Bringing Md. And Va. Closer

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

The disjointed Washington region is about to be linked a little more tightly.

A new route over the Potomac River, with sweeping views of the District, Virginia and Maryland, is set to open this week, allowing bicyclists and walkers to cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge for the first time.

The path, along the bridge's north span, is set to open Saturday. Previously, it has taken a car or a ferry -- or a helicopter, if that's how you roll -- to travel directly from Alexandria to Prince George's County.

But after years of agitation by advocates and a bout of cross-Potomac cooperation, there will be a way to safely pedal or stroll over the water. The 1.1-mile-long, 12-foot-wide section stretching from the George Washington Memorial Parkway to the Maryland shore is one of the final touches on the $2.5 billion project to replace the Wilson Bridge.

"The big picture with this is huge. This is the southernmost Potomac River crossing now," said Yon Lambert, who manages bike and pedestrian programs for Alexandria.

"It's been on the radar for cyclists for decades, but the general public doesn't always see these connections the way that cyclists do," Lambert said. Motorists might not blink at driving the long way around dead ends in the transportation network, but "when you're trying to get there on two wheels, and you can't, it's a much more visceral reaction," he said.

Two other trail sections are opening Saturday, one from the Wilson Bridge to National Harbor, and another from the George Washington Memorial Parkway to Route 1 on the Virginia side. The bridge path connects with the Mount Vernon trail at the Capital Beltway and the parkway, an area planners call the Washington Street deck.

Tying together Prince George's and Northern Virginia will be a plus for bike commuters, and potentially for tourists and businesses, as well, advocates say. Having an easy link between National Harbor, the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center and a planned Disney-owned development on the Maryland side, and the nightlife and cultural lures of Old Town Alexandria, could benefit both, some boosters said.

Businesses are hoping to turn the span into one of the area's attractions. Stephen Marks, co-owner of Bike and Roll Alexandria, is offering free two-hour rentals Saturday for inaugural bridge trips. He already sends riders on trips to Mount Vernon and on cellphone tours of Old Town's historic sites, and he said he thinks the new path will be popular.

"It's a huge bridge and a beautiful view over the water," Marks said. Although "it's not exactly like riding over the Brooklyn Bridge," the Brooklyn Bridge has more than a century of history, he said. "We're in the beginning of an iconic event," Marks said.

But Bennett Moore, manager of Big Wheel Bikes a block away in Old Town, isn't so sure.

"I don't really see it as a big draw. Mount Vernon is the draw, and riding into D.C.," Moore said.

The link from the Wilson Bridge to bustling Route 1 in Fairfax County is a big time saver, though, Moore said. Moore and his wife, Elsa Riveros, and their son Diego, 7, and two dogs -- a Jack Russell terrier, Pica, and a Colombian street dog, Mani -- commute in that direction by bike after leaving the shop, and the new path will ease rides, he said.

Crossing the river is the breakthrough for others. A biker could have made the trek from Alexandria to Prince George's before. But it would be a haul, said Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

"It's certainly circuitous," Gilliland said. From Alexandria or Arlington, "you'd have to go over probably the 14th Street bridge, ride on roads down through southwest and across the South Capitol Street bridge into Anacostia, and from there, there are really few trail options," he said.

The Wilson Bridge path "really is opening up and connecting two different trail systems," Gilliland said. Future improvements will build off that. The District, for instance, has plans to build a trail along South Capitol Street that would head south to the District line, he said. The group is organizing rides Saturday. The path opens to the public at 1 p.m., following an official dedication.

At one point, the bridge path rises up and crosses over 10 lanes of traffic on the Maryland side.

"The path goes along the north side of the bridge, then you have to go up a ramp to cross over the Beltway. That's where you really get a lot of the views from up there," said Johanna Spangenberg Jones, a spokeswoman for the Wilson Bridge project, a joint effort by federal officials, the two states and the District.

"A lot of the local community really wanted to have some way cross the bridge," she said.

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