Amazingly, in the sum of its parts, National Harbor, the MGM National Harbor and the Tanger Outlets could collectively rival Washington, D.C. in the number of annual visitors -nearly 23 million this year, if projections hold true. Overlooking the Potomac River, the 350-acre entertainment and shopping destination, and the crown jewel of Prince George’s County, is located along one of the most congested corridors in the region. Although traffic volume increased by 20,000 to 30,000 vehicles a day along the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge-National Harbor Interchanges (I-95/I-495, I-295, MD 210) from 2015 to 2016, to the relief of area residents, a transportation master plan implemented last year is working wonders in effectively managing congestion along the heavily traveled bridge and roadway network.
When the MGM National Harbor opened a year ago on December 8, civic associations and residents living in the area were bracing for a tsunami of traffic on neighborhood streets, bottlenecks on the Capital Beltway near the Indian Head Highway (MD 210) exit, and traffic backups on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. They were concerned about displacement caused by an onslaught of unauthorized parking encroachers in front of their homes. They had warrant to worry. Initially, that is. Sure enough, the bottlenecks and backups materialized on interstate interchanges during the first week, as prophesied. But it was worse than expected. By February, the MGM was seeing 25,000 to 30,000 visitors a day. But doomsday never arrived.
Traffic into National Harbor was reportedly up 15 percent six months after the Casino opened for business. Even before the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor debuted last December, traffic was already increasing across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from Alexandria, and was also surging on the Capital Beltway (I-95/I-495), along interstate interchanges and local roadways around, and in and out of National Harbor, like Maryland 210, Maryland 414, DC 295, Oxon Hill Road, Livingston Road, Palmer Road, Fort Foote Road, Bald Eagle Road, Monument Drive, and Wilson Bridge Drive. Since then the fears, trepidations and philippics about the severity of traffic congestion and travel time delays have pretty much died down, providing proof that traffic congestion is not an inexorable force or law of nature. It can be tackled through traffic mitigation (PDF).
“To mitigate the prospects of a traffic nightmare, government officials and private sector developers invested millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements and transportation operations. A Unified Command Center, operated under the authority of the Prince George’s County Police Department, is designed to monitor real-time traffic patterns, manage and re-shape peak-period congestion, and optimize travel times. It is delivering on that promise,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public & Government Affairs. “As planned, the site also offers enhanced travel choices for visitors, shoppers, tourists and workers aimed at encouraging them to switch travel modes and take public transportation alternatives to the entertainment and shopping complex. The major capital investments and transportation management strategies appear to be paying early dividends by minimizing impacts on local communities.”
The MGM reached full capacity within 15 minutes of its December 8 grand opening. Residents were wary of spillover traffic impacts on nearby two-lane county roads that “run either parallel and/or cross MD 210,” which are favored by commuters hoping to avoid congestion on 210. But the worst-case scenario never really occurred. At least not to the scale neighbors were dreading. A year later some residents say they only feel the impacts when there are “special events at the theater in MGM National Harbor, or at National Harbor, the waterfront development in Prince George’s County, or during holiday shopping at Tanger Outlets.”
Since then, residents complain mostly about visitors to MGM and National Harbor parking on “streets on the periphery of National Harbor.” One resident says “The Kerby Hill-Livingston Road interchange construction surely overwhelms any other congestion factor on MD-210.” National Harbor, which has a 350-acre footprint, was already attracting more than 12 million visitors a year, and seeing as many as 90,000 vehicles on a good week. It was projected the number of vehicles into the site would eventually double to 180,000 vehicles each week. National Harbor is dubbed a “master-planned micro-city.”
Daily traffic volume increased from an average of 167,533 vehicles daily in 2015 to 176,330 vehicles per day in 2016 near the Capital Beltway (I-95/I-495) interchange from DC-295 to Maryland 210, according to a review by AAA Mid-Atlantic of Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) data tabulated by the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA). Daily traffic along the interchange grew by nearly 9,000 additional vehicles per day. Traffic counting provides a “picture of traffic flow and trends.” Traffic increased from 204,081 vehicles per day in 2015 to 230,900 on the I-95/I-495 interchange from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to DC-295, Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) tabulations show. It comprises a daily increase of nearly 27,000 vehicles per day on the interstate interchange. Average daily traffic (ADT) on the interchange is projected to soar to 290,000 vehicles a day by 2020. But that was before National Harbor was developed and the MGM National Harbor was constructed, possibly making those projections outdated. The average daily traffic computation is analogous, it has been said, to a “census count.”
More than 50,000 persons visited MGM National Harbor within the first 15 hours of the opening of the premier 24-story, 308-room resort. Within a week of the casino grand opening, reportedly more than 170,000 visitors had swarmed into the facility perched on the scenic waterfront of the Potomac River. Before what is billed as the “first luxury gaming resort to the Capital Region” opened, more than $10 million in road improvements were undertaken on choke points in the area. A Unified Command Center, equipped with traffic cameras and surveillance cameras, monitors traffic bottlenecks and controls traffic flow 24 hours a day.
A dedicated traffic lane was built from the Wilson Bridge, the iconic double-leaf bascule bridge, to the site, Oxon Hill Road was widened, roads on each side of the Casino site were expanded to three travel lanes each, 800 parking spaces were added, and bus routes and traffic circles sprung up seemingly overnight. A new road was built connecting Harbor View North to National Avenue. New traffic signals were added at key intersections, as well as signage directing traffic to the site. Then there is the visible law enforcement presence. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the Virginia State Police, and the Maryland State Police are working in concert to minimize traffic backups on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
National Harbor was on the drawing board well before the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement project took place. Carrying a $250 million price tag, the I-95/I-295/I-495 interchange in Maryland was widened, reconstructed, and reconfigured to “accommodate six highway lanes in each direction in an Express/Local configuration from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to west of MD 210.” The MGM was forecast to attract 25,000-30,000 visitors daily. It is tantamount to 10.9 million visitors and 3.6 million more vehicles yearly. Now factor this in. National Harbor attracts more than 12 million visitors a year. Combined, it equates to 22.9 million visitors in and out of the venues each year. For comparison, Washington, D.C. welcomes 21 million visitors during 2016, setting an all-time record for the city, according to Destination DC.