On a map, Bethesda and Tysons look like neighbors. On a good day, if you have a car and traffic is light, you can get from one to the other in 20 minutes. But if you can’t, or won’t, drive? Well, good luck… you’ll have to ride Metrorail all the way to DC’s Metro Center, then all the way back out to Tysons. The trip will take you more than an hour.
No transit route directly connects Fairfax and Montgomery counties, which share miles of border along the Potomac River. That could change, depending on the results of a transit study looking at running bus routes along the Beltway over the single bridge that connects the two counties, the American Legion Bridge.
The transit study is a joint endeavor by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) and the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT).
It’s running alongside, but separately from, planned expansion projects along the Beltway in Maryland and Virginia and a widening plan for the bridge itself — projects that have been controversial among urbanists, who are typically skeptical of highway widening projects.
Officials showed eight preliminary route options at a virtual public meeting on November 18. In Montgomery County, potential routes could serve Bethesda, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Silver Spring or Frederick. Of those routes, all but one would route through or end at Tysons.
The American Legion Bridge transit study is looking at whether there is demand for transit across the bridge. We know there’s demand for travel as a whole: Ciara Williams, the DRPT official managing the study, described the area of the beltway around the bridge as one of the most congested in the region. According to DRPT, about 235,000 cars cross the bridge daily, and by 2040 that number is expected to increase to 280,000. Most of that traffic — almost two thirds — originates in Maryland, as Maryland residents commute to job centers such as Tysons and Arlington.
Transit has been tried across the bridge before: in 1998, WMATA introduced the “Smartmover” Metrobus, an express commuter line that carried people across the bridge. But the bus, which was only convenient for 9 to 5 workers and often got stuck in traffic, was nixed five years later due to low ridership.
But officials think this time might be different. The plan for the American Legion Bridge widening project, a joint undertaking between Maryland and Virginia, is to build four express toll lanes in addition to the eight current lanes. The transit routes being studied could use those express lanes to bypass traffic across the bridge, giving riders an incentive to ditch their vehicles (The study is separate from the two states’ highway widening projects and the bridge project, but is intended to “complement these efforts”).
Jennifer DeBruhl, DRPT’s Chief of Public Transportation, said in the November meeting that the agency is “just on the cusp now of recommending potential improvements.” For now, the public can submit comments and feedback in an online survey. A draft of the agency’s recommendations are expected to be released for public comment early this month, and the study is scheduled to be finalized in January 2021.