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Is American Legion Bridge doomed to 'perpetual gridlock'?

Fairfax's McKay criticizes Maryland leaders after Transurban pulls out of project

Just as some critics had anticipated, efforts to extend Express Lanes in Maryland from the American Legion Bridge to Interstate 270 hit a major glitch March 10 when contractor Transurban pulled out of negotiations.

But Transurban leaders and Fairfax County officials said the 495 Express Lanes Northern Extension (495 NEXT) Project to the south of the bridge will move ahead as planned.

Transurban leaders on March 10 announced that Accelerate Maryland Partners, a consortium of which the company was a member, had decided not to proceed with the Maryland Express Lanes Project and intended to terminate its preferred-developer agreement with the Maryland Department of Transportation.

“Transurban is disappointed that we were unable to reach agreement with Maryland to deliver the critical congestion relief that travelers across the region need and want,” said Amanda Baxter, senior vice president of development and operations for Transurban North America.

“We respect Maryland’s decision to pursue alternatives – whether that is in project scope, delivery or partnership,” Baxter said. “As a long-term partner to governments in the region for more than a decade, we will continue to take a collaborative approach, working towards more connected travel choices across the Capital Region.”

Since being selected by Maryland in February 2021 as preferred developer for the project’s first phase, AM Partners has undertaken “extensive work” on the initiative, Transurban officials said in a media statement.

“However, the project continues to face challenges including significant delays to environmental approvals, changing political landscape and environmental lawsuits that remain unresolved,” the statement read.

That political landscape involved a switch in Maryland’s leadership between former Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who favored the project but was not eligible to run for re-election, and newly elected Gov. Wes Moore (D), who has expressed reservations about the initiative.

The agreement termination in Maryland will not affect Transurban’s work on the 495 NEXT Project, which “remains a critical project in a consistently congested corridor,” Baxter said.

The project, which officials expect to open in 2025, will reduce travel times, provide new commuter connections at the Dulles Toll Road and George Washington Memorial Parkway, implement new bicycle and pedestrian links, and support new bus service between Virginia and Maryland, she said.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) called Transurban’s decision in Maryland a setback to needed improvements at the American Legion Bridge, one of Fairfax County’s biggest traffic bottlenecks, and said the outcome was not in the long-term interest of Virginia or Maryland.

McKay said he is committed to working with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to help keep the Maryland initiative alive as Virginia advances its Express Lanes south of the bridge.

“The 495 NEXT component continues on track as a separate project that will be necessary for any future bridge improvements, no matter who ultimately makes them,” McKay said.

Improving the bridge would benefit Marylanders as well by encouraging carpooling and transit usage, McKay said. Fairfax County had mapped out new bus routes that would have connected Tysons and Maryland and gotten more cars off the road, he said.

“Without encouraging these alternative travel patterns that the Express Lanes provide, this area will remain in perpetual gridlock,” McKay said. “If Maryland is serious about transit, they aren’t showing it by rejecting this project.”

Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) also was unhappy with the transportation situation in Maryland.

“We desperately need to fix the congestion nightmare around the American Legion Bridge, and I am disappointed that Transurban and Maryland could not reach agreement to move that forward,” he said.

But Foust added he was not surprised by the latest news, as there always had seemed to him a significant risk that an agreement on Maryland’s side of the river would not materialize. The supervisor said he had tried to convince VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board to wait on the 495 NEXT Project until Maryland finalized such a pact.

“For the foreseeable future, there will be no reduction of congestion in the general lanes of the Beltway and the traffic chokepoint has just been moved a little closer to the bridge,” Foust said.

“There has been a lot of damage done by the unnecessary construction that has occurred on the Virginia side,” he said. “I believe VDOT needs to make a serious commitment to work with the community on landscaping, sound walls, stormwater management, trails, sidewalks and whatever else can be done to mitigate that damage.”