Wilson Bridge Span Open Early; Now to Do It All Over Again

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2006

All three northbound lanes across the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge opened early yesterday morning, and liberated cars sailed smoothly across them, marking a weekend free of the apocalyptic traffic scenarios that some had feared for the bridge's debut.

After a slight hitch in the form of mismatched lane striping, one lane opened Saturday night, followed by the other two at 7:45 a.m. yesterday -- on the early side of the time frame workers had to complete their work and a full 21 hours ahead of this morning's dreaded rush.

At their worst, backups were a mile long, a trifle by Northern Virginia standards.

"There are no tie-ups, and traffic is moving across the bridge easily and efficiently," said John Undeland, a spokesman for the project. "The contractor deserves a tip of the hat."

For those steeped in the 20-year history of the 7 1/2 -mile, $2.44 billion project to replace the decrepit old bridge -- connecting Prince George's County and Alexandria across the Potomac River -- it was a banner weekend.

A good system of detours and alternate routes, Undeland said, helped ease congestion along the northbound Interstate 95-Capital Beltway approach to the bridge, which was shut down while workers finished paving the new span. He also speculated that area drivers probably deserved some credit for heeding the call to avoid the area.

Corman Construction Inc., the contractor, kept crews moving at a good clip, and the weather -- breezy, dry and sunny -- offered glorious conditions for paving.

And so, after some last-minute restriping of lanes, the colossal public works project began to fulfill its promise.

Nearly six years after work began, the first northbound lane of the new bridge opened at 9:41 p.m. Saturday, releasing a Toyota Corolla, then a string of other cars, for a pothole-free crossing into Maryland. Workers in orange vests waved them along.

There was no champagne, but on the eastern side of the bridge, the first six crossers received commemorative coins engraved with words only a driver in these parts could truly appreciate: Outer Loop Opening.

Now it is nearly time to do the whole exercise all over again, this time in reverse.

The weekend of July 14, drivers and construction crews will repeat the dance of lane closures and detours on the southbound side of I-95 leading to the bridge.

But this time, Undeland warned, there will be fewer alternate routes to ease traffic as the Beltway fills up on weekends with vacation drivers headed to and from the Eastern Shore.

Undeland said he is worried that the smooth weekend will make drivers cavalier for the next go-round.

"Our fear is that since the first time wasn't a traffic meltdown, people are going to ignore it," he said. "This time we're really going to need people to stay vigilant."

Even if 60 percent of normal weekend traffic avoids the bridge approach in July, officials said they expect hour-long backups. If 50 percent stays away, traffic could back up for four hours, or about 14 miles.

"We will be relying on everyone hearing the message," Undeland said. "And heeding it."

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