It's hardly surprising that two state secretaries of transportation -- Virginia's Shirley Ybarra and Maryland's John Porcari -- would extol the virtues of an expanded Woodrow Wilson Bridge [Close to Home, Aug. 29], especially when each of their states would pay only one-tenth of the nearly $2 billion cost.
What is surprising is that the secretaries would ignore not only alternatives that would make more long-term sense but the enormous subsidies and long-term social and environmental costs such a bridge expansion would engender.
The Wilson Bridge already imposes enormous costs on the region's environment in terms of the air and water pollution generated by more than 200,000 vehicles using it every day. But the cost and the pollution are not generated evenly.
California's Air Resources Board recently concluded that 2 percent of the vehicles on that state's roads generate one-third of the smog-causing nitrogen oxide emissions. That 2 percent was made up of heavy-duty diesel trucks.
The Environmental Protection Agency also has found that diesel trucks emit more than half of the most dangerous of all vehicular emissions, fine particulates that are drawn deep into the lungs. Smoke-belching buses are a significant source of these particulates as well. Last year the California board listed diesel exhaust as a "toxic air contaminant."
Further, nitrogen oxide is a prime precursor of ozone, and ozone levels in the metro region consistently were in the "moderate to unhealthful" range this summer. Last year, the EPA concluded that there was "no level below which ozone exposure can be shown to have no effect" on humans and proposed much stricter limits on ozone levels.
Thus, before we expand the Wilson Bridge and encourage thousands more diesel trucks (and many times more cars) to use it every day, we ought to consider measures that would take some of these dangerous vehicles off our roads.
One thing we could do is rebuild the bridge as it is now, saving nearly $1.5 billion in the process, and institute time-of-day and category user fees. Vehicles that used the bridge in times of low demand would pay a low fee, and those that demanded access during crunch times would pay a higher fee. Different types of vehicles also would pay different fees. These fees could go toward the states' efforts to remediate the Chesapeake Bay and the streams in this vicinity, toward inspections aimed at taking dangerous and excessively polluting vehicles off the road and toward helping the region pay for the mounting health care costs generated by toxic vehicular pollution.
Another thing the secretaries of transportation didn't mention is why many of the diesel rigs are using the bridge. Each day hundreds simply are shifting trash around -- from New York and Jersey to Virginia, from the District to Virginia, and from county to county. Virginia is already the nation's second-most-popular dumping ground for out-of-state municipal waste. Expanding a free bridge to 14 lanes will only encourage more trash trucks to use it.
Here are points the secretaries, being responsible public servants, should have made in their Close to Home piece, but didn't:
Expanding the bridge will encourage more traffic and pollution. The money saved by not expanding it could be put instead into Metro to help wean commuters from their cars. It also could go into a set of regional recycling and reuse requirements, which would have to be met before any community could dispose of its trash by dumping it in states hundreds of miles away using billions of dollars of "free" infrastructure as a subsidy.
Instituting a user fee for bridge access, and basing it on the number of axles, the weight of the vehicle and the time of day makes sense. Truckers could minimize the fee's impact by planning trips with the time of day in mind; doing so also would reduce congestion and pollution caused by idling vehicles.
We need new ways to handle our region's transportation mess. The tired old strategy of throwing billions of dollars of the public's money at our transportation problems just won't work anymore.
-- Bob McConnell
is a professor of environmental science and geology at Mary Washington College.
The Aug. 29 Close to Home piece co-authored by the Virginia and Maryland secretaries of transportation advocated a new Wilson bridge so we "can keep on truckin'." But instead of making it easy for trucks to get from Miami to Maine via the Washington area, we should be trying to get the 18-wheelers off the interstates. The structural damage these trucks do to bridges, to pavement and to the safety of the motoring public is substantial.
The 62 percent of the tractor trailer traffic that is "through" provides no benefit to the local economy, but local taxpayers bear the brunt of the costs associated with the damage the 18-wheelers inflict, including the loss of life and the traffic jams their accidents cause. Traffic on the Beltway is already heavy, and the thought of removing the Wilson Bridge "bottleneck" and adding even more 18-wheelers is downright frightening.
There are ways of reducing the number of behemoths on our area roads -- e.g., restricting the "through" trucks to those carrying perishable goods. Why ship steel from Pittsburgh to Miami via truck when the railroads can do the job just as well, albeit a bit slower? (I have no affiliation with the railroads, but I do drive on the interstates).
Another way to reduce truck traffic is to have the trucks pay their fair share of the cost of the "free" roads they use. One study I saw a few years ago estimated that trucks pay about one-fourth of the taxes that represent their fair share.
The trucking lobby will raise alarms about how this will lead to higher costs to the consumer, but I would gladly pay slightly higher prices for goods if I once more could drive on an interstate without feeling my Adrenalin pumping because I have to share it with so many big trucks.
To see what I mean, make the round-trip drive from Washington to Richmond along I-95 when the traffic is heavy. The experience can be enough to ruin your whole day.
-- L. R. Stetler