Washington Biologists Field Club’s Rob Soreng and Bay Journal reporter Tim Wheeler visit Plummers Island in the Potomac River. The island, part of which would be affected by the replacement of the American Legion Bridge as part of the Capital Beltway widening project, has been the focus of a century of ecological studies.
In all the discussions about toll lanes for the American Legion Bridge, which carries Interstate 495 across the Potomac River west of Washington, DC, something big has been left out: the project’s adverse impact on the Potomac and the people who use it for recreation.
The stretch of river that flows under this bridge is a priceless scenic and historical resource enjoyed by thousands of canoe and kayak paddlers, anglers and bird watchers.
The bridge is expected to take five years to build and will be twice the size of the current one. This inevitably harms nature and recreational experiences and the river itself. Increased noise, restrictions on the canal with barges, rock fills and heavy equipment are certainties and temporary closures of the river to pleasure craft are very likely.
And will rock and concrete be placed in the Potomac Canal to allow access for construction equipment? The Maryland Department of Transportation doesn’t say so.
Beyond the original construction, MDOT’s most recent draft environmental document for the project states that the new bridge will “allow for future superstructure modifications and additional foundations and future superstructure capacity.” What additional damage does this mean for the Potomac River? Are new superstructure supports required? Again, MDOT says nothing.
The Potomac River is nationally recognized as an important historic, scenic and recreational waterway. The stretch of river within 5 miles of the bridge is a navigable waterway for small boats and was used by Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans. George Washington navigated the river his entire life and planned a canal upstream from Georgetown.
Two of the 11 nationally designated land and water trails in the United States pass under the American Legion Bridge:
< The Park Service's Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail network stretches for hundreds of miles, from the mouth of the Potomac to Pennsylvania's Allegheny Highlands. It passes through 20 NPS managed areas and the C&O Canal National Historical Park.
< The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail follows the explorer's map and written records and is the nation's first all-water National Historic Trail. It connects dozens of national wildlife refuges, parks, and trails and spans 3,000 miles and 15,000 years of culture. MDOT's environmental documentation does not even mention the impact of the bridge construction on these monumental historic and recreational sites.
Maryland has designated the Potomac in Montgomery County a “scenic waterway” as part of the State Department of Natural Resources’ Scenic and Wild Rivers System. State policy is to “preserve and protect the natural values of these rivers,” including a requirement for state and local governments to “take all necessary measures to protect and enhance the qualities of any designated river” (emphasis added ). Despite this, MDOT does not appear to have consulted with the state’s Wild Rivers Advisory Council regarding the impact on the river as a scenic, recreational, and historical resource.
In its literature for the Potomac Heritage Trail, the NPS says, “Outdoor recreation opportunities are increasingly being recognized as an important contributor to local, regional and state economies and an important part of healthy communities.”
We know that thousands of people use the river near and under the American Legion Bridge each year. Both the NPS and Maryland have recognized this section of the Potomac as a significant resource. But MDOT has yet to assess how replacing the bridge will adversely affect the river and the people who use it. The department must describe how it can and wants to avoid negative effects.
Washington, DC resident David Cottingham is Chairman of the Canoe Cruisers Association, the area’s oldest and largest whitewater canoeing and kayaking organization.
The views expressed by opinion columnists do not necessarily align with those of the Bay Journal.