Commute's New Dawn
Sunday, May 14, 2006
About 11 a.m. Thursday, a new drawbridge half as heavy as the Eiffel Tower will be lowered over the Potomac River and the governors of Virginia and Maryland will walk from opposite shores to shake hands, signaling a new era for hundreds of thousands of commuters.
The transformation will be brought on by the opening next month of the first of two spans of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a muscular hunk of 25,000 tons of concrete and more than 30,000 tons of steel nearly two difficult decades in the making that promises to ease drives across the area -- at least for a while.
In a politically complex region that rarely agrees on how to solve its severe traffic problems, the bridge construction stands out as a success story. When the entire project is completed, Virginia and Maryland leaders will have joined hands to refashion 12 percent of the Capital Beltway and unclog the area's worst bottleneck.
Travelers will enjoy some easier trips when the first span opens to the public June 9, but the real benefits will come in two years, after a second six-lane span is completed. Together, they are likely to erase the miles-long jams synonymous with the Wilson Bridge -- hard as that may be for drivers to envision -- while alleviating congestion on several other river crossings.
The bridge, which also serves as a critical link on Interstate 95, promises so much more capacity that it could open a sizable stretch of the East Coast to more development, planners and economists say. That was possible when construction started but became even more so after the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission called for shifting more businesses, government centers and homes onto the I-95 corridor between Baltimore and Richmond.
The newest landmark on the Washington horizon is everything the old bridge is not. Today's Wilson is a flat, rickety, pothole-filled structure crammed between metal barriers that shakes under the weight of the 200,000 cars and trucks that cross it each day. Flecks of rusted metal occasionally drop into the river below.
Tomorrow's Wilson rises out of the Potomac on the support of 17 V-shaped piers that recall the look of the Arlington Memorial Bridge and other structural icons. It was built tall and wide and towers 20 feet over the old bridge on a gentle arc.
The span will be introduced at an invitation-only, 1,000-person ceremony that will include Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), several members of Congress and scores of local officials.
The Navy's Blue Angels will soar overhead to kick off the event, which will include music from the U.S. Air Force Band and -- in an homage to the man the bridge was named after -- an inaugural ride by Kaine, Ehrlich, Williams and Mineta in Woodrow Wilson's 1923 Rolls-Royce.
The opening of the span culminates years of community debate, consultant studies, engineer plans, congressional wrangling and construction that often appeared to be in jeopardy before turning into one of the nation's mega-project successes.
"It's a rare project, especially of that size, that goes that well both in terms of timing and budget," said John D. Porcari, who was Maryland's transportation secretary during much of the bridge's planning and now is vice president for administrative affairs at the University of Maryland. "There are dozens and dozens of people that take quiet pride in seeing that bridge take shape."
It wasn't easy for a project that seemed plagued from the get-go. The first planning study was criticized for not involving the public, and it was scrapped. Opponents challenged a second study as flawed. A judge sided with the opponents, throwing the entire effort into disarray before an appeals court reversed the decision. About that time in the late 1990s, Alexandria threatened to take legal action, arguing that the 12-lane design was too wide. That led to a decision that two lanes would be reserved for transit.