By day, thousands of cars travel back and forth across the 11th Street Bridge. But on Saturday, it was people, not cars, who populated the newest part of the bridge connecting Capitol Hill and Anacostia.
District officials celebrated the opening of the four-lane bridge with an old-fashioned street party, complete with high school bands, red-and-white balloon arches and face painting.
The occasion also was a chance to remember Kevin Welsh, a D.C. police officer whose name is forever tied to the structure.
In 1986, Welsh died after diving into the Anacostia River to save a woman who had jumped off the bridge. The new span is dedicated to him.
The $390 million project is largest ever undertaken by the D.C. Department of Transportation. The aim was to replace two 1960s-era crossings with three new ones that would better connect Capitol Hill with neighborhoods across the river and provide separate roadways for freeway and local traffic.
The redesigned bridge now provides direct connections between the Southeast-Southwest Freeway and both directions of Interstate/DC-295. Before the bridge was revamped, drivers had to use local streets to enter and exit both freeways.
Perhaps even more important than traffic flow is that the bridge provides another way to link the two sides of the river, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said.
“This bridge is a great way of connecting east and west,” Gray said. “We need to do more of that in this city.”
Added Ronaldo Nicholson, chief engineer of the D.C. Department of Transportation: “There is a great need to unite Capitol Hill communities with Anacostia communities.”
As a sign of the symbolic coming-together, marching bands from Eastern and Anacostia high schools, located on opposite sides of the bridge, met in the center.
The new bridge is part of an ambitious $10 billion effort to remake the Anacostia waterfront, which some say began with the construction of Nationals Park. There are efforts underway to remake the Southwest waterfront, too.
Unlike older bridges designed with only the automobile in mind, the 11th Street Bridge was built to also provide access for those traveling by foot or bicycle.
Its 14-foot sidewalks provide ample room for cyclists and pedestrians. There is a possibility that streetcars eventually could travel across the bridge.
Hundreds of people walked along the bridge Saturday in near-perfect weather, venturing onto scenic overlooks that jut out over the water. They snapped pictures and feasted on cheesesteaks, hot dogs and ice cream.
If the goal was to attract people from across the District, the festivities seemed to accomplish just that.
Marvene Horwitz and Sam Steinberg rode their bikes from their homes in Northwest to explore the new bridge.
“It’s a beautiful area and I really wanted to support what they’re doing out here,” Steinberg said as the pair gazed across the river.
Hope Venable of Northeast brought her son Sunjata and daughter Jocelyn.
“The weather was so nice, we thought we’d come and check it out,” she said.
Officials paused during the festivities to remember Welsh, to whom part of the original bridge had been dedicated. With the help of Welsh’s family, including sons Kevin Jr. and Joe, Gray unveiled a plaque notingthe police officer’s sacrifice.
“This is truly, truly a great honor,” said Kevin Welsh, who was 5 when his father died. “It means a lot to our family that after all these years our father is still remembered.”