A Cry of 'This Is Awesome!' As Cars Cruise New Span

Workers had to erase existing lines on an approach to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge when it was discovered that they didn't match new lanes, which held up the opening of the new crossing.
Workers had to erase existing lines on an approach to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge when it was discovered that they didn't match new lanes, which held up the opening of the new crossing. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Karin Brulliard and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Traveling on one lane of one span, a string of vehicles crossed the Potomac River last night to inaugurate a public works project that has been a dream of planners and engineers for two decades: They opened the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Workers had just finished a short stretch of pavement to deliver motorists from northbound Interstate 95 onto the first of two new spans that will form the 7.5-mile-long replacement for the decaying structure.

The first cars and trucks started across at 9:45 p.m. People in the cars began waving at bridge workers and the workers waved back. Kristine Egleston,18, who was one of the first drivers across on her way home to Ellicott City, got on her cellphone and yelled to a friend, "This is awesome!"

Project managers had hoped to open yesterday afternoon, but there was a little glitch: The striping was wrong. Workers discovered that the old painted lines dividing lanes on the Capital Beltway approach to the bridge would not match up with the lines they were preparing to paint on the fresh pavement. The old lines had to be ground down, delaying the opening a few hours.

Meanwhile, the detours and lane closures that allowed workers to complete the connection and route motorists from the old bridge onto one lane of the new one did not result in the feared traffic tie-ups. Cars were backed up during much of the day for about a mile to Telegraph Road in Alexandria, but they kept moving.

"Folks heard the message and heeded it," said John Undeland, a spokesman for the bridge project. "They've done themselves a favor by not letting the traffic get backed up, and they've done us a favor by letting us get the work done."

But officials cautioned that traffic could back up through early tomorrow, when the 57-hour limit for the weekend switch runs out. Closed lanes of I-95 and the Capital Beltway and Maryland ramps at the Route 210 interchange are scheduled to reopen today. Yesterday, project managers said traffic on the three lanes of the northbound outer loop could be crossing the new bridge as early as today. All closed ramps at the Route 1 interchange in Virginia will open by tomorrow, they said.

Inner loop traffic will move onto the new span next month. That switch-over, which also has the potential to cause a weekend of traffic jams, will signal the end of the existing bridge. Shortly after the last car crosses its tired legs, the 45-year-old structure will be torn apart so that the second new span can be built.

Despite the absence of confetti and trumpets, there was little doubt among those at the site yesterday that setting cars loose onto the bridge was a memorable moment. Over the decades, regional leaders debated, planned and studied the project. At times, it seemed doomed. The building process began on a crisp day in October 2000 with dredging in the Potomac. Since then, the area has been a colossal construction site.

So yesterday, people who had tracked the bridge's evolution, as well as a few passersby who sensed a milestone in the making, gathered on a breezy Washington Street overpass on the Virginia side, standing above the span and waiting for the first cars. Some snapped photos. One woman lamented that she had not brought a chair to make the wait more comfortable. Joggers and bikers took breaks to peer down onto the work in progress.

Wearing yellow-and-orange vests, workers who had scraped down old pavement on the approach to the bridge were laying it anew. Their job was to make the surface black, smooth and just the right height. A dump truck poured piles of crumbly, 300-plus-degree asphalt into a paving machine. The paver spread it, a big roller flattened it and a smaller roller smoothed it.

But before cars could be welcomed, the surface would have to cool to "traffic temperature" -- about 150 degrees, said paver operator Alfred Thompson, 39, who watched as workers raked steaming asphalt shortly before noon, when much paving was left to be done. Then stripes would have to be painted.

It was a good day for all that, Thompson said: windy and temperate, perfect for cooling asphalt. "We want to see the first traffic go across the bridge," said Thompson, an employee of Virginia Paving Co. who has spent two years on the project. "If I had champagne, I'd throw it against the wall!"

Nearby, Robert McCarty watched the countdown to cars with surprising nonchalance for a man who's been involved in the $2.44 billion bridge project for 12 years -- during all the times, he said, when it was "a different fire you've got to put out every week." Just another day at work, said McCarty, a senior field operations engineer for the Federal Highway Administration, though he allowed that the day was "exciting."

For Alexandria resident Marshall DeBerry, who gazed from the overpass, it had a "bookendy kind of aspect." Thirty years ago, he recalled, in the summer of 1976, he cruised across the old bridge for the first time in his blue 1967 Ford Mustang with the vinyl top and luggage rack. New to the region, he had just begun a job at the U.S. Census Bureau, and getting to work meant crossing the river. "This bridge has been part of me for quite some time," said DeBerry, 52 and now a Justice Department statistician.

The opening will not dissolve the traffic congestion that plagues the area. As Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said this month, it is likely to provide "incremental relief."

Thompson, a paver operator for 20 years, knows something about increments. As he watched his colleagues lay inches on one segment of a project as old as his career, he talked about how novice pavers always want to get right on the steamrollers. Just like a bridge built from the bottom of the Potomac up, they need to rise slowly, he said, so that they're ready.

"That's what I believe in," Thompson said. "Starting on the ground."

Staff writer Steven Ginsberg contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company