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Plan to replace American Legion Bridge revived with request for federal funding

Traffic on the American Legion Bridge headed north into Maryland (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

(Updated at 9:35 a.m. on 8/22/2023) Maryland has renewed its commitment to replacing the American Legion Bridge and adding express lanes on the Capital Beltway, much to the relief of Northern Virginia transportation officials.

The Maryland Department of Transportation has applied for a federal grant to fund the initial phase of its project to widen the Beltway (I-495/I-270) and reconstruct the aging bridge, which provides the only road connection between Fairfax County and Montgomery County, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore announced today (Monday).

The announcement is the first indication of how Maryland will proceed since private express lanes operator Transurban backed out in March over concerns about delayed environmental approvals, lawsuits and the change in leadership after Moore succeeded Larry Hogan in January.

Since Hogan and then-Virginia governor Ralph Northam announced an agreement in 2019 to replace the heavily used American Legion Bridge, Maryland’s cooperation has been seen as critical to the success of Virginia’s I-495 Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project, which is now under construction and will extend the Beltway’s toll lanes from the Dulles Toll Road in Tysons to the bridge north of McLean.

“Governor Moore’s plan ensures these long-awaited improvements will become a reality. This is great news for area travelers and the economic competitiveness of our entire region,” Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance President Jason Stanford said in a statement. “The Alliance applauds Governor Moore for finding a multimodal solution to address one of the region’s worst bottlenecks and move more people through one of our most congested corridors.”

The Virginia Department of Transportation has estimated that 495 NEXT will move 2,500 more people per hour in both directions when the express lanes open in 2025. However, it would move 5,400 more people an hour with Maryland’s project in place.

Skeptics of 495 NEXT, including Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust, have argued that widening I-495 in Virginia without a concurrent widening in Maryland will only push the existing congestion further north, leaving McLean residents to deal with the traffic, environmental and neighborhood impacts without getting any of the supposed benefits.

Noting that many details of Moore’s plan have yet to be shared, such as what kind of “managed lanes” will be involved, Foust called the announcement “great news” as a sign that Maryland is committed to helping address congestion on the American Legion Bridge.

However, assuming it secures the necessary approvals and funding, the Maryland project will still likely take years to complete, Foust said in a statement.

The estimate I have seen is that the project could be complete in eight years (by 2031) if all goes well. Unfortunately, that means commuters who cross the American Legion Bridge, and residents of the communities around the bridge, will continue to suffer from the impacts of severe congestion for at least that long unless something is done in the interim. Given the miserable traffic conditions around the bridge, eight years is too long to wait for any relief. That is why I believe VDOT needs to deliver interim solutions that mitigate the congestion impacts over the bridge and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The 495 NEXT project was designed to seamlessly connect to a version of an American Legion Bridge project that we now know will not be built. In addition to very nasty congestion, established neighborhoods along the path of the 495 NEXT project are being severely impacted by construction activity. Given the dramatic change of plans and potentially major reduction of scope for the Maryland project, I believe VDOT should determine whether and by how much it can reduce the scope of disturbance of its project to help mitigate those construction-related impacts on the adjacent communities.

Shifting away from the public-private partnership that Hogan sought and that has built Virginia’s growing express lanes network, Moore emphasized in his announcement that Maryland’s project will incorporate transit and other multimodal improvements, including pedestrian and bicycle access.

Under the new plan, Maryland will first add toll lanes on the bridge, I-495 to the I-270 West Spur, and the I-270 West Spur in Montgomery County.

According to MDOT, the widening will allow the American Legion Bridge and Beltway to support buses between Fairfax and Montgomery counties as well as a shared-use path on the bridge across the Potomac River — extending a trail that VDOT has planned along the I-495 corridor towards Tysons as part of 495 NEXT.

“The transportation network throughout Maryland and the National Capital Region must be able to get people where they need to go in a timely and reliable manner,” Moore said. “Providing long-desired, equitable transportation solutions in the American Legion Bridge and I-270 corridors is critical to eliminating employment barriers, linking more people to high-demand jobs and stimulating local economies.”

A March 2021 study conducted jointly by MDOT and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation recommended several bus routes between Tysons and Maryland using the widened bridge, with lines to Bethesda, Gaithersburg and Silver Spring among the top candidates.

Metro has already added a Tysons-Bethesda route to its “visionary” bus network for the future.

“There will be a seamless managed lane network between Virginia and Maryland once this project and Virginia’s 495 NEXT project are complete,” Stanford said. “Together, these projects will relieve congestion at one of region’s worst bottlenecks and support reliable transit service between Tysons and Bethesda.”