Flowing Rivers, Clogged Roads and Bad Ideas

History teaches that roads can destroy rivers. It also teaches that citizens can do something about it.

I was keeping one eye on the road and the other on a river that looked much like our Potomac.

Then the river disappeared behind a squat brown building with a pink sign advertising “Adult Entertainment,” followed by an aging motel and a boarded up gas station.

The river reappeared. It was the Susquehanna, big sister to the Potomac. I was driving south on Route 15 in central Pennsylvania.

Although it’s three times bigger than the Potomac, the Susquehanna has the same familiar rock ledges and the dense mats of smartweed on the gravel bars. Here too, the smallmouth bass is king.

A tractor trailer cut in front of me and let loose a blast of oily smoke. Yes, just like the Potomac. Only very different.

The difference is roads. While the Potomac’s shorelines are clothed in forests and fields, many stretches of her big sister are corseted by ugly, noisy highways.    

The Potomac too has had an uneasy relationship with road builders. It could have been worse. If we don’t watch out, it might be.

“Scenic highway,” anyone?

It began long ago, when mules still towed boats along the C&O Canal. Already, planners and government officials were talking about filling in the canal and turning it into a road.

The running battle over what was being billed as a “scenic highway” came to a climax in the 1950s. Conservationists protested that the road would destroy the intimacy of the river and its natural setting. Among them was U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who led an army of river advocates on a 184-mile-length hike on the canal’s towpath.

Public opinion rallied to support the river, and the river was spared.

But even while this was going on, another group of engineers and officials were laying plans for another, very different road. Their aim was to solve the growing traffic nightmare in a rapidly growing metropolitan area. The Capital Beltway was born.

Of course, it didn’t solve the traffic congestion problems. Instead, it became yet one more example of what economists call “induced demand.”  It drew more users to the highways, and in a short time, things were worse than ever.

On top of this, the Beltway – which strikes the river head on at the American Legion Bridge in Cabin John -- helped to push the suburbs even further out. It also spun off a whole series of shopping malls, stadiums, and office complexes. Vast swaths of Potomac River watershed turned to concrete and asphalt.

If one Beltway is good. . .

The road building machinery is rumbling again, ever louder.  The clamor is coming from Virginia, and it’s about what is variously called the “Western Transportation Corridor” or the “Outer Beltway.”

The new road―actually a series of projects mainly to widen and link up existing roads―starts at Dale City, on I-95, and then arcs west and then north to Leesburg. Local jurisdictions have already approved projects along the pathway, which the state’s Transportation Board has designated a “Corridor of Significance.”

Once again, the ostensible purpose of the scheme is to relieve traffic congestion and meet needs for future development. But smart growth advocates maintain that it will create new problems, spawn more induced demand, and turn more of the Potomac watershed into concrete and asphalt. The only certainty is that the big winners would be developers and their allies, who stand to gain from higher real estate values.  

Now take your finger and trace along this arc. Don’t stop at Leesburg, as the Virginia planners would have us do. Instead, continue over yet another idyllic and irreplaceable stretch of the Potomac, just west of Poolesville. And then on through rural Maryland and ending with―no surprise― I-270 and the Inter-County Connector.

Will this happen? Road projects are very hard to kill. There’s too much money to be made, too many powerful people who stand to benefit.

Citizens groups (such as this one) are working hard to expose the fallacies of an Outer Beltway. They want us to move beyond development for development’s sake and instead find better ways to live with our environment. These groups need our support. 

Alex August 09, 2012 at 02:50 PM
That's laughable...the gasoline tax doesn't even come close to covering the cost of road maintenance let alone construction. You're in a fantasy land where all you care about is driving your car so you're ignoring all facts that indicate that it is in fact driving that is the "Soviet style" subsidy program....
Roger Hamilton August 09, 2012 at 06:07 PM
I think that these discussions about roads, rivers, development, and the natural environment are fascinating because they really get to the heart of people's feelings about the relationship between man and nature. It's not so much about what's out there, but with people's values--what they think and believe. Second thing, an outer beltway would impact the river in a number of ways. One is the purely aesthetic one of a big bridge crossing a peaceful river. Much greater, however, are the secondary effects of pushing development into ever widening circles and changing the watershed environment from one that promotes water quality into one that stresses streams and rivers with increasingly polluted discharges.
Mercy Fork August 09, 2012 at 07:09 PM
I don't think they can connect Leesburg and 270 with a superhighway because it would cut through the county agricultural reserve. Montgomery County seems to do a decent job keeping some areas rural and preventing development along the river. Virginia, on the other hand... well, just go look across the river toward the Leesburg skyline (yes, there is a skyline) to see what things might look like in Maryland if we didn't have protected rural areas.
Roger Hamilton August 10, 2012 at 01:17 AM
Let's hope so! Montgomery County certainly is doing a good job, and that's in large part due to the support of the people living here. As pressures build for a second river crossing--as is inevitable--county residents have to be even more vigilant and forceful in their views.
Aimee Custis August 10, 2012 at 02:16 PM
One of the best places to focus on a transportation fix in this case is the American Legion Bridge. A solid rapid transit connection there would offer an effective option without building yet more roads that will, as always, increase congestion through induced demand.


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