A Final Countdown to the Gala

Construction crews get the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge ready for an elaborate opening ceremony next Thursday.
Construction crews get the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge ready for an elaborate opening ceremony next Thursday. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006

Workers were banging away on a drawbridge control tower and striping the lines of a new highway yesterday, eight days before a ceremony to mark the opening of the first of two spans of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the nearly 20-year-old project that is expected to ease some of the region's worst traffic jams.

The promise of the new bridge will be embodied by a hoopla-filled, 1,000-person, invitation-only gala next Thursday that will include the Navy's Blue Angels streaking across the sky, an inaugural bridge ride by Woodrow Wilson's 1923 Rolls Royce and the music of the U.S. Air Force Band.

The "Uniting the States" ceremony, which will be held in the middle of the new bridge and will include a ribbon-cutting and a slew of speeches, will be attended by several Washington area political leaders.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta will be there, as will Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and several members of Congress, including Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.), George Allen (R-Va.) and Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.).

The crescendo will come when the drawbridge lowers and Kaine and Mineta walk to its center from the Virginia side to shake hands with Ehrlich and Williams, coming from Maryland.

"Next week is a day for the whole region to join hands and take a deep bow," said project spokesman John Undeland, who discussed plans for the ceremony at a media day yesterday.

"It shows that when the region unites behind important projects, big things can be accomplished," Undeland said.

Despite the grand to-do, the bridge will not open to traffic until early June, when the outer loop of the Capital Beltway is rerouted onto it. The lag time gives contractors a chance to put the final touches on the 1.1-mile-long structure, Undeland said.

In July, inner loop traffic will be routed onto the new bridge and the process of tearing down its decaying predecessor will begin. Traffic will run both ways on the new six-lane span until summer 2008, when it will become the outer loop and a second span will open as the inner loop.

The $2.44 billion bridge project will replace an aging, pothole-plagued structure that is crumbling under the strain of nearly 200,000 vehicles a day, considerably more than the 75,000 it was built to handle.

Each span of the new bridge is six lanes wide, framed by shoulders on both sides.

The lanes on each bridge will be divided into two sets of three, one set for local drivers and the other for express traffic. One of the local lanes will serve as an extended access ramp for exits on both ends.

A pedestrian walkway will be included.

Two lanes, one in each express section, will not open when the bridges are finished. They have been reserved for transit, and the states have yet to decide what form to choose. Both states are studying express toll lanes, which would allow for bus service. Other considerations include a Metro extension or a light-rail link.

Several interchanges in Virginia and Maryland will be upgraded to increase capacity on the Beltway and to accommodate the additional lanes on the bridge.

When both spans are completed, transportation experts expect the bridge to bring significant relief to Washington area traffic -- at least for a while.

The biggest difference will be for bridge users, who now suffer through regular miles-long jams that are expected to disappear. The span is also expected to ease traffic on other area routes, such as on the 14th Street Bridge, where drivers have turned to avoid the Wilson bridge tie-ups.

The new bridge "will go a long way to alleviate backups in the metro area," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. But he predicted that it will probably fill with traffic within a decade. "It'll be the worst-kept secret in the metro area," Townsend said. "People will take it, and we'll be back to square one."

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