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New Life for Bridge's Renovation

Plans to Replace Washington Boulevard Span Again in Motion

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page VA03

After years on the back burner, plans for a new Washington Boulevard bridge -- judged one of the most decrepit in the state -- are alive again.

State transportation officials have told bridge designers to revive plans for a new bridge after a long hiatus. The reason for the delay has become a typical refrain for myriad backlogged bridge and road projects: no money.

Plans to replace the decaying bridge that takes Washington Boulevard over Columbia Pike in Arlington have languished for more than 15 years. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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In recent years, a new bridge has been envisioned as the gateway for an ambitious plan to revitalize the Columbia Pike community. So neighborhood activists were relieved to hear the news that the project is back on the table.

"We've been patient," said Tom Greenfield, a former county planning official and neighborhood activist. "People didn't storm the Bastille with pitchforks and torches."

Replacing the crumbling bridge that runs over Columbia Pike, with its once-graceful arch and natural stone abutments, has been a top priority of Arlington County for more than 15 years. For 10 of those years, the project slogged its way through the bureaucratic process. By 2001, there were drawings, public meetings, plans for lavish bike paths, landscaping, medians, controversy -- neighborhood residents hated the boring interstate-looking bridge the state proposed -- and a hefty $30 million price tag.

The following year, newly elected Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) ordered the Virginia Department of Transportation to scrub its budget, because, he said, the agency clearly didn't have the money to fund all the projects on its books. The Washington Boulevard bridge was one of a number of victims when the budget was slashed by about $1 billion.

In 2003, plans for the bridge were scaled back, cutting the cost to about $20 million, and then were shelved -- until last month.

"The state has a tremendous number of demands, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, congestion on the interstate," said Mark Kellogg, chief of transportation planning for the Arlington Department of Transportation. "Compared to all the complaining and moaning and congestion, this just hasn't risen to the top of their priority list."

The bridge was built in the 1940s, at the same time as the Pentagon, when Northern Virginia was a very different place. There was no Rosslyn, no Crystal City high-rises, and there were far fewer cars than the 60,000 to 70,000 that pound over the bridge every day on Washington Boulevard and the 35,000 that zoom underneath it on Columbia Pike.

Drive under the bridge today, and it's easy to see why, out of a possible 100, it has scored a 2 for sufficiency by VDOT -- meaning that the agency still considers the bridge in good physical shape and that it can safely and efficiently handle its traffic load, despite its deterioration.

Large patches of concrete have broken away from the stone arch. And underneath, long drippy white stains show where the concrete is leeching. "It kind of looks like the Luray Caverns," Kellogg said.

State officials contend that even though the bridge may not look great, it is still structurally sound. However, the state has put weight restrictions on the bridge as a stopgap measure to deal with the deterioration.

"It's still operable, even though people are worried about concrete dropping from the underside of the bridge," Greenfield said. "Those old bridges, they're really solid."

With new design plans once again on the drawing board, Greenfield said, neighborhood activists understand that the plan might not be as grand as they had hoped -- the new plan will not include activists' vision for bicycle paths on Columbia Pike, a median and landscaping -- but they're still hoping for a graceful bridge structure, not an uninspiring highway overpass.

VDOT officials said in an e-mail that the walls supporting either side of the bridge would accommodate "some type of public art" that would be determined later by both VDOT and Arlington County.

Kellogg said that the loop ramps on and off the bridge have no acceleration and deceleration lanes, and have been the cause of numerous accidents. The original plan called for a complete redesign of the ramps, even to the point of condemning nearby houses to accommodate the larger structures.

The new, more modest design proposes to eliminate one loop ramp and replace it with a left-turn lane and traffic signal on Columbia Pike to allow eastbound traffic to make a left turn onto the ramp to head north on Washington Boulevard. It is unclear how far this solution will go toward solving the problem of traffic accidents.

Although the San Francisco-based civil engineering firm T.Y. Lin International has been given the go-ahead to begin drawing up plans, and neighborhood activists are anxious for a new gateway to boost their efforts for a "funky and eclectic" main street, the work of government is slow and ponderous.

Construction funds have yet to be allocated, and actual work is not expected to start until 2009.

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