At Wilson Bridge, Celebration Adds To Congestion

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008; Page B01

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

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!"

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