The new Beltway express lanes that Virginia plans to open this year may cause more bottleneck congestion at the American Legion Bridge, but Maryland officials said they won't know how to deal with the problem until a new traffic study is complete, possibly after the lanes open.
Maryland, however, actually conducted a traffic study of the express lanes and bridge bottleneck in 2009. That report offered a variety of recommendations for how to deal with the problems that are likely to arise once 12 lanes of traffic are forced to merge into 10 lanes over the bridge.
Still, officials insist a new study is needed. The Maryland State Highway Administration is using new technology to count cars and won't be done examining data until the end of the year, agency officials said.
"We're taking proactive steps here to have this study done for some shorter-term improvements," said agency spokesman Charlie Gischlar.
The state is considering lengthening exit lanes on the Maryland side of the Beltway to move traffic more rapidly. But even once the state agrees on what needs to be done, Gischlar said, it would have to line up funding, and it's unclear how long that could take.
"Right now, it's kind of hard to say when or if [the recommendations will get funding]," Gischlar said. "We're trying to get our ducks in a row here."
Hari Sripathi, Virginia Department of Transportation's regional operations director, and other officials said the express lanes won't cause an immediate problem. But given how long it takes to plan, finance and build road improvements, Maryland is under pressure to act.
It will likely be three to four years before traffic at the bridge becomes unbearable, but that doesn't mean state officials can delay, said Ron Kirby, who directs transportation efforts for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
"If they don't have a viable solution and how to fund it, we could be looking at 10 years and no progress," said Kirby.
"There is an urgency here to address the issue."