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Prince George's plans needless asphalt for new bridge

Prince George's County needs to replace a deteriorating, flood-prone 2-lane bridge, but is making the bridge unnecessarily wide, which will encourage drivers to speed today and make it too likely the county will add new lanes in the future where they aren't needed.

Photo from Google Street View.

The bridge carries Sunnyside Avenue over Indian Creek. The county plans to replace the 2-lane span with a new span, but they're building the road to handle 4 lanes.

A spokesperson for the county claims that the county has no plans to actually stripe the road for 4 lanes, but the proposed roadway design will make it temptingly easy to do that. And even if the county doesn't widen the road, the extra space will likely encourage faster driving, which will make the bridge less safe, not more.

Sunnyside Avenue is a short street connecting Route 1 in the west with Edmonston Road (the northern extension of Kenilworth Avenue) in the east. Between Route 1 and the CSX railroad tracks, the road is 4 lanes wide. East of the tracks, though, the road narrows to 2 lanes and crosses the undeveloped Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.

The road crosses Indian Creek on a bridge that is only 2 lanes wide, and which does not have room for sidewalks or bike lanes. Additionally, its height is actually below the 2-year flood level, which means it's frequently closed by high water.

The $13.5 million project will reconfigure Sunnyside all the way from the railroad tracks to Edmonston Road. It will raise and lengthen the bridge so that it is clear of the 50-year flood level. It will also add bike lanes and sidewalks between Edmonston Road and the tracks.

Image from the Prince George's County Department of Public Works and Transportation.

The county should be commended for including bike and pedestrian infrastructure in this project. It's refreshing to see that Prince George's does seem to be serious about allocating road space to users other than just motorists.

But in a somewhat troubling development, the reconstruction includes full-width shoulders to the entire length of the project. This means the roadway will be 4 lanes wide, although initially, at least, the road will only be striped for 2 lanes.

Image from the Prince George's County Department of Public Works and Transportation.

If the county decides to widen Sunnyside to 4 lanes, after this project all it will take is some repainting. In fact, the county could decide to just stripe the bridge for 4 lanes during construction if they wanted.

But according to Susan Hubbard, a PIO with the county's Department of Public Works and Transportation, the county doesn't plan to make the road 4 lanes wide. It's not going to be built to 4 lanes, and it's not going to be widened to 4-lanes. Based on the email exchange I had with Ms. Hubbard, it doesn't even sound like anyone in the department has even considered widening the road. One wonders if she doth protest too much.

It's quite strange that the county is making the road so wide, but doesn't seem to even be willing to admit that they might want to use the shoulders for lanes in the future. Perhaps they're afraid doing so will bring out opposition.

But it will be so easy to widen the road in the future, since it will only take line paint and a few hours. If the county wants to "widen" the road in the future, will they even need to ask the community?

Why widen?

According to Hubbard, the road needs to be so wide because of the construction phasing. First, the county will construct a new 2-lane bridge north of the existing bridge, and move the cars there. Then the county will tear out the old bridge, and widen the northern span to take up the space where the current bridge is.

It's not clear why Prince George's thinks all this extra concrete is necessary in the end. Hubbard claims that reducing the width of the bridge won't reduce the cost, however. Besides, she says, the county has already spent the money to design this concept, and it will cost money to redesign the bridge (eating up the savings).

The area between the railroad and Edmonston Road is not going to develop. The land is owned by the Department of Agriculture and is environmentally sensitive. Additionally, while Maryland hopes to widen 2-lane Edmonston Road, that project has no funding and many in the area oppose it.

While Hubbard contends that 2 lanes of concrete will cost the same as 4 lanes of it, I'm not sure that argument holds water.

I'd much rather see the money for the 2 additional lanes across the bridge be spent completing the sidewalks on the western section, or on any number of other bicycle, pedestrian, or transit projects in the county.

Regardless, if the county rebuilds Sunnyside Avenue as planned, with 2 extra (unused) lanes, it will surely be tempting for engineers in the future to widen. It would be great if the county would make assurances that such a widening will not happen without a public process.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Heís a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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FWIW, I think this happens because of AASHTO guidance, which because bridges are supposed to be built for a 50 year lifespan, means that bridges when rebuilt tend to be overbuilt.


by Richard Layman on Dec 3, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

an example in DC of a recently constructed (last 4-5 years) overbuilt bridge is on South Dakota Ave. northwest of Bladensburg Road. All the same complaints you make in your post could be applied to this bridge.

Oh, the same with bridges on Taylor Street and Michigan Ave. over the CSX/Metro tracks in Brookland.

All are overbuilt and I think this is because of general guidance.

by Richard Layman on Dec 3, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

They could overbuild the bridge without overbuilding the road. To me, and this is definitely in my backyard, it's such a shame to see lightly used two-lane roads be built out to highway width, just because they can, not because they should. I hope the county comes to its senses, saves money and environmental impact, and just rebuilds the two-lane bridge and roadway. But if they must build a super-wide bridge because traffic will supposedly double in 50 years or some nonsense assumption (it has actually declined in the 25 years I've lived in Greenbelt, but we all know that traffic engineers will keep assuming they need double capacity until they've paved everything...), they should at least leave the roadway section at two-lane width to maintain the character of the rural road.

by Greenbelt on Dec 3, 2012 3:39 pm • linkreport

Would it have been possible just to close this stretch of road when they were rebuilding the bridge, thus perhaps negating the need for phased construction? Looking at the area I can't imagine this street gets much traffic and the alternate routes (like Powder Mill to the north and the Beltway and Greenbelt Road/University Blvd to the south) being relatively close it would seem at least possible.

I guess now though we get some hilariously wide bike lanes.

by Steven Yates on Dec 3, 2012 3:52 pm • linkreport

@Greenbelt -- the bridges in DC that I mentioned (probably not Michigan Ave., I just can't remember) end up having the equivalent of medians, although just marked by paint, so that the road isn't "widened" as you say, although the bridge is wider than the ROW on either side of the bridge. (For the most part, as you know, there isn't right of way available to widen roads in DC. The road width is what it is.)

by Richard Layman on Dec 3, 2012 4:39 pm • linkreport

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. This is pretty much standard practice. It's not a widening project, it's an infrastructure project. The bridge is being built to current standards while reducing the impact on users and allowing pedestrians and cyclists to more safely travel in the area.

by selxic on Dec 3, 2012 5:23 pm • linkreport

So there are shoulders where none are needed? When are shoulders needed?

by David C on Dec 3, 2012 5:48 pm • linkreport

Some Greenbelt locals are concerned that this project means the CSX transfer facility will be built just to the west, north of Sunnyside Rd.

Regarding the idea of closing the road while re-building: this road does get quite a bit of traffic. It's a good alternative to Powder Mill and Greenbelt Rd, both of which get quite congested during the rush hour - especially Powder Mill, which experiences a major bottleneck at Route 1.

by John on Dec 3, 2012 9:34 pm • linkreport

Correction to my previous comment - the potential site for the CSX transfer station is actually east of the RR tracks, in the "environmentally sensitive area" that Matt says will not be developed (I hope he's right about that - it's a forested floodplain of Indian Creek - not a good site for an industrial facility).

by John on Dec 3, 2012 9:37 pm • linkreport

Sunnyside gets more use than one might think, as its a useful way to avoid congestion on 193 at least i know a lot of my friends in Old Greenbelt use it to get to RI Ave and part of Rt 1.

VDOT recently build a four-lane bridge over the beltway on Lewinsville Rd, likely due to the guidance Richard mentioned above, though it's a two-lane road on both sides of the ridiculously wide bridge.

by dcseain on Dec 4, 2012 1:54 am • linkreport

Richard Layman,

Both Michigan Ave and Taylor are four lanes wine (with four lanes).

by fandango on Dec 4, 2012 7:04 am • linkreport

Sunnyside is a good way to cut from Route 1 to 201. It gets some traffic, but the problem is that if you expand it it doesn't help because 201 is so backed up where its one lane in each direction.

by Tom A on Dec 4, 2012 9:04 am • linkreport

The shoulders will be needed for fishermen to park cars once the stream is restorred.

by JimT on Dec 4, 2012 9:48 am • linkreport

It seems to me that having shoulders on the bridge is a good thing for emergency vehicles and maintenance crews, and that the real problem is expanding the road leading to the bridge. For something as expensive as a bridge, if it is more cost effective to construct the bridge in two sections, then that's a good idea. What makes speeding, or future widening, inevitable is the fact that the entire section of road is being built as a 4 lane road, with none of the typical traffic calming measures (on street parking, street trees, narrower lanes).

Oh, and by the way,
"Besides, she says, the county has already spent the money to design this concept, and it will cost money to redesign the bridge (eating up the savings)."
^^This is a terrible reason not to redesign it. All this really is is an admission that they wasted the taxpayers' money by designing the wrong thing in the first place. Redesigning doesn't "eat up the savings." Their initial incompetence already did.

by Larchie on Dec 4, 2012 9:48 am • linkreport

I fail to see how this is a bad idea. Not widening the bridge would be near-sighted and incompetent. It even has bike lanes and sidewalks.

Sometimes these GGW "articles" seem to criticize projects just to criticize them, especially if it involves taking a stab at Prince George's. I mean really, the project is being written off as horrible idea because of the "temptation" to expand the road???

by King Terrapin on Dec 4, 2012 11:20 am • linkreport

This is mostly a good project. Raising the bridge our of the flood plain will save lives and money. Bike lanes are good. Sidewalks are good. Shoulders on the bridge are good. Shoulders past the bridge are weird, but only bad if they're turned into traffic lanes, which is not being done. The worst you can say is that this design makes future bad decisions more possible. But add that to all the good it does, and this project is better than average. A solid B.

by David C on Dec 4, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

I really don't get how an improved bridge will "encourage drivers to speed" when BOTH ends of the new bridge will adjoin a narrow 2-lane road. Plus, the new bridge will have bike lanes and sidewalks, so exactly how will drivers be tempted to spped - and how far will they able to speed?

I'm inclined to agree with King Terrapin, that some GGW articles resemble a "solution in search of a problem", seeking to criticize suburban road projects just to criticize them.

Really, what would be so bad about future expansion of the road to 3 or 4 lanes? Is making the drive on a suburban road a little easier and (Horrors!) a little quicker really that distasteful?

by ceefer66 on Dec 4, 2012 4:37 pm • linkreport

The road is 4 lanes to the west of the project area.

by John on Dec 4, 2012 9:54 pm • linkreport

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