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  Critics See 12-Lane Path to Destruction

Traffic jams are just one of the reasons Alexandria residents have long protested a new bridge project. (By James M. Thresher – The Washington Post)

Also in This Package
Wilson Bridge: The Rush Hour of Decision
Drivers Expect No Quick Action
The Ups and Downs of the Bridge Tender's Day
Economy Crosses Wilson on 18 Wheels

By Toni Locy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 1998; Page A21

The massive bridge proposed to tie Alexandria to Prince George's County would be a traffic nightmare, the protesters argued, wrecking historic Old Town, one of the region's centers of commerce and transportation for two centuries.

The protest was at an Alexandria City Council meeting, but the year was 1956, five years before the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge was dedicated. More than 40 years later, the cast of opponents has changed but the arguments haven't. Alexandria is now fighting a proposed new crossing to replace the original bridge.

The riverside city of 117,000 residents would suffer the destruction of about 330 apartments, a dozen businesses and about 50 acres of wetlands and parkland because the new bridge would be wider and higher than the old one. The planned widening of the Route 1 interchange to handle traffic to and from the bridge also would burden local roads, threaten the character of the historic district and remove part of a popular recreation center, residents say.

Alexandria recently filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington seeking to halt plans for the pair of six-lane drawbridges. City officials agree that the deteriorating bridge needs to be replaced, but are challenging what they say is the federal government's hasty pursuit of a 12-lane bridge when an eight- or 10-lane crossing would serve.

"Practically since the word 'go,' the only option has been this monster bridge," said Ron Ullrich, a leader in the effort to block the new crossing. "It's simply a bridge whose time has never come – the widest bridge in the world. We simply cannot let the Federal Highway Administration ruin the character of Alexandria's waterfront and lovely historic district."

David S. Gendell, the Federal Highway Administration official who headed the panel that picked the 12-lane proposal, said it seriously considered bridges with fewer lanes, but determined that the wider bridges were necessary to handle future traffic and improve safety.

"We looked at eight-, 10-, 12- and even 14-lane alternatives, and we maintained the 10- and 12-lane options right up to the final decision," he said. "So the characterization isn't valid. It is a balancing, but I guess I feel the whole process was very deliberative and open ... a model of planning."

The lawsuit has given hope to some civic and neighborhood groups, which have joined the city and are being represented at no cost by Covington & Burling, a Washington law firm that helped defeat a proposal to build another Potomac River bridge during the early 1970s.

One of the neighborhood groups, the Yates Garden Civic Association, was a key player in a 1956 attempt by Alexandria to prevent the Wilson Bridge from being built, for many of the same reasons as today.

"There's a sense that Alexandrians are hysterical or perhaps elitists who don't want anything to interfere with their silk-stocking neighborhoods," said Louise Massoud of the Yates Garden group. "But we have a lot to worry about. This will be very destructive."

To many residents, it's the little things they fear will be shattered, the traditions on which a price tag can't be placed: The annual fireworks show at Jones Point to celebrate Alexandria's birthday. Walking dogs at Jones Point and talking to other dog lovers. The picnics, annual reunions and youth soccer tournaments.

"Alexandria is a model of what we should be creating, not destroying – towns where you can live, work, shop and walk safely between these," said Robert D. Holland, an architect who lives in the Hunting Towers apartment complex, where most of the apartments would be lost.

Alexandria was represented by its mayor and a state delegate on the 12-member panel of federal and local officials that selected the 12-lane bridge scheme. Some Alexandrians say the project was forced on them because of its importance to commuters, most of whom travel from Southern Maryland, where housing is cheaper, to work in job-rich Northern Virginia.

"I told them for a year and a half that there will be a revolt in Alexandria if they try to put a 12-lane bridge there, and no one paid any attention," said Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria), who was on the committee.

Gendell said plenty of attention was paid to Alexandria. At an added cost of $67 million, the crossing will keep its drawbridge feature, in part to preserve access for commercial and ceremonial ships that dock at the Alexandria waterfront. Traffic should flow better because of bridge-related road improvements, which will help handle increases already expected in the area because of development.

Pedestrian and bicycle paths on the bridge will be tied into Alexandria's path network, a deck with park space will be built over the Beltway near Washington Street, and noise barriers will be constructed in the areas nearest the new bridge.

"My own personal feeling is the city will be much better off, with better traffic flows and a more aesthetic bridge that's much more usable," Gendell said.

Staff writer Stephen C. Fehr contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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