From Its Hapless Beginning, Span's Reputation Only Fell

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006; A01

Were it a child, people would lower their heads, shake them from side to side and say with all due sympathy: The Woodrow Wilson Bridge was just born bad.

Nothing ever went right for poor little Wilson, which is leaving this world for good today after antagonizing nearly every single one of the billions and billions of drivers who crossed during its 45 traffic-choked years.

The bridge got off to an inauspicious start when Woodrow Wilson's widow, Edith, the intended guest of honor at the dedication ceremony Dec. 28, 1961, died that morning at age 89.

Things went downhill from there. The day, chosen because it was the 105th anniversary of the former president's birth, was so bitter cold and windy that all anyone wanted to do was to get the ceremony over with and get inside as quickly as humanly possible. In a sign of things to come, the last place anyone wanted to be was on the Wilson Bridge.

"It was so cold it was unbelievable," recalled Frank Mann, 86, who was mayor of Alexandria and, like all the other speakers, scrapped his written remarks. "The wind blowing across that bridge was really a gale. We made a lot of friends because we all literally ran off the stage."

The fast exodus came after the abbreviated remarks of Commerce Secretary Luther H. Hodges, who christened the milestone structure this way:

"This bridge is 6,000 feet long, has 2,500 feet of approach roads, cost $15 million, all paid for by the federal government, and everyone in the country has an interest in it. Let's cut the ribbon!"

And that's about the nicest thing anyone ever said about the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Really, what can you say about a bridge best remembered for the day in 1998 when it caused 20-mile backups and a seven-hour regionwide traffic jam because of a suicide jumper? (Luckily, the bridge wasn't even good for that. The man was pulled from the Potomac River with no noticeable injuries.)

The Golden Gate this was not.

The Wilson Bridge was one of the biggest bottlenecks on one of the most heavily used interstates in the nation, made even worse when its drawbridge opened. Its legacy will surely be its never-ending, never-yielding workday jams. Not so much the historic jams, like the jumper of '98 or the Veterans Day snowstorm of '87, but the day-in, day-out, no-way-around-it, please-Lord-let-me-get-to-the-other-side congestion.

Everyone together now: Backups from Barnabas to the bridge.

How many times do you think Lisa Baden has said that?

"Every day for six hours for the last 15 years," said the WTOP Radio morning traffic reporter. "I could just record it." (She swears she didn't.)

"St. Barnabas Road to the bridge is four miles, backed up consistently every Monday through Friday except during summer, when it's worse," Baden said, describing the rush-hour scene heading from Maryland to Virginia every morning. "And God forbid there be a problem in Virginia."

Her thoughts on the demise of her morning companion? "See ya. The love is over. Your 15 minutes of fame ended years ago, babe." Just to be clear, Baden sang a little tune: "I'm so glad we had this time together -- NOT!"

Jack Hay, born in Prince George's County four years before the bridge opened, has driven across it all his life and has been commuting across since 1982.

"It's steadily grown into a bigger nightmare every year," said Hay, who commutes between Charles County and Springfield. "When I first started driving across it in '82, the wait in the morning to get across was just a few minutes. Maybe it was backed up half a mile at 8 o'clock. Now I have to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning -- and when I get there, it's already backed up five miles."

The backups were so bad the night of the Veterans Day storm that Hay slept in his Alexandria office.

All those jams have left a scar. "Most people want to see Europe, the Grand Canyon or something," Hay said. "I just want to see the [new] bridge completed and traffic flow smoothly without having to wait."

"It's the torture of the wait," he added, his voice trailing off.

Hay will have to wait two more years for his dream to come true. The new span -- also called the Wilson Bridge -- will double in size only when its second half opens in the summer of 2008.

The old bridge was built to carry 75,000 vehicles a day, a number that seemed like plenty in 1961 when Interstate 95 was planned to go through the District instead of across the bridge. But as soon as the late 1960s, well before those plans changed, more than 75,000 vehicles were crossing each day.

Not that anyone saw this coming. The speech that Hodges didn't deliver included a few predictions that were, you might say, a bit off.

Hodges's written text said that even if as many as 50,000 vehicles a day crossed by 1980, "of one thing you can be sure. . . . Traffic will move swiftly and safely on its way across this bridge."

There's more.

Hodges wrote that "with this new beltway, it won't be very many minutes from one place to another, all around the metropolitan area" and that the bridge will "save a lot of us heart attacks from fits of temper over traffic congestion."

In retrospect, perhaps he was a touch optimistic.

There was, in fact, a measure of praise for the span about the time it opened. A trade magazine article titled "Good Looks Count in This Bridge" sought to laud the Wilson Bridge for being a modern marvel. But about the most it managed to gush was that "the design emphasizes unity, simplicity and continuity."

In other words, it's boring, all the way from one side to the other.

The bridge lasted a pitiful 45 years -- only a couple of millennia shy of some of the spans built by the ancient Romans. The Brooklyn Bridge has been going strong since 1883, the Francis Scott Key Bridge opened in 1923 and the Arlington Memorial Bridge has been around since 1932. The Rolling Stones have lasted longer.

The Wilson Bridge did manage to outlast one other major structure built in 1961: the Berlin Wall.

Like the wall, part of the bridge will come down piece by piece over the next few months. The rest will come down next year, after serving as a staging ground for construction of the new span.

Another thing that limited the splendor of the bridge was that it wasn't exactly a gateway to anything. It didn't lead to, say, the foot of the Lincoln Memorial or to Manhattan. It didn't lead anywhere, really; it was just a dutiful link that got vehicles from one side of the river to the other.

No one ever crossed it and said: "Wow!!! Would you look at that??!!"

They crossed it and pretty much thought: Oy vey.

Nothing seemed to be immune from Wilson's bad karma. Its primary builder, Phoenix Bridge Co., went out of business the year after it opened -- after more than a century of bridge-building. The Wilson Bridge turned out to be its final project of significance.

It was a bridge only a mother could love. Or maybe a father. Dan Appel was one of the principal designers, and he declared it a winner.

"The tower of the bridge actually won a prize in 1961 for bridge excellence and design excellence," Appel said the day before his creation succumbed. He's now in his early eighties and living in the Mount Vernon area.

"How do I feel about it? I think the original design was innovative for its time, and I think it was a lovely structure."

"It's a bridge I love," Appel continued. "Unfortunately, it got beat to death by traffic."

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