We can't allow an outmoded planning approach from the 1950s to shape one of the region's most critical transportation decisions for the 21st century. The current Potomac River crossing on the Washington Beltway linking Alexandria and Prince George's County, Maryland--the six-lane Wilson drawbridge--is one of the worst examples of dysfunctional transportation infrastructure on the East Coast.
Thirty-five years ago this bridge was built for half the traffic than it now bears. Today, it is being shaken to destruction from the overload of vehicles crossing it daily. The Wilson crossing is the most dreaded stretch of highway in the Washington region, a region that unhappily has the second-most congested road network in the country. Commuters approaching it must brace themselves for the "Wilson Bridge crawl" twice a day. The situation has reached a crisis, and the proposed solution--the widest bridge in the world--would only exacerbate an already intolerable problem.
The Current Proposed Solution: More Gridlock
For approximately ten years there has been a struggle to solve this massive transportation problem. While the days of the existing bridge are numbered, a crossing of the Potomac at the Wilson site is essential. Powerful interests for development in the region have united behind a proposal to build the widest bridge in the world: two drawbridges totaling twelve lanes, which would attract even more cars onto the bridge, leading to a gridlock more severe than anything we have yet experienced.
Imagine the impact of raising the drawbridge of a 12-lane highway on traffic! The proposal under consideration includes no rail element--the only real solution to the gridlock at Wilson Bridge. The 12-lane highway would attract a massive new flood of traffic into the area, significantly increasing air pollution AND gridlock. The new wide bridge would destroy the potential of an area that is a gateway to the nation's capital.
Opposition Is Growing
On the Virginia shore, Alexandria residents are concerned about the impact on the quality of life of this historic city, and on cultural resources such as Jones Point Park and the Freedmen Cemetery. The town of Alexandria has sued to prevent the 12-lane bridge construction.
On the Maryland shore a highly controversial development project dependent on the new bridge proposal is advancing on a fast track. National Harbor would include 7.25 million square feet of commercial retail space. Construction of National Harbor would foreclose a long-promised riverside greenway and prevent forever the completion of the Potomac River Heritage Trail.
National Harbor would be a gated 24-hour riverfront entertainment destination, with its proponents claiming that 70,000 visitors would come on peak days. These visitors would join the many thousands of commuters already using the bridge.
Fearing that citizens would block the development, the owners clear-cut the property over one mile of riverfront, even though it contains nesting bald eagles and the clearcutting would cause serious erosion into the river. The site for National Harbor is called Eagle Cove after the bald eagles who occupy the few remaining trees on the site. These eagles are nesting closer to the nation's capital than any eagles have done since the l950s. We still have a chance to save this corner of critical wildlife habitat next door to Washington.
Is a Regional Sacrifice Zone
Eagle Cove could be a wonderful area attracting local bikers and hikers along a riverside trail next to one of the most beautiful rivers in the East. Instead, it is about to be made into a Regional Sacrifice Zone--with the widest bridge in the world constantly creating air pollution, noise and congestion; a huge walled entertainment complex reachable only by car, and a proposed 2,000-bed prison for the District of Columbia to be built at Oxon Cove, north of the existing bridge on the Maryland side.
The misdevelopment of this area as a sacrifice zone would condemn existing neighborhoods and future generations forever to a degraded quality of life. But it doesn't have to be. There is another vision for the southern gateway to our Capital City, a vision that protects the integrity of the affected neighborhoods, the health of the Potomac River, and the viewshed of the southern approach to the city.
Smart Growth at Wilson Crossing!
A Smart Growth Vision for the region would be development that is compatible with protecting the river and the quality of life of the people living near it. The decision-makers of the national capital region still have the opportunity to plan a model transportation solution at the Wilson Crossing that will make the area the most attractive riverfront entry to Washington. That solution will protect the integrity of the river, its wildlife, and its wonderful vistas, attract appropriate tourism to the area, and protect the communities nearby from congestion and inappropriately sited development. This is the vision for Smart Growth at the Wilson Crossing.
It's not too late to develop a plan to fulfill this vision. Elements of such a plan should include replacement of the bridge with a ten-lane tunnel, which would restore the river vistas of the area to their past beauty and make the Crossing a place that Washingtonians will enjoy for hundreds of years to come.
The tunnel could be complemented with a transformed Wilson Bridge into the Wilson Walking Bridge, where pedestrians can enjoy the views up and down the river and walk across the river to riverfront restaurants built in scale to the setting. This Clean Air Promenade would become the highlight of the Potomac Heritage Trail. It would connect the most used recreational trail in the country--the Four Mile Run/Mount Vernon stretch of the Potomac Heritage Trail--to the long-planned and promised Maryland portion of the Trail.
Reforesting would allow maximum green infrastructure to filter our air and protect the river. Since the tunnel noise would be largely silenced and the air filtered, it would allow citizens to enjoy the clean air funneling up the Potomac from the bioreserve of 24,000 acres of preserved forested land along the Potomac south of Washington.
A tunnel will be expensive, there is no doubt. But why should the nation's capital not have the same benefits as Boston and New York, both currently engaged in massive tunnel projects? Washington can make at least as good a case for the need for a Wilson Crossing tunnel as these other cities, and we should not capitulate to a second-rate solution on such a critical matter, unless we are willing to be relegated to a second-
Restoring the Core Instead of Promoting Sprawl
A key component of the citizen-friendly solution would be a Metro or light rail extension through the tunnel to connect the existing Alexandria Metro station to a redeveloped town center at Oxon Hill, that couldinclude restaurants and retail services. Oxon Hill is a mostly minority community greatly in need of redevelopment. Lower Prince George's County has a history of receiving less than its share of service-oriented subsidies. A Metro Mall in Oxon Hill would give this community the economic boost it needs.
The Oxon Hill Metro stop will be the first critical step toward a public transit system around the circumference of the Beltway. This is the only solution to growth of the Washington metropolitan area that will avoid the "Los Angelizing" of Washington. We have one last chance to build a solid foundation for a sane transportation future for the 5 million people in Washington's future. The plan to build the widest bridge in the world is in fundamental conflict with the future of public transit.
The 12-lane bridge would condemn us to an ever larger and still more crowded Beltway road system, paving over more and more of our communities. We could have a growing public transit system speeding people around a beltway serving the inner suburbs, instead of crawling in our cars in ever-lengthening comutes.
A Vision for Posterity
Thousands of years ago cities were building public works that would unite people in appreciation of their shared culture. The coming generations deserve an infrastructure that tells them every day that the generations before them cared about them. Our responsibility is to leave future generations beauty and functionality as a legacy. We don't want to leave them decay and disarray. But we would if we cut corners and made decisions of a century based on short-term gain for a few rather than considering the long-term needs of the majority of our citizens.
The Sierra Club Newsletter Online is brought to you by the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club.