Photo from Google Street View.

Prince George’s County needs to replace a deteriorating, flood-prone 2-lane bridge, but is making the bridge unnecessarily wide, which will encourage drivers to speed today and make it too likely the county will add new lanes in the future where they aren’t needed.

The bridge carries Sunnyside Avenue over Indian Creek. The county plans to replace the 2-lane span with a new span, but they’re building the road to handle 4 lanes.

A spokesperson for the county claims that the county has no plans to actually stripe the road for 4 lanes, but the proposed roadway design will make it temptingly easy to do that. And even if the county doesn’t widen the road, the extra space will likely encourage faster driving, which will make the bridge less safe, not more.

Sunnyside Avenue is a short street connecting Route 1 in the west with Edmonston Road (the northern extension of Kenilworth Avenue) in the east. Between Route 1 and the CSX railroad tracks, the road is 4 lanes wide. East of the tracks, though, the road narrows to 2 lanes and crosses the undeveloped Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.

The road crosses Indian Creek on a bridge that is only 2 lanes wide, and which does not have room for sidewalks or bike lanes. Additionally, its height is actually below the 2-year flood level, which means it’s frequently closed by high water.

The $13.5 million project will reconfigure Sunnyside all the way from the railroad tracks to Edmonston Road. It will raise and lengthen the bridge so that it is clear of the 50-year flood level. It will also add bike lanes and sidewalks between Edmonston Road and the tracks.

Image from the Prince George’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation.

The county should be commended for including bike and pedestrian infrastructure in this project. It’s refreshing to see that Prince George’s does seem to be serious about allocating road space to users other than just motorists.

But in a somewhat troubling development, the reconstruction includes full-width shoulders to the entire length of the project. This means the roadway will be 4 lanes wide, although initially, at least, the road will only be striped for 2 lanes.

Image from the Prince George’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation.

If the county decides to widen Sunnyside to 4 lanes, after this project all it will take is some repainting. In fact, the county could decide to just stripe the bridge for 4 lanes during construction if they wanted.

But according to Susan Hubbard, a PIO with the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation, the county doesn’t plan to make the road 4 lanes wide. It’s not going to be built to 4 lanes, and it’s not going to be widened to 4-lanes. Based on the email exchange I had with Ms. Hubbard, it doesn’t even sound like anyone in the department has even considered widening the road. One wonders if she doth protest too much.

It’s quite strange that the county is making the road so wide, but doesn’t seem to even be willing to admit that they might want to use the shoulders for lanes in the future. Perhaps they’re afraid doing so will bring out opposition.

But it will be so easy to widen the road in the future, since it will only take line paint and a few hours. If the county wants to “widen” the road in the future, will they even need to ask the community?

Why widen?

According to Hubbard, the road needs to be so wide because of the construction phasing. First, the county will construct a new 2-lane bridge north of the existing bridge, and move the cars there. Then the county will tear out the old bridge, and widen the northern span to take up the space where the current bridge is.

It’s not clear why Prince George’s thinks all this extra concrete is necessary in the end. Hubbard claims that reducing the width of the bridge won’t reduce the cost, however. Besides, she says, the county has already spent the money to design this concept, and it will cost money to redesign the bridge (eating up the savings).

The area between the railroad and Edmonston Road is not going to develop. The land is owned by the Department of Agriculture and is environmentally sensitive. Additionally, while Maryland hopes to widen 2-lane Edmonston Road, that project has no funding and many in the area oppose it.

While Hubbard contends that 2 lanes of concrete will cost the same as 4 lanes of it, I’m not sure that argument holds water.

I’d much rather see the money for the 2 additional lanes across the bridge be spent completing the sidewalks on the western section, or on any number of other bicycle, pedestrian, or transit projects in the county.

Regardless, if the county rebuilds Sunnyside Avenue as planned, with 2 extra (unused) lanes, it will surely be tempting for engineers in the future to widen. It would be great if the county would make assurances that such a widening will not happen without a public process.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Capitol Hill. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.