Wilson Bridge Milestone Billed as One to Bypass

Backups are expected as the new span of the Wilson Bridge opens this weekend. Crews will align the span with the Beltway's outer loop, left.
Backups are expected as the new span of the Wilson Bridge opens this weekend. Crews will align the span with the Beltway's outer loop, left. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

Some driver will make history this weekend as the first to cross the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge now that one of its two spans is completed, but project managers planning for the opening warn that the honor may not be worth waiting through hours-long traffic jams.

Lane closures and detours needed to switch traffic from the old bridge to the new span could cause backups that could stretch for miles and last one to four hours, depending on how many drivers stay away, project officials said. The restrictions will last from 8 p.m. tomorrow until 5 a.m. Monday so workers can realign the Capital Beltway to feed into the new bridge.

If all goes according to plan, the first vehicle to cross the bridge will pass sometime Saturday afternoon or early evening.

While the work progresses, the outer loop of the Beltway in Virginia will be reduced to a single lane for up to four miles, ensuring backups for at least that stretch. Interstate 95 traffic will be detoured at Springfield, where drivers will be directed to the western half of the Beltway or north on Interstate 395 to minimize the number of cars crossing the bridge.

Additionally, the ramp from Route 1 to the outer loop will close at 8 p.m. tomorrow for the remainder of the weekend. The ramps from the outer loop to Interstate 295 and Route 210 in Maryland will close at 8 p.m. tomorrow and reopen midday Saturday.

Project officials said that if 60 percent of normal weekend traffic avoids the area, delays will last about an hour. But if only 50 percent take another route, delays could last as long as four hours and backups on the Beltway could stretch 14 miles. Officials also expect backups on I-95 south of Springfield because of the detours.

A second weekend of traffic-stopping closures is scheduled for July 14 to 16, when inner loop traffic moves over to the new bridge.

The closures will provide a 57-hour window for highway workers to realign the Beltway with the bridge. Lanes on the Virginia side are banked and will need to be milled down about 30 inches and then repaved. Conversely, on the Maryland side, the lanes to the bridge will need to be built up about 15 inches, project spokesman John Undeland said.

Similar closures that took place last summer when workers realigned a portion of the Beltway produced mixed results for travelers. Most drivers stayed away the first weekend of closures, heeding dire warnings from bridge officials and preventing major jams, but fewer changed their plans the second go-around, causing sizable delays.

"We need to put the fear of God in people to really avoid the area because it'll be very slow going through," Undeland said, adding that alerts to avoid the bridge have gone out across the East Coast. "We want people to fight the curiosity factor. Come back Monday morning. Don't try to be the first."

The weekend delays are in addition to work on the Maryland shore, where both sides of the Beltway will be closed Saturday night so workers can lift giant steel beams over the highway to build a new interchange at Route 210 that is also part of the bridge project. Drivers will be directed to detours.

Similar work scheduled for Sunday night was canceled this week after a late finish last weekend caused a seven-mile backup during the Monday morning rush. Major work at the nearby Springfield interchange has been called off for the weekend to avoid further jams on the Beltway and I-95.

The span that opens to traffic this weekend is the first of two new six-lane structures that will replace an aging bridge that is crumbling under the strain of carrying nearly 200,000 vehicles a day, considerably more than the 75,000 it was built to handle. Construction of the second span is underway, and it is scheduled to open to traffic in the summer of 2008.

The $2.44 billion bridge project also includes upgrading several interchanges in Virginia and Maryland to increase capacity on the Beltway and to accommodate the additional lanes on the bridge.

Most of those projects will be finished by the time the second of the new spans opens, although improvements to the Route 1 interchange will not be completed until the middle of 2009, and the Telegraph Road interchange will not be finished until late 2011.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company