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Officials: New Potomac River crossing unlikely

Saturday - 4/7/2012, 2:00am  ET


When it comes to getting cars across the Potomac River, Maryland's top priority is not building a new bridge, but restoring an old one.

Discussions between Maryland and Virginia transportation officials about the possibility of building another Potomac crossing have just begun, but Maryland seems unlikely to budge.

The state's primary concern is the 71-year-old Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge (U.S. 301), the southern crossing that connects Charles County with Virginia.

A northern Potomac crossing may not be a priority for Maryland right now, but supporters hope a new bridge could divert traffic from the Capital Beltway, allowing drivers to bypass Washington and cross the river on a new connection northwest of the American Legion Bridge in Cabin John.

Maryland transportation officials have historically been opposed to a crossing at any location other than Point of Rocks, Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan said. That is where the U.S. 15 bridge already spans the river from Frederick County to Loudoun County, Va. In addition, any link other than Point of Rocks would likely settle in Montgomery County's agricultural preserve.

If expanded capacity for crossing the river is considered, the state's first choice is to use the existing Point of Rocks bridge, which is about 40 miles upriver from the American Legion span.

"Even then, there are significant issues to be addressed, and local input and involvement on both sides of the river would be necessary," Cahalan wrote in an email.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley had a general discussion on the subject during a 2011 meeting, before Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton made a formal request to Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley to initiate further discussion.

The request resulted in a meeting between VDOT and the Maryland State Highway Administration in early March, according to Cahalan.

The talks are still too preliminary to determine when any decisions might be made. While Maryland is open to discussing ways to address transportation challenges in the Washington region, Cahalan wrote that the state remains committed to the integrity of local land-use plans, the environment and principles of smart growth, none of which would allow a new crossing over the Potomac River in Montgomery County.

"Local input plays a very important role in any transportation decision of this nature," he said.

As of this week, Maryland officials have discussed the traditional opposition to the project, and conflicts with several policy issues, including smart growth and land use.

A formal environmental study of the Nice Bridge will be completed by the Maryland Transportation Authority, the owner of the bridge, later this year, though funding for the estimated $900 million project has not been identified.