Expect Some Bumps On the Road to Better Highways

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

The District this month will begin to rehabilitate the 14th Street bridges over the Potomac, launching a two-year project that will repair the decaying structures but slow travel for many of the 200,000 vehicles that cross the notorious chokepoint each day.

This summer, the city plans to launch an even bigger highway program: construction of a new set of 11th Street bridges across the Anacostia River, to be completed in 2013. With these two bridge projects, linked by three miles of the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, the city will become fully involved in a rapidly developing period of road construction across the Washington region.

In Virginia, drivers can see hillsides cleared and piers rising for what will become four new lanes on the west side of the Capital Beltway. On the east side, drivers continue to endure the traffic squeeze required for completion of the Beltway's Telegraph Road interchange, the last major phase of the project to rebuild the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. To the south, Interstate 95 is being widened to four lanes in each direction along the six miles between Route 123 and the Fairfax County Parkway.

Less visible to motorists but at least as dramatic is the rapid pace of construction along the Montgomery County corridor of Maryland's Intercounty Connector, the region's first major new highway in several decades.

Such projects involve construction pain endured for the sake of long-term gain in travel time and safety. But the balance of pain and gain between the D.C. bridge projects looks quite different.

Many travelers will experience both projects during a single commute. While thousands of Virginia drivers use the 14th Street bridges to reach the federal center of Washington, others who take those bridges also use the ones across the Anacostia as they travel between their homes and job centers, such as the Pentagon, in Northern Virginia.

The upside of the 11th Street project will be easy to see. The $300 million program will yield a completely new set of bridges. They will purge the original sin of failing to link drivers seamlessly with the Anacostia Freeway east of the river. (These bridges and freeways, fragments of a long-buried plan for a capital road network, were stitched together with the knitting skill of Dr. Frankenstein.)

As that project rises from the Anacostia River over the next several years, new spans will be built alongside old ones; then old spans will be torn down, similar to the process for the Wilson Bridge project. It allows drivers the same number of open lanes during construction as they have at peak periods now.

During two years of the $27 million fix on the 14th Street bridges, the key impact on drivers will occur in the first year, when the roadway on the northbound span is rebuilt. Travelers will continue to have four lanes available during peak periods, but there's a catch: The four lanes won't always be in the same place, the lanes will be narrower and the shoulders will be eliminated.

The surface of the southbound bridge will not be rebuilt. Work on that span will be done on the structure below. No work will be done on the HOV bridge, lying between the other two. But the resurfacing on the northbound span is likely to result in extensive and long-lasting slowdowns.

That prospect also has gotten the attention of the Virginia Department of Transportation, said Joan Morris, a department spokeswoman.

"We've got to be aggressively monitoring areas before Springfield as well as before the 14th Street bridges," she said.

When the pain has passed, bridge drivers will be left with the same ride they have now, only smoother. The rehabilitated bridges won't have any more lanes and won't take travelers anywhere they can't go now.

"What else can you do?" D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said in assessing the need for repairs to the deteriorating structure vs. the impact on drivers.

Gabe Klein, director of the District Department of Transportation, and city engineers recommended that drivers consider carpooling, using mass transit or adjusting work schedules.

Klein also recommends that drivers find an alternate route. Officials note that the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, six miles away, is relatively free of congestion, although there is a bottleneck on the outer loop before Telegraph Road.

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