By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008
A celebration of the completion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge's second span, a milestone in the effort to ease one of the nation's worst traffic bottlenecks, wound up causing miles of backups yesterday as rubberneckers slowed down to check out the hoopla.
Traffic in Maryland was backed up for at least seven miles during the morning rush as event organizers constructed stages and tents on the newly completed span, which had its drawbridge dramatically raised.
Drivers stuck in the backup voiced their frustration on radio call-in shows and the Web.
"I just sat in a 20-mile backup because local politicians need to pat themselves on the back for building a bridge to relieve congestion?" a commuter wrote on washingtonpost.com.
By the time the 11 a.m. ceremony started, dozens of truckers who had been stuck in traffic sounded their rigs' horns as they passed by.
"I think they're telling us they like the bridge," U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said hopefully.
Event organizers said there simply was no way to schedule the ceremony at a time that would not affect traffic on the bridge, which carries Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway over the Potomac River and is routinely backed up for several miles.
"We apologize," said John Undeland, spokesman for the bridge project. "But outside of 2 a.m., it is difficult to get around rubbernecking."
A ceremony opening the first span in 2006 did not cause backups because it could not be seen from the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which was considerably lower than the new bridge.
Speakers, who included Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), praised the project as a symbol of what bipartisanship, compromise and perseverance can accomplish. "We all pulled together to make this happen," said Warner, who is retiring from the Senate and was given the honor of tightening the final bolt, located on a bridge railing.
"This is not a bridge to nowhere; it's a bridge to everywhere," said Warner, who worked to secure $1.5 billion in federal earmarks for the project. Warner was referring to a widely ridiculed earmark for a bridge in Alaska that would have served very few people.
Surrounded by cameras and onlookers, Warner took several tugs on the wrench and said, "Start your engines!"
Event organizers said the region's U.S. House delegation could not make the ceremony because of a scheduled vote, an explanation seconded by the office of Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). But U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) said he, Wolf and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) boycotted the event because they felt snubbed.
"Frank and Tom and I were a little bit peeved that we worked as hard as we did to get all that money and were put up in the peanut gallery, and the three people who had nothing to do with it tooted across the bridge," Moran said. He was referring to the two governors and to D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who was not at the event.
Moran said organizers should have foreseen that rubbernecking would effectively shut down the Beltway. "You don't close the East Coast's main highway to do a PR stunt," he said. "We found that objectionable."
Kaine used his comments to send a message to state legislators, who will meet in Richmond on June 23 in a special session on transportation funding. "I'm going to get a little bit of Washington magic and bring it back to Richmond," Kaine said. "Action doesn't happen without courage and compromise."
The dignitaries arrived in Woodrow Wilson's Pierce Arrow, a monster of a car that maneuvered around the ceremony in fits and starts. The driver came within several inches of the marching band and the honor guard before stopping and reversing several times to make a turn. It was clear from the driver's struggle that the Pierce Arrow was not equipped with power steering.
It was hard not to draw an analogy between the Pierce Arrow's path and the difficulty in funding and building the bridge.
"It was a series of near-death experiences," said Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, who served in the same capacity under a previous governor, Parris N. Glendening (D), and played a large role in getting the project done.
O'Malley said the bridge's completion reflected the ability of the nation and the region to come together when cooperation was really needed.
"To those who say we can't build large projects like this anymore -- on time and on budget -- they underestimate our resolve. We can still achieve great things," O'Malley said.
But it will be weeks before motorists will be able to use the bridge and months before additional lanes provide relief from the congestion. Eventually, the twin spans will carry 12 lanes of traffic.
At the end of the ceremony, the span's giant drawbridge, which was raised like a sword of honor, was slowly lowered, allowing the VIPS and construction workers to walk across the span and admire the views and the sunny day.
Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.