Crossing the Potomac by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

In September, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted to endorse two potential crossing points for a new highway bridge over the Potomac River. The vote was largely symbolic — the Potomac River is part of Maryland, and elected officials there who have the final say are not enthused about the project, which could cost several billion dollars. In fact, the project has very few (if any) redeeming qualities.

Even though the project is very unlikely to become reality, Loudoun supervisors approved two corridors for the bridge, both near Bles Park Drive, a residential arterial road which parallels Broad Run as it nears the Potomac River. A new highway constructed there, after crossing the river, would link up with VA-7 and connect to VA-28 to head south. More detailed maps and analysis from Loudoun County, presented at the board’s meeting, can be viewed here (Item 06).

GGWash has covered this proposal before; it’s one that has appeared in one form or another for years. Alex’s organization, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, has fought against such a bridge and a related outer beltway in 1988, 2001, 2004, 2015, 2017, and again on October 10 of this year (see the press release).

Regional transportation studies show that a bridge like this makes little sense from an economic perspective or as a congestion reduction measure. Besides its pure impracticality, the political obstacles are numerous: Maryland ostensibly owns the Potomac, and so has significant say in whatever happens around it; Maryland’s governor, along with the Montgomery County Council, opposes the project; and any road on the Maryland side would pass directly through Montgomery’s well-protected agricultural reserve.

The Potomac Zombie Bridge is a ghost of 20th-century land-use planning that’s still haunting us in 2018. Why won’t it die?

Years of sprawl-oriented land use decisions in Northern Virginia have added hundreds of thousands of residents in Western Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. Loudoun County’s population alone has increased from about 86,000 residents a generation ago in 1990, to 170,000 in 2000, to nearly 400,000 today. Much of this population increase has occurred at low densities over dozens of square miles of land in newly-built places that can realistically only be accessed via cars:

Households in Loudoun and western Fairfax are relatively far from the Washington region’s economic center of gravity. They are geographically cut off from convenient access to Montgomery County and the rest of central Maryland, which require a roundabout trip via I-495. So, some northern Virginia residents have lengthy U-shaped commutes, or other trips, to destinations like Rockville or Gaithersburg.

We don’t dispute that congestion on the American Legion Bridge is terribly unpleasant. Luckily for us, Maryland has lengthy records of traffic count monitoring, so we can see just how bad the problem is. We’ve used that data to create this table of average annual daily traffic, showing the total number of cars which pass a point, in both directions, on an average day of the year. The recording location (#40) is located where I-495 passes over Persimmon Tree Road, just north of the bridge. This is not a strictly scientific investigation, but it can help illustrate our points.

Despite Loudoun’s enormous population growth during the past two decades, the average number of cars that pass through this point daily has not dramatically changed since the late ‘90s. Traffic counts seem to be higher in boom years (2007, 2017) than in years with more slack in the economy (2002, 2012).

We observe that the region as a whole has locked itself in to a sprawling land-use paradigm, which generates bad traffic at certain regional choke points. Fairfax and Loudoun politicians may feel as if their constituents are bearing the brunt, and may wish to bring them some sort of relief. But the solution to this problem is not more highways.

It may be counterintuitive to some elected officials, but the Potomac Zombie Bridge will do little to reduce traffic in aggregate, and will be counterproductive to efforts to retrofit Loudoun’s neighborhoods into walkable places that more strongly foster a sense of community.

Instead, Loudoun should capitalize on its new Silver Line stations, and channel the energy it has so far poured into justifying a flat-out unjustifiable highway into transit-oriented development. A commitment to an environment built for people, not for cars, will put that ghost of 20th-century planning to bed, and finally take down the Potomac Zombie Bridge with it.

UK environmentalist George Monbiot recently opined on a similar zombie road project in his home region, Oxford. While the UK’s infrastructure planning process is significantly different than ours, the underlying issues are the same. Monbiot claims that “democratic debate would reveal [the] flaws” of a new highway, and writes:

A recent study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England shows that, far from relieving congestion, new road schemes create new traffic – a tendency first noted in 1925 and ignored by transport planners ever since. But the treadmill must keep turning. The bypasses must be bypassed with new bypasses, new jobs must be created to match the new housing and new housing must be built to match the new jobs. Growth must continue, until it destroys everything it claims to enhance.

We disagree with Monbiot’s last point: growth is not inherently a bad thing; legitimately growing prosperity for all is a noble pursuit under capitalism. But the road-oriented growth mindset evinced by the Potomac Zombie Bridge will only perpetuate the health risks of increased vehicular traffic and its resulting emissions, rendering us all worse off. And we have no desire to see communities in our region torn up by massive, expensive, and inefficient infrastructure projects.

The practical and moral evidence against the Potomac Zombie Bridge is, insofar, not enough to put it to rest. A collective stake in the heart of car-centric planning — a decision that can only be made by those that we elect to represent us — is the only way to kill off misguided plans like this one.

Nick Finio is the Associate Director of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he is also a PhD Candidate in Urban and Regional Planning. His dissertation is focused on gentrification in the DC area and elsewhere. At NCSG, he works on a variety of projects, including Purple Line advocacy and various regional planning projects. He has lived and worked in the region since 2011, and currently resides in Hyattsville with his son.

Alex Baca is the Housing Program Organizer at GGWash. Previously the engagement director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the general manager of Cuyahoga County's bikesharing system, she has also worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in DC, San Francisco, and Cleveland. She has written about all of the above for CityLab, Slate, Vox, Washington City Paper, and other publications.