Officials representing regional transportation entities including (from left to right) Monica Backmon, Richard Parsons and David Birtwistle speak at a forum before the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce on March 16.
After finally equipping itself for one of its most sought-after transportation projects, momentum for a new Potomac River bridge crossing still isn’t transcending the Virginia border. As the Commonwealth’s elected officials and business leaders have increasingly pushed for a new access point to Maryland, politicians to the north have shown almost no interest in return, despite overwhelming public support.
“I don’t think they get it,” Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance Vice Chair Richard Parsons said. “Our political leadership is way behind the public.”
Discussion and studies about a new bridge across the river have been debated since the 1950’s — even back before the massive housing and infrastructure boom that transformed the Washington D.C. suburbs into one of the nation’s most densely packed regions. Currently, there is no bridge crossing in the stretch along the river between Route 15 north of Lucketts and Point of Rocks, Maryland and the American Legion Bridge that connects at Interstate 495. With this boom already creating burdensome traffic on both sides of the river, the lack of a crossing makes travel between those parts of Maryland and Virginia logistically all but impossible.
The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority is the entity best equipped to finance a potential new crossing. Created from a massive transportation bill signed into law by former Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2013, NVTA allocates about $340 million a year in transportation funding for the area. Since it began receiving the massive influx of money from a gas tax created by the bill, it’s allocated nearly $1 billion in 79 projects across the region.
As it goes through its six-year plan for future projects, the potential river crossing is among the most high profile, but it can’t proceed without help from the other side. Not only would NVTA seek a financial and political partnership with Maryland to build a bridge onto its soil, but by law, the state owns the entirety of the Potomac, so Virginia couldn’t even begin the first stages of approval without approval from the north.
While Virginia officials have explored and increasingly endorsed the crossing, Maryland top statewide officeholders have shown little interest presently in pursing the bridge. Speaking before the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce at a transportation discussion March 16, Parsons said all nine members of the Montgomery County Council, where the bridge crossing would occur, are adamantly opposed. He said their position comes against more than six-to-one margins from the public in support of the bridge.
“Leadership is not coming from our elected officials at the local level right now,” said Parsons, whose group advocates for improved funding and planning for transportation projects. “We have a political debacle going on where the public is not being represented by the people in office in our jurisdiction, and they’re not being responsive.”
Parsons said Virginia’s initiative to create NVTA has sparked legislators in Annapolis, but instead of a program comparable to the NVTA, it created a system that is ill equipped to meet constituents desires to reduce travel times and is instead focused on special interest groups.
Speaking at the Chamber meeting, Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance CEO David Birtwistle agreed with Parsons and said that other organizations that could help the bridge, like the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), has likewise failed in fostering effective regional partnerships.
“Most of the activities that are undertaken by these bodies are looking at it as ‘what’s good for my jurisdiction’ and not what’s good for the entire region,” Birtwistle said. “As such, long term plans are developed, reams of papers are wasted on priorities that have no priorities within them.”
Like Parsons, Birtwistle’s organization works for transportation improvements on his side of the river. He said he would grade the effectiveness of COG a ‘D’.
Parsons gave COG an ‘F’.
“Special interest groups and a rabid form of parochialism have destroyed its mission,” Parsons said.
Prominent Loudoun business and elected leaders believe these failures — and the inability to construct a bridge in particular — are a deterrent not only in alleviating congestion, but also in spurring interstate travel and commerce. At the Chamber meeting, NVTA Executive Directer Monica Backmon said the bridge is still a priority for her organization, but the NVTA is in a strong financial position due to the gas tax, and it has dozens of projects competing for its attention. Metrorail capital improvements have already been allocated $174 million from NVTA and, facing a growing budget shortfall, may receive more allocations. Other major priorities include enhancements to the American Legion Bridge, a proposed Bi-County Parkway between Loudoun and Prince William Counties and an expanded bus service.
Congestion relief is far and away the biggest factor in determining money allocation, and the NVTA is required by law to disperse money based off the most cost effective option that creates the most significant congestion relief. The complex, data-driven system has been widely praised by Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors. Loudoun Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) serves as Vice Chair of NVTA’s Board, and Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) serves on the transit authority’s Planning Coordination Advisory Committee.
Through the NVTA’s metrics of congestion relief, and influence by its Loudoun representatives, the County has seen $122 million allocated to its transportation projects. Along with help from other regional transportation funds like the Commonwealth Transportation Board, that includes key congestion relief efforts along the intersection of Loudoun County Parkway as well as Route 7 and Belmont Ride Rd.
“I can’t say enough how great that would be if we had it in Maryland,” Parsons said. “Voters care about reducing congestion, reducing congestion and reducing congestion, in that order. They don’t really care about anything else in our part of the region.”