Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


Electronic signs are announcing testing of rush-hour toll lanes on 10 miles of I-66, set to open in Arlington and points west in December.

Solo drivers willing to shell out extra bucks can benefit — if they procure an E-Z pass — from the commuter highway at peak hours. The state benefits from revenue and a continued nudge toward car-pooling. And everyone (assuming not too much confusion) benefits from a decrease in traffic backups made possible by computers that set toll prices based on real-time congestion.

The high-tech solution offered by HOT lanes would have been unimaginable to our forebears when they battled over an earlier “solution” to Arlington’s clogged auto arteries: The proposal to build another span over the Potomac called the Three Sisters Bridge.

Named for those peeking mid-river rocks made legendary by Native Americans, this project – which dominated Arlington politics in the 1960s – has a long history. Thoughts of putting a bridge aligned with the Spout Run Parkway to Georgetown date from the 1950s. (Actually, you could trace them to the 18th century, says Wikipedia.)

The post-World II period was a time of car worship (recall that I-66 itself was originally envisioned as 12 lanes with no sound walls) and little environmental consciousness.  Federal proposals for the Three Sisters Bridge had the support of Arlington’s Republican Rep. Joel T. Broyhill and Virginia Democratic Sen. William Spong. The notion was to capitalize on federal highway aid to unclog Arlington and speed the daily journeys of federal workers from Fairfax or Prince William.

In a drama of more than a decade, the bridge was opposed by the Arlington County Board, many in Georgetown, D.C. voters in a referendum and grassroots protesters.

One lawsuit went to the Supreme Court, and a House committee chairman named William Natcher (D-Ky.) held up funds to build Metro for years waiting for the Three Sisters to win approval.  Arlington-based Broyhill tried to block the appropriation for the District if the Three Sisters wasn’t funded. (Broyhill later changed and got Metro funded.)

“Build the Bridge,” admonished an editorial in the Northern Virginia Sun, Aug. 28, 1968, slamming county officials for their lawsuit and requested injunction. “It is sad that parklands must be taken for feeder roads to the bridge,” it wrote. But “if it is not, Northern Virginia’s economy will be strangled simply because there will not be enough routes into and through the area.”

Begging to differ was board member Thomas Richards, who said the project “would mean the loss of much of the beautiful Spout Run Parkway in Arlington and would mar the beauty of the Potomac Palisades.”

Some 500 protesters occupied the rocky Potomac islets accessible only by boat, the Washington Post reported.

Other opponents, including the fledgling Congressional Black Caucus, fought the Nixon administration, fearing the bridge would destroy African-American neighborhoods.

In the end, the final nails in the Three Sisters coffin weren’t hammered until 1977, when I-66 won final approval.

Arlington’s modern resistance to I-66 tolls was less sensational, with criticism built around fears that “Lexus Lanes” disfavor low-income folks, opposition to widening the highway and concern for protecting bike lanes.

If you try the HOT lanes and get to work faster — be grateful. For critics, think of that multi-year battle to prevent an over-abundance of arching spans across our green Potomac. Things could have been worse.


Washington-Lee High School made the front-page of the Wall Street Journal last weekend. The reason was not necessarily flattering.

“You’re All No. 1!” shouted the headline, a jab at the rising trend of high schools honoring multiple valedictorians. Our own W-L made the subheadline for its feat of naming 178 valedictorians last year. That was a third of the senior class, or all who racked up a 4.0 GPA.

School communities nationwide are divided by the issue, some saying picking a top valedictorian produces unhealthy competition, others saying the mass selections render the honor meaningless.