In the spring of 2013 the National Park Service initiated the public process to rehabilitate the Arlington Memorial Bridge. The partial closure and rehabilitation of the bridge represents a huge opportunity to rethink how the bridge operates in the context of the city’s transportation network. Unfortunately, instead of seizing this opportunity, the Park Service defined the scope of the project extremely narrowly— focusing on arcane questions about upgrades to the “bascule spans” (the parts of the bridge that make it work as a drawbridge).
Does anyone actually care about what structure engineering methods NPS uses to rehabilitate bascule spans? Probably not. What we do care about is the fact that millions of visitors and commuters cross Arlington Memorial Bridge annually by foot, bike, and car. As bicycle and pedestrian travel rapidly increases region-wide, it’s time to rethink how all transportation modes on the bridge are accommodated.
The bridge is 90 feet wide with six car travel lanes and two 15-foot sidewalks. The speed limit for vehicles on the bridge is 30 miles per hour, with drivers often dangerously exceeding the legal limit. During busy tourist seasons, the sidewalks are full of visitors walking between the National Mall and Arlington National Cemetery. Sidewalk congestion is complicated by bicyclists and pedestrians sharing limited space.
During construction, the bridge will be partially closed. Two years ago, after an initial study on regional traffic patterns, traffic engineers determined that a closure of one of the three lanes in each direction would only minimally impact traffic on other bridges that cross the Potomac River. This has been borne out by experience: since late last fall, the Memorial bridge has been operating with a total of four travel lanes, without any resulting traffic armageddon.
The third vehicle lane in both directions should be permanently repurposed as a single protected travel lane for bicycle traffic. This would provide dedicated space for pedestrians on the sidewalk, and a safe, unobstructed passage across the bridge for bicyclists.
The bridge rehabilitation is a chance for NPS to be forward-thinking about design. The National Mall is planning to build a visitor center at the Vietnam War Memorial, which will likely increase travel between the Vietnam War Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, as it is a short walk or ride between the two, and serviced on both sides of the bridge by Capital Bikeshare stations. There are also plans to redesign the Lincoln Circle (aka: the bike/ped no-man’s land between the Lincoln Memorial and the Memorial bridge on the D.C. side).
The viewshed in both directions along the bridge is highly valued and should be honored. Through this process, the Park Service could and should be considering designs for dedicated space for bicyclists that fits the aesthetic of the bridge, like low decorative planters or concrete curbs.
WABA and supporters raised these issues nearly three years ago.
Unfortunately, the Park Service has not listened, and continues to move forward with an Environmental Assessment structured to protect the status quo. There is another comment period closing on Monday, May 16th. Take a moment to submit comments telling NPS you want this project to address not just the bridge’s structure, but how the bridge functions in city life, by creating dedicated protected bike lanes and safe connections for walking and biking to and from the bridge.