Bridge Is a Beauty, but as for Those Backups . . .

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

For commuters on Interstate 95, crossing the Potomac River has become a tale of two bridges.

Motorists going from Virginia to Maryland are treated to an immaculate roadway, a spacious berth and sweeping views of the river and the Capitol from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge's new span. For drivers heading in the opposite direction on the old bridge, it's the usual rigmarole: pockmarked pavement, cramped lanes and a narrow shoulder strewn with shattered taillights and blown-out truck tires.

Some commuters, who can now compare the side-by-side spans, are complaining about the scary quality of the new bridge's rust-streaked relative.

"The old bridge has a lot of bumps and holes that aren't filled right," said Ron Sarwar, 26, who lives in Springfield and works in Prince George's County for Geeks on Call, a mobile tech-support service. Sarwar said he is wary of hitting the brakes when driving on the old span's metal grating. "It's slippery, especially if it's raining," he said.

Grum Worku, 36, of Springfield is a big fan of the Wilson Bridge project. His two jobs -- driving a dump truck and a cab -- require him to cross the river at least once a day. He figures that once the project has been completed, it'll be "perfect."

"Both sides [of the bridge] will be free to play," he said. "We'll have more room to run."

The two spans still share a key feature, though: constricted approaches capable of producing mind-numbing backups at virtually any hour. On most weekdays, the bridge funnels about 200,000 vehicle trips through three lanes in each direction. The new span's inauguration hasn't changed that.

"The traffic is still terrible," said Ana Cisneros, 35. "Bad in the morning, bad in the afternoon." Cisneros, who lives in Fort Washington and works as a housecleaner in Fairfax County, said it takes her 35 to 40 minutes to cross the bridge in the morning and an hour or so in the afternoon.

Other drivers said congestion had increased since the new span opened June 10. "It's been getting worse in the past week," said hardened commuter Alice Briggs. "I keep trying to leave later from work, but it doesn't make a difference." Briggs, 40, schleps to Alexandria from Baltimore, a 2 1/2 -hour marathon on a bad day.

"I wonder if people are crossing it just to say, 'Ooh, new bridge!' " she said.

"There is a gawk factor," said John Undeland, spokesman for the project. "It's the first new bridge to be built in the Washington area in 35 years, so we do have people crossing it just to check out the experience."

Undeland said many commuters probably are a bit speed-shy. "There's a little hesitancy as people cross," he said. "They're not quite sure where to be at first, so they slow down."

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