As the American Legion Bridge turns 60, its traffic woes draw scrutiny
“The Beltway, by everyone’s admission, is failing horribly,” said Lon Anderson, the retired longtime spokesman for the motorist advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic. “As the Beltway fails, the American Legion Bridge fails. The bridge is being asked to do a job it was never built to do.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who leaves office in January, made the need for a new, wider bridge a main selling point of his traffic relief plan. The project, which was recently delayed in the planning phase, would add toll lanes to the western Beltway and up Interstate 270 to upper Montgomery County and Frederick.
The bridge’s replacement, estimated to cost about $1 billion, remains the least controversial part of the proposal, as even some toll lane opponents say it is needed in some capacity. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the Beltway’s other Potomac crossing that originally opened a year before American Legion did, was rebuilt and widened in 2008.
Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) has said his administration will reexamine Hogan’s plan with a focus on protecting the environment and considering input from local officials.
“The governor-elect has been clear on the core priority to improve congestion in the region, including upgrading the aging American Legion Bridge,” Moore spokesman Carter Elliott IV said in a Dec. 22 statement.
Highway officials in Maryland, which owns most of the bridge, say it was never intended to carry the average 240,000 vehicles that now cross it daily.
In addition to creating a chokepoint that backs up traffic at both ends, the bridge has no shoulders. Major collisions wreak havoc for hours, and any fender bender or flat tire brings backups. During peak times, Maryland highway officials say, it takes a reopened lane four minutes to recover for every minute it was blocked.
Meanwhile, a cluster of major roads intersect the Beltway at or near the bridge, further snarling traffic as it merges onto and off the highway. In particular, the George Washington Parkway, a key commuter route, dumps heavy traffic onto the Beltway’s inner loop at the Virginia end, bogging down the afternoon rush.
“You basically have a chokepoint with 240,000 [vehicles] per day,” said Maurice Agostino, acting deputy administrator for the Maryland State Highway Administration. “Any little incident, any change becomes magnified.”
David Versel, an Atlanta-based economic development consultant, said traffic grew as Montgomery County and Virginia’s Fairfax County boomed after the bridge’s 1962 debut, with job centers sprouting in Tysons, the Dulles corridor and Montgomery’s I-270 biotech corridor.
That growth shifted commute patterns, from downtown-centric to suburb-to-suburb, bringing more traffic to the Beltway, Versel said.
“The bridge was built to serve a different purpose at a different time,” said Versel, who studied transportation options between the two counties in 2013 as a senior research associate at George Mason University. “It was built at a time when there wasn’t any thought that this many people would live or work on both sides of the bridge.”
Meanwhile, there are few other ways to cross the river separating Washington’s northern and western suburbs. The Point of Rocks Bridge is about 35 miles upstream. White’s Ferry, dating to 1786, said it carried about 800 people across the Potomac daily between Poolesville, Md., and Leesburg, Va., but it stopped operating in 2020 amid a property dispute.
“Your options to get to these places are the Beltway or the Beltway,” said Anderson of AAA. “There are people who have no business being on the bridge, but they have to be because there is no other way.”
Meanwhile, transportation experts say, expanding heavily congested river crossings is difficult and expensive.
“You can go anywhere with a significant river running through a major metro area, and you’re going to have similar problems,” said David Schrank, a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “You can’t just go a mile over and build another road.”
The American Legion Bridge has eight through lanes and two auxiliary lanes for traffic merging between adjacent interchanges for the George Washington and Clara Barton parkways. The proposed 14-lane bridge would be almost twice as wide, with additional space for the four toll lanes, shoulders, and a new bike and pedestrian path.
Some critics say widening the bridge and that part of the Beltway with toll lanes would simply move the chokepoint further into Maryland, where the additional lanes would end near the exit for Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda. The state ended the Beltway lanes there after local officials objected to a study showing that widening the highway east of the I-270 spur would destroy public parkland and up to several dozen homes.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), a vocal critic of Hogan’s plan, said he supports expanding the bridge and western part of the Beltway. However, he said, the work should be paid for with federal infrastructure funding, rather than private financing that would require charging tolls.
The Hogan administration recently said it has applied for a federal infrastructure grant to replace the bridge. However, the rest of the Beltway and I-270 widening would rely on a team of companies financing the lanes’ construction in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue for 50 years.
Elrich said he also favors expanding more environmentally friendly commuter-rail service and bus rapid transit. Even so, he said, he agrees the bridge and the Beltway between it and I-270 need to be widened, probably by up to two lanes in each direction and with “environmental sensitivity.”
“You’d be crazy to look at that bridge and not realize it’s a chokepoint,” Elrich said. “I think the big question is, do you need to do this as a toll road?”
Beltway expansion opponent Barbara Coufal said she noticed Hogan increasingly emphasized the need to replace the aging bridge as he sought support for his broader toll-lanes plan. Meanwhile, she said, she heard the state’s then-transportation secretary say the bridge wouldn’t need major refurbishing for a decade or so. The state, she said, could reduce Beltway traffic congestion by investing more in commuter rail and other mass transit.
“If we don’t need to rebuild the bridge, let’s avoid the expense and just re-deck it,” said Coufal, co-chair of Citizens Against Beltway Expansion. “Can we refurbish it and address the safety of the bridge and then rethink our transportation system?”
Agostino, of the Maryland State Highway Administration, said the bridge will need a new deck in the next 10 to 20 years and anti-corrosion painting in a few years.
State highway officials have recently increased the sense of urgency about the bridge’s replacement. A 2020 draft environmental study of the toll lanes project said the bridge needed to be replaced “sometime over the next few decades.” In the final analysis released in June, that wording had been changed to “sometime over the next decade.”
Virginia officials also have a stake in relieving the bottleneck, as evening Beltway traffic regularly backs up more than three miles, starting as early as 2:30 p.m. The Virginia Department of Transportation said extending its Beltway toll lanes nearly three miles, up to the bridge, will provide its own benefits, regardless of when the bridge is widened.
The extended lanes are under construction and scheduled to open in late 2025. VDOT officials say continuing to widen their part of the Beltway will help motorists access the Virginia express lanes more safely, save more time, and lead to fewer drivers jamming local roads to avoid backups.
The nearly half-mile span, originally named the Cabin John Bridge, opened with six lanes on Dec. 31, 1962, on a windy morning too bitterly cold for a ribbon-cutting, according to local news reports. Eight miles of the Beltway, between River Road in Montgomery and Route 7 in Fairfax, opened at the same time.
The bridge’s original $2.8-million construction cost would amount to barely a rounding error in the estimated cost to rebuild and expand it.
State officials renamed it the American Legion Memorial Bridge in 1969 to honor the American Legion’s 50th anniversary and avoid confusion with another Cabin John Bridge nearby.
It was never intended to carry so much traffic. When designed in the 1950s, the bridge was to be part of an innermost Beltway, with two more eventually ringing the nation’s capital as it grew.
But those outer Beltways and other planned highway segments never materialized, as local officials began to focus on building the Metro system and community groups protested urban highway proposals that would destroy homes.
AAA, some Washington-area business leaders and local officials continued to push for a second crossing upstream throughout the 1990s. The idea of a “techway” gained some traction in 2000, when then-Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) clinched $2 million for a federal study.
But Wolf soon canceled the study amid fierce opposition, ignited after both advocates and opponents drew lines on maps showing where a new bridge might cross. The biggest hurdle: Any second crossing would need to connect to a new highway. That highway probably would cut through some of the region’s wealthiest neighborhoods, with multimillion dollar homes and a bucolic feel, on both sides of the Potomac. The Montgomery council also objected to any road through the county’s western agricultural preserve.
“I saw the maps and thought, ‘There goes the future of that project,’ ” Anderson recalled. “Whose mansions were you going to tear down — in Great Falls, Virginia, or Potomac, Maryland? The answer was neither.”
The idea hasn’t been seriously considered since.
Edgar Gonzalez, a former Montgomery transportation deputy director and a leader in a pro-toll-lanes group, said he believes political pressure for another crossing will continue to build as new residents and jobs bring more Beltway traffic.
“Even with the widening being planned, it will only be good until the 2040s,” Gonzalez said of the American Legion Bridge. “But then, as the region keeps growing, you’re going to need another outlet for the traffic.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.