Panel Picks Drawbridge to Replace Wilson
By Alice Reid and Stephen C. Fehr
The crumbling Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the worst bottleneck on the Capital Beltway, should be replaced by a 12-lane, $1.5 billion drawbridge that for the first time would require motorists to pay tolls on an interstate highway in this area, a regional panel recommended yesterday.
By a 7 to 6 vote, the panel of state, local and federal officials recommended that Congress tear down the 35-year-old, six-lane drawbridge that links Alexandria and Prince George's County and replace it with twin six-lane draw spans 70 feet above the Potomac River.
Officials said the toll for crossing the new bridge would be about $1.30 one way but could be lower if the federal government -- which owns the Wilson -- contributes more to the project than the $400 million to $450 million being discussed on Capitol Hill.
The new bridge, which engineers say could be completed as soon as 2004, would be 20 feet taller than its predecessor, meaning more tall ships would be able to pass underneath without the bridge being raised. Bridge designers estimate that the new plan would eliminate about two-thirds of the more than 200 traffic-stopping bridge openings at the Wilson each year.
Replacing the Wilson, the nation's only federally owned drawbridge, has become one of the region's top transportation priorities. With about 172,000 vehicles using the structure every day -- about 100,000 more than it was built to handle -- the bridge has been deteriorating badly. Some engineers say it has only about 10 more years of use left.
But as was reflected in the divided panel's vote, recommending a replacement to Congress has been a long, often difficult process that has pitted local jurisdictions against one another. The panel spent four years and more than $13 million on consultants and design studies and considered dozens of options.
Ultimately, the panel recommended a compromise design that gave Maryland and Virginia officials who had argued over a Wilson replacement a bit of what each side wanted.
Maryland officials led the opposition to the design that was endorsed, chiefly because they wanted a 135-foot-tall, fixed bridge that would never have to be opened for ships. But the panel's plan did reflect Maryland's push for a 12-lane bridge that would be taller than the existing bridge.
Many Virginia officials, meanwhile, had said that a tall bridge like that sought by the Marylanders would impose on historic Old Town Alexandria. They initially pushed for a tunnel crossing under the Potomac, but the panel discarded that proposal, calling the $3 billion cost too high. Alexandria officials later pushed for a 10-lane drawbridge, and their call for a draw span was reflected in the chosen design.
Besides pushing the plan through Congress, several panel members said their next challenge is to persuade federal lawmakers to give more money to the project. That would lower the amount that a regional authority would have to borrow to pay for the bridge, and would lower the cost that would be passed on to motorists as tolls.
Minutes after yesterday's vote, local lawmakers were lobbying for more federal funding, worried that motorists used to crossing the Potomac for free may not react kindly to being forced to pay tolls.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said yesterday that the federal government should consider picking up the entire replacement cost because the government owns the bridge. That would eliminate the need for tolls, which Wolf said would lead to traffic backups at the toll plaza, slowing travel on the federal highway.
"You can't do [a $1.30 toll] on that bridge because you're in essence putting a toll on the Beltway," Wolf said. "The federal government has the responsibility to replace the bridge. Then you could argue the locals would take over after that."
Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) also expressed concern about tolls. "I think it's too much," he said. "I don't think people will be willing to pay almost $3 a day [round trip] to cross the Wilson Bridge, nor wait in line at a tollbooth."
The American Automobile Association, among others, has argued that the federal share of the replacement cost should be at least 90 percent, as it was when the Fort McHenry Tunnel was built in Baltimore. Wolf agreed, although he said the federal ownership of the Wilson Bridge makes a case for 100 percent federal funding.
Of the 12 lanes on the new crossing, one on each of the twin spans would be reserved for future car pools and mass transit, beginning whenever such transportation programs are introduced on the Capital Beltway. The remaining 10 lanes would be separated into local and express traffic, and one of the local lanes on each of the six-lane spans would be designated for traffic exiting from and merging onto the bridge.
The compromise got high marks from business people and motorist groups yesterday.
"This decision is a good one. It moves the most people at the greatest speed," said Bob Chase, head of the Tysons Corner-based Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which had favored a 12-lane drawbridge. "Twin drawbridges make the most sense in the long term."
The Greater Washington Board of Trade has not taken a position on a design for the new bridge, but yesterday a spokesman said the group was relieved that after four years of discussion, a design had been chosen.
"We just wanted something built," board spokesman Robert Grow said. "We see it as a victory for the citizens and the business community."
But the panel's decision did not please everyone. Maryland representatives on the panel said they regretted that a higher bridge wasn't chosen.
"It would be the best opportunity to achieve our purpose and needs," said Prince George's County Council Chairman Steven J. DelGiudice (D-2nd District). "It leaves us options for car pools and transit and . . . I think we could make it work."
Maryland highway administrator Parker Williams, who like DelGiudice voted against the plan that was endorsed, said he is concerned that a drawbridge will continue to cause unsafe backups on the interstate highway.
"We're disappointed," Williams said. "I think history will show we should have built the high bridge. I'm very afraid that we'll [continue to] have accidents."
Neither was there much joy among officials from Alexandria, where Old Town is at the western end of the Wilson Bridge.
Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D) said he would not rule out legal action by the city to try to stop or at least scale back the pair of proposed spans, which plans show would total 244 feet wide.
A major concern of the city's has been the size of planned interchanges for the bridge at Route 1 and Telegraph Road. Much of their scale and estimated cost is based on the number of lanes on the bridge and the need to separate car-pool, local and express traffic on a 12-lane crossing.
"We came in with two goals, one to say no to the high bridge and then push for [a narrower] bridge," Donley said. "So it's a win and a loss for us. We will work to shrink those interchanges and other impacts -- the noise, the congestion and the air pollution. Maybe because everybody is unhappy about something, it shows we made the right decision."
Moran, who had pushed for a 10-lane bridge, called the panel's recommendation "progress, but not sufficient progress" because it included car-pool lanes. Such lanes boost the bridge's cost because of the additional ramps needed at the Beltway interchanges to funnel car-pool traffic into the HOV lanes.
"I agree with HOV, but not on the Beltway," Moran said. "It's now incumbent on us to show why HOV lanes on the Beltway are neither feasible nor affordable, and at that point we'll reach consensus."
Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who supported the 12-lane, high bridge proposal, said he was satisfied with the compromise.
"Now the work begins. The federal government has an obligation to ensure that sufficient funding is provided for this project," he said. "Although we've had our differences during this process, I believe it is time that we work together to make this project a reality."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company