Maryland and Virginia will collaborate on a project to replace the American Legion Bridge connecting the states, part of a larger project that would add express toll lanes to Interstates 270 and 495 from Frederick to the Potomac River, in a deal announced Tuesday.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced the deal along with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) at a transportation conference Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., calling the agreement a “once-in-a generation achievement” for the region.
Hogan said he and Northam began discussing innovative solutions to the region’s traffic problems over the summer.
Maryland, which owns 79 percent of the bridge, will pay that percentage of replacing it, while the two states will split the costs of adding two express lanes in each direction and pedestrian and bike facilities, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said.
She said the scope of the project is still being determined, but Valentine placed the cost of the bridge project at about $1 billion.
The bridge carries I-495 over the Potomac River near Cabin John in Montgomery County to connect with the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia.
Tuesday’s announcement came at a forum on regional transportation hosted by the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Greater Washington Partnership.
Partnership CEO Jason Miller and Board of Trade President and CEO Jack McDougle released a joint statement Tuesday praising the project.
Hogan and Northam’s announcement “is a momentous step towards improving the performance and reliability of our transportation system. The American Legion Bridge is the link between Fairfax and Montgomery counties, which host over 35 percent of the region’s jobs and households. It is a critical connection, yet it is well beyond capacity and the resulting traffic creates daily frustration and lost productivity for the region’s residents, workers, and employers,” the statement said.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said the project will be a public-private partnership, in which developers and private funding sources pay for the new lanes in exchange for a share of the revenue that the toll lanes generate.
That’s the same approach taken with a project to add express lanes to I-270 in two phases: from I-495 to I-370 near Gaithersburg, and from there to Interstate 70 in Frederick.
Plans to add similar lanes to I-495 have run into opposition in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties about whether homes would have to be demolished as part of the project, among other concerns.
Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker (D), who chairs the council’s Transportation and Environment Committee, said in an email Tuesday that the project would help ease congestion at a perpetual bottleneck.
But he said Tuesday’s announcement doesn’t address other problems with the overall plan.
“Expanding the Beltway all the way through Montgomery County will mean taking homes and businesses and destroying environmentally fragile parkland. That approach is inconsistent with federal law,” Hucker said.
Instead, the state should focus on moving regional traffic off I-495 and make a major investment in its transit system, he said.
The phase of the I-270 project from Gaithersburg to Frederick is in the initial planning phases before federally mandated environmental studies begin.
State Highway Administration officials will hold workshops Wednesday night at Lincoln Elementary School in Frederick and Nov. 20 at the Urbana Fire Department Banquet Hall to discuss the project and talk about needs for the I-270 transportation corridor.
Both meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.
State Highway Administrator Greg Slater said the bridge was important to the success of the overall project to relieve congestion on the highways, which all have to work as part of a system.
The top part of the I-270 project won’t work without improvements on the lower part, the bottom part won’t work without improvements to the bridge, and the bridge project won’t work without improvements to the Capital Beltway, Slater said.
Tuesday’s announcement drew criticism from the Columbia-based Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, which advocates for more public transit options rather than building more roads.
The group said the bridge project would add lanes that only wealthy drivers could afford to use. Opponents have raised similar concerns about the I-270 project.
“Middle-class drivers and transit riders will pay for ‘Lexus Lanes’ they can’t afford to use,” the group said in a statement Tuesday.
Rahn challenged the argument, saying that data from similar lanes in Virginia show that few people use the lanes all the time, but only when they need to get somewhere in a hurry.
And having those lanes available has been shown to free up space in the non-toll lanes that other drivers can use, he said.
Rahn said the two states hope to break ground on the bridge project in 2022 and will have a request for proposals that they can take to the Maryland’s Board of Public Works “soon.”
The new bridge will have a total of eight regular lanes, plus two tolled express lanes in either direction.
The new bridge will “in all likelihood” be built where the current bridge is, Rahn said.