A second Potomac River bridge connecting Montgomery County and Northern Virginia — an idea that has been studied and debated since the 1950s — is again drawing both interest and criticism, as elected officials and transportation planners search for ways to ease the region’s notoriously heavy traffic.
Next week the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, the body that helps set transportation priorities for the metropolitan area, will consider listing the bridge project for further analysis.
“This is my number one for the region,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer (R), a member of the regional planning board. He served on a task force that winnowed more than 80 potential road and transit projects down to 10 for the full board to consider at its July 19 meeting.
The idea of a river crossing north of the perpetually clogged American Legion bridge has long interested businesses, planners and many road-weary commuters.
But the projected multibillion dollar cost, competing priorities and some studies showing that it would only make traffic worse have left the proposal stuck on the drawing board.
Support for the bridge has historically been stronger among Northern Virginia officials and businesses. That divide appears to be as wide as ever.
Montgomery Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), said Monday that the project would seriously damage the county’s 90,000 acre agricultural reserve. Maryland’s transportation dollars, he added, would be better spent widening Interstate 270 and the Legion bridge.
“We need to fix what is broken, not fantasize about a bridge that will never happen,” Berliner said at his weekly news conference.
Berliner said he will sponsor a resolution at Tuesday’s council meeting condemning the project. “In my judgment this is a zombie bridge, and we need to put a stake in this.”
Meyer, citing recent polling by pro-bridge groups in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, said he thinks there is a disconnect on the issue between Montgomery’s political class and people who commute across the Potomac.
“What I would tell Roger Berliner is, ‘Go knock on 100 doors today and ask the people you represent whether we need a river crossing,’ ” Meyer said.
One long-outspoken supporter of the bridge is Gaithersburg-based developer Robert E. Buchanan, who chairs the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, created by the county to more effectively attract and retain business.
Buchanan, who also heads the 2030 Group, a coalition of business leaders favoring the bridge, called the project a “game changer . . . It’s been high on our agenda for a long time.”
Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, chairman of the regional planning board, cautioned that inclusion of the bridge on the priority list by no means places it closer to reality.
“We are not saying any of [the projects] are sure bets,” she said. “What we are saying is that at this point in time it warrants taking a deeper look into whether any of them would help with the congestion problems.”
Representatives for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) did not respond to inquiries Monday.
Virginia officials have emphasized that because the Potomac River is on the Maryland side of the border, that state would have to take most of the initiative in building a bridge — and, along with the federal government, shoulder most of the expense.
“I don’t fund bridges that aren’t in our state,” McAuliffe told Bethesda Beat last year at a business forum. “It doesn’t touch our border. That’s your simple answer. I take responsibility for bridges in Virginia.”
Hogan, appearing at the same forum, said he didn’t accept the premise that the project has broad support. “I wouldn’t agree . . . that everyone agrees it needs to happen.”
The governor, who will appear in Gaithersburg on Tuesday for an unrelated transportation announcement, added that the state was working on improving its existing bridges.
Two weeks after the forum, Hogan announced a plan to spend about $230 million to improve I-270 between Bethesda and Frederick, Md. But the plan includes no additional lanes on the highway, and local Democrats call the initiative inadequate.