Wilson Bridge: The Rush Hour of Decision
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 26, 1998; Page A1
Commuters idled for thousands of hours in traffic jams. Engineers spent millions of dollars on dozens of studies. Politicians debated for a decade. Road crews patched and prayed, and all the while, the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge was crumbling. Now its future is in the hands of Congress.
Leaders on Capitol Hill are expected to decide by the end of May how much money the federal government, which owns the bridge, will put toward a replacement, estimated to cost $1.6 billion. The new bridge is supposed to relieve congestion at the region's worst traffic choke point, where the Capital Beltway crosses the Potomac River between Alexandria and Prince George's County.
When the Wilson Bridge opened in December 1961, it was the first direct link between Washington's Maryland and Virginia suburbs across the Potomac. No one expected it to become part of a major commuter route or a vital link in Interstate 95, the East Coast's busiest superhighway.
State and local leaders warn that if Congress stops short of financing a bridge big enough to handle future traffic (projected to grow from 190,000 to 275,000 vehicles a day by 2020) it will cheat both the region and the nation.
"This is a federal responsibility," said Maryland Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead. "It probably is the major bottleneck on the East Coast. There are national interests at stake here."
Dreaded by commuters, tourists and truckers alike, the bridge's rush-hour backups regularly extend for miles in both directions, as eight lanes of Beltway traffic squeeze into six lanes. The Wilson is a drawbridge, and traffic also backs up when it is opened so pleasure boats and commercial ships can pass.
Not only is the bridge congested from carrying too many cars and trucks, it also is literally disintegrating its pavement pockmarked, its steel structure weakening under the pounding. Engineers and safety experts agree that it is just six years from the end of its useful life, badly in need of replacement.
If there's not enough money for a new bridge, officials could limit the weight of trucks that can use the Wilson, or ban trucks altogether. But that could have dramatic effects on traffic elsewhere and on the local economy.
"The realistic choice is to say, 'That is not enough to do the job,' and then to make the necessary plans, difficult as they are, to ultimately post the bridge for weight limits," said John Milliken, a lawyer and former Virginia transportation secretary. "That's a horrible alternative. But if you don't have the funds to build for the volume that the bridge has got to carry, you have no choice."
About 20,000 trucks a day could be diverted from the Beltway into the District on already congested highways such as Interstates 395 and 295, onto Route 301 in Prince George's County, or over the American Legion Bridge through Montgomery County. And local delivery trucks could be forced to take the longer routes, too, potentially raising the price of everything from groceries to gasoline.
"I know we all sound like prophets of doom, but sometimes when you look out there, there really is doom," said Charles A. Dukes Jr., a Carey Winston/Barrueta commercial real estate executive who heads the transportation committee of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
As congressional leaders begin meeting about the bridge as part of their deliberations on a national transportation spending bill, leaders in the two houses are far apart.
The House has provided no money for the bridge in its new six-year, $217 billion federal transportation program. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the main champion of the bridge, managed to get the Senate to include $900 million in its $214 billion bill, $700 million short of what's needed. A committee of lawmakers from both houses of Congress will decide the fate of funding for a replacement bridge.
Chances are there will be some money for the bridge when the committee meets, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) predicted in an interview last week. But no one knows yet how much.
"I presume that with John Warner being in that room, and with the magnitude of that bridge, and you know how important it is to this region, that something will be in the final version," he said.
The 12-Lane Solution
In September 1996, a panel of local, state and regional leaders came up with a plan for a new bridge that was big enough to carry the amount of traffic expected in the next century. It was chosen over several other proposals for bridges and even an expensive tunnel.
The plan calls for side-by-side drawbridges, with six lanes in each direction and stretching to a width of 244 feet. That would make the new Wilson the widest long-span bridge in the world, 107 feet wider than the American Legion Bridge. Included in the price tag are improvements in four interchanges, two in Maryland and two in Virginia, used by a majority of today's bridge traffic.
Such a bridge would accommodate future rush-hour car-pool lanes in both directions (eventually linking to car-pool lanes on the Beltway), allow for separation of local traffic from through traffic and include a pedestrian and bike path along the southern edge.
A far-right lane on each span would be available for traffic entering or exiting at Route 1 or Interstate 295 and would considerably improve safety, traffic planners say. With no merge lanes and no shoulders, the accident rate on today's Wilson Bridge is twice the rate elsewhere on the Beltway, officials say.
The drawbridge would sit 70 feet over the river, 20 feet higher than the current bridge. The design calls for a drawbridge so that big seagoing craft, including military vessels, commercial ships and ceremonial sailing ships, could continue to reach the Alexandria and D.C. waterfronts.
Officials considered but rejected an even higher bridge that would have eliminated the need for a draw span. The steep grade required would have been difficult for trucks to climb and could have slowed traffic, analysts said. Alexandria also objected strongly to the higher bridge, which would have towered over the city's Old Town.
The height of the new draw bridge will mean 70 percent fewer bridge openings than the 220 now scheduled each year. A majority of the openings are to allow pleasure boats to pass.
About 30 percent of current openings are for commercial ships, all but a few for freighters heading to and from Robinson Terminal, an Alexandria waterfront newsprint storage and distribution firm owned by the Washington Post Co. A cruise ship also uses the Alexandria docks several times each summer.
The drawbridge option adds $67 million to the cost of the bridge span, plus about $1 million annually in operations and maintenance costs.
On the Virginia side, the massive width of the bridge will cover part of one of Alexandria's most popular parks and require the demolition of more than 300 apartment units and a dozen businesses. The proposal has prompted a lawsuit by Alexandria officials.
Fearing that the new bridge will increase traffic and noise during and after construction, officials of the historic port city of 117,000 residents are seeking to stop the plans for a replacement bridge until the full impact on the city is studied. Community leaders argue that planners have not given enough consideration to a narrower, 10-lane bridge, which they say would require smaller and simpler interchanges and would have less impact on Alexandria.
"When so much is being asked of one community for the sake of a regional improvement, the region must be willing to give fair consideration to the views of the affected community," said Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley.
Supporters of the 12-lane design say that it is needed to meet future traffic demands and that it allows for better flow by separating local from express lanes. They predict Alexandria's opposition will fail.
"The work that has been done as background for the design decision has been proper and right," said John Gerner, who heads the project for the Federal Highway Administration. "We feel all the issues have been properly considered."
Alexandria gets little sympathy from some of the 78,000 commuters who twice daily put up with miles of traffic backups as they try to negotiate today's narrow bridge.
"It's like they've got theirs, and they don't want anyone else to have theirs. It's close to buying a house under an existing airport and then objecting to it. People knew the bridge was there," said John Onchman, 52, of Waldorf, a government consultant who works in Springfield and crosses the bridge daily. "There are going to be winners and losers whatever they do."
The Growing Overload
Built for $14 million with a lightweight metal-grill drawbridge, the Wilson Bridge was praised in an engineering journal of the early 1960s for the "simplicity, unity and continuity" of its lines. It was also designed to handle 75,000 vehicles a day, 30,000 more than the volume when it was built.
Few dreamed that traffic volumes on the Beltway would reach today's levels when the Wilson Bridge was dedicated almost 37 years ago. Most everyone thought much of the region's traffic would be carried on a stretch of I-95 that was to be built right through the middle of the District. The suburbs were conveniently contained inside the Beltway, and most commuters headed into the city each morning.
But protests stopped I-95's route through Washington, sending its traffic onto the Beltway. The suburbs exploded far beyond their old limits, and commuters started traveling between suburbs via the ring road. It transformed the Beltway from a bypass around the city into the area's Main Street.
Today, with traffic loads at more than twice its capacity, the Wilson Bridge is suffering. Regular inspections show that the bridge is still safe, but it suffers from "excessive loading" and "fatigue" in engineers' parlance which means that too many cars and trucks cross the bridge and that it's wearing out. About 15,000 more cars are crossing the bridge each day than there were just two years ago.
About 15 percent of the vehicles are trucks, and therein lies the bridge's special problem. Every time a heavy truck crosses, the supporting structure holding up the bridge shakes, leading to cracks, bent rods, loose bolts and nuts. The vibrations can actually bend metal. It's much the same effect as bending a paper clip several times in opposite directions, say engineers. Eventually the paper clip snaps in two.
Federal funds pay for bridge repairs. Virginia currently is shoring up the bridge supports and resurfacing the roadway, but such never-ending maintenance operations are not cost-effective, analysts say. Costs continue to rise, and eventually the entire bridge would have to be rehabilitated, requiring several lanes to be closed for a year or two.
"The cost to maintain the structure ends up being so overwhelming that it's no longer advantageous to keep it," the highway administration's Gerner said.
Although a new bridge will relieve today's congestion, it will not necessarily speed future trips for commuters, engineers say. Beltway traffic is projected to increase 45 percent in the next 20 years, so the greater capacity of a new bridge will make rush hours then about like they are today.
On the other hand, if a new bridge isn't built, commuters can expect eight-mile backups routinely at the Wilson and rush-hour congestion that will last five hours, morning and evening, the analysts say.
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