D.C. driver fears 11th St. Bridge replacement will worsen traffic, not help it

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, April 25, 2010; C02

I've written that the District's replacement for the 11th Street Bridge -- the biggest transportation project underway in the capital -- will be a breakthrough for commuters and communities near the bridge. Here's a citizen's rebuttal.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

It is true that the project will allow Maryland and Virginia drivers to travel on freeways across the District. As you noted, the District Department of Transportation says it will give drivers a freeway alternative to local streets.

If this were the whole story, the project would be good news for District residents. But it isn't. Project documents and expert studies show that a new freeway shortcut across the District means more, not less, traffic on local streets and more congested and more dangerous freeways.

The project does not simply add "missing" east-side freeway ramps to and from the 11th Street Bridge. It also expands the bridge by 50 percent, to two bridges providing eight freeway lanes and one with four non-freeway lanes. The new bridges will give drivers direct access to local streets.

The result: 50,000 more vehicles daily -- and 50,000 more drivers who can use local street alternatives to avoid freeway congestion. Drivers on the Southeast Freeway will experience a more congested and dangerous freeway. As project documents show, it creates a freeway shortcut for Capital Beltway cars and large trucks.

There's little relief for rush-hour drivers. In the afternoon rush, for example, the project relocates the freeway bottleneck from the west side to the east side of the Anacostia River, obviating a vaunted three-minute improvement in crossing the river.

Residents also are worse off overall. The volume of traffic using the two new 11th Street bridges and exiting onto local streets will swamp modest decreases projected for other Anacostia crossings. Adding insult to existing injury, the project will increase traffic on -- and not relieve congested intersections on -- Pennsylvania Avenue east of the Anacostia River.

Claims that the expanded bridges will be safer are undocumented. Project documents suggest, in fact, that the new bridges will derogate significantly from safety standards with respect to ramps, merge distances, etc. The fact that the existing bridge needs repair -- estimated in 2005 to cost $5 million -- does not justify a $300 million, 50 percent bridge expansion. And the District claims to seek community development that is transit-oriented, not car-oriented, that protects rather than, as here, degrades air and noise quality.

The project underway differs from the project as presented for public consultation in ways that aggravate its impacts on adjacent communities. The project as presented assumed construction on the existing alignment and piers. The project as built would use a new alignment, with cheaper pilings, and abandon the piers in place. Another reversal involves the bridge's connection with Interstate 295. The revised connection means yet-more traffic on nearby freeways and streets.

Adding a trolley and a bike path does not change the fact that this project is a throwback to the 1960s that a cash-strapped city cannot afford: It gobbles $300 million needed for infrastructure rehabilitation and upgrades, and it consumes limited borrowing capacity. It is not too late to reevaluate. Reevaluation should be based on moving and connecting people rather than cars.

-- Christopher Herman, the District

The District Department of Transportation firmly believes that the new set of bridges, scheduled to be done in 2013, is the best way to organize traffic that is bound to grow substantially, no matter what.

The separation of traffic into two freeway bridges and one for local traffic, including pedestrians, bicycles and streetcars, creates a more efficient pattern for the long-distance drivers and more options for local travelers going from one bank of the Anacostia River to the other, the District says.

Next week, I'll present a more detailed response from the Department of Transportation on this project, which has been a D.C. priority for many years and is a key part of plans for an Anacostia River community revival.

I remain optimistic about the new bridges about to rise out of the river next to the old ones. The impact on traffic during construction should not be great, given that this is one of the biggest road projects in the D.C. region. The work fits in with a larger land use plan, as any modern transportation project should. And it will ease a long-standing problem with long-distance travel.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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