbound I-295. Another ramp will leave National Harbor going north on I-295.
The existing exit off I-95 for Route 210 can be used to access the harbor by way of Oxon Hill Road. That interchange is being expanded, but planners hope motorists will use the interchanges that lead directly into the development.
But things could get tricky as drivers approach National Harbor Boulevard, which has two lanes leading into the waterfront parcel and two lanes to take drivers out. The Beltway parcel has two roads, National and Harbor View avenues, that will provide two lanes into and out of the development.
National Harbor officials say Peterson calls the development the "only cul-de-sac on I-495."
And with any cul-de-sac there is always a chance for creating a backup.
"Just adding a couple of interchanges is not going to make a dent in the amount of traffic that is projected for this project," Edwards said.