For Commuters, A New Way to Travel Through The District

Jane A. Nsunwara, an engineer with D.C.'s Transportation Department, inspects crumbling concrete at the foot of the Douglass Memorial Bridge.
Jane A. Nsunwara, an engineer with D.C.'s Transportation Department, inspects crumbling concrete at the foot of the Douglass Memorial Bridge. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006

Drive over the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge from Anacostia toward the U.S. Capitol and try to spot the river's edge. Look hard for the Washington Navy Yard on the right or Buzzard Point on the left, where the Potomac and Anacostia rivers swirl together.

You won't see much. Truncated by ramps, the vista consists of smokestacks, the top two floors of a U-Haul self-storage building and a Budweiser billboard.

That's why city engineers and planners are excited by plans to replace the 56-year-old Douglass bridge with an approximately $300 million new span designed to emphasize the waterfront and create a grand southern gateway to the heart of the District and up to the U.S. Capitol.

"This is an opportunity to provide an iconic structure, to bring people's attention back to the waterfront," said Kathleen Penney, deputy chief engineer of the District's Department of Transportation.

It is the first time in a generation that the city is building an entirely new bridge, said Michelle Pourciau, acting transportation director. "This is a major statement," Pourciau said, as she walked underneath the rusting Douglass Bridge recently and took stock of the neighborhood. "We're taking what's here -- an industrial environment -- and completely changing it, reconnecting communities rather than dividing them, making it feel totally different. It's very exciting."

Engineers and the British architectural firm of Wilkinson Eyre have developed four possible designs for a replacement bridge, ranging from a simple arched span to a mechanically complex bridge with a deck that retracts, like a turtle sliding into its shell. Each version would be made of steel and concrete and designed to last a century. Cost estimates range from $285 million to $392 million, depending on the design.

"We want the public talking and giving us feedback and telling us what they see," Penney said. "This is a significant piece of public art."

Officials will present the designs and seek public comment at a meeting May 4 at 6 p.m. at Van Ness Elementary School, 1150 5th St. SE. The plans are part of an environmental impact study. Once the study is completed this summer, the final design for the bridge will be selected, Penney said.

The District decided eight years ago to replace the aging Douglass Bridge rather than continue to repair it. The deck had been replaced in 1974 and the mechanical systems were rehabilitated in 1998. But rust has chewed enough holes in the support girders that engineers have given them a "poor" rating. With every thump from the 70,000 vehicles that roll over it each day, the bridge crumbles a little more.

The bridge is a key commuter link between the District on one side, and Prince George's County and Southern Maryland on the other. It also carries traffic from Northern Virginia.

The city's plans to revitalize the Anacostia waterfront and build a baseball stadium in Southeast, near the Navy Yard off South Capitol Street, jump-started the bridge project, Pourciau said.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2011. Before it can start, the city has to prepare the connections for the bridge on both sides of the river, reconfiguring South Capitol Street on the north side and the interchange with Interstate 295 and Suitland Parkway on the south.

Building the bridge is expected to take two years. Traffic will not be affected during construction because vehicles will use the existing Douglass Bridge until the new bridge opens, Penney said. The new bridge will be slightly wider, with six lanes instead of five, and will include wider sidewalks to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.

Located downstream from the Douglass, it will have a lower profile and will touch ground closer to the river's edge. That will be much different from the existing bridge, which doesn't meet the ground until O Street and whose steel girders bisect much of the waterfront neighborhood on the north side of the Anacostia.

The new span will allow northbound vehicles to come off the bridge at Potomac Avenue and drive onto a redesigned South Capitol Street or turn onto local streets. After the bridge opens, the Douglass Bridge will be dismantled. The removal of its girders will weave the neighborhood back together, allowing pedestrians and cars to move easily from one side to the other, Pourciau said.

On the south side of the river, the city will reconfigure the interchange between the new bridge and I-295 as well as the connection with Suitland Parkway.

It is unclear whether the bridge will have a new name or keep the old one, Penney said.

Any new span must be either 148 feet above the water or movable, such as a drawbridge, because the Anacostia River is classified by the U.S. Coast Guard as a navigable waterway and has to accommodate large boats and ships. Despite that rating, the bridge was opened only seven times in 2005, and five of those times were tests, according to city officials. The other two openings were needed for Coast Guard boats.

If the bridge didn't have to accommodate large ships, it could be built at a lower cost, Penney said.

But Waverly Gregory, the Coast Guard bridge administrator for the district that includes Washington, said the Anacostia will never shed its rating as a navigable waterway because of its proximity to the Navy Yard. "By virtue of that, we will not ever require the bridge to be placed any lower than where a Navy ship can get through," he said.

The cost of bridge construction is typically shared between the District and the federal government. But D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is lobbying for the federal government to pay the entire cost of the new Douglass bridge because of the Navy requirements. The project is part of a major facelift of the corridor between I-295 and the Capitol. Of the four axes that lead to the U.S. Capitol -- South Capitol Street, the Mall on the west and East Capitol and North Capitol streets -- South Capitol is "really the one with the least integrity," Penney said.

Plans call for South Capitol Street, which is now akin to an expressway, to be converted into a landscaped boulevard with wide sidewalks and easy connections to side streets.

Before work begins on the new bridge, the city will improve the Douglass Bridge this summer as a stopgap measure to ensure its safety, Pourciau said. The work includes new lighting, better sidewalks and a paint job.

Workers will also replace two blocks of the elevated viaduct from O Street to Potomac Avenue with an at-grade road to improve pedestrian access along South Capitol Street. In addition, the city must construct an interchange at Suitland Parkway and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company