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Even without financing in place, engineers have begun the design process leading up to construction, which could begin as early as 2000.
Seven design firms have responded to requests for proposals. Each was given $100,000 in federal highway grant money to begin developing plans. They will compete later this year for the job of designing the finished product, including: two spans, a drawbridge, a height of 70 feet. Officials also have specified the the bridge design incorporate some kind of arches to echo other federal city motifs.
"After the design contest is over, by the end of this year, then we'll be able to give a more definitive idea of how the construction will proceed," said Maryland's chief bridge engineer, Earl "Jock" Freedman, who predicts that construction will be extremely complicated, given that there is little vacant land to store materials or stage construction on the Virginia shoreline.
Once a design is in hand, the Federal Highway Administration can seek bids from builders.
The first step probably will be construction of watertight boxes in the river, which will then be pumped free of water to provide a dry environment for building the bridge pilings.
Called cofferdams, the boxes will be built during the winter to protect Potomac River grasses from silt damage, engineers say. Ideally, construction on the dams will begin in the fall of 2000.
The Alexandria waterfront is likely to be home to a fleet of construction barges for years as the bridge goes up, and a rail spur in northern Old Town that leads to the Robinson Terminal dock could also provide access for materials.
Hundreds of bridge workers will be descending on the job site. According to a Federal Highway Administration formula, 7,900 jobs for welders, steel and concrete specialists, and other workers are created directly by every $1 billion spent on a project, though not all of them are at the site. In addition, an estimated 19,700 other jobs making supplies and materials are created for every $1 billion spent.
The Financial Hurdle
When construction funding for the first Wilson Bridge was decided in 1954, lawmakers earmarked $15 million, but it would take at least 100 times that much to build the 12-lane replacement. The bridge would be transferred from federal ownership to a regional authority made up of representatives from Maryland, Virginia, and the District.
Assuming Congress does not finance the full construction cost, some of the remaining money would come directly from the states. The rest could come from other financing plans that have been developed by state and federal officials over the past year.
One plan under serious discussion would allow a bridge authority to sell construction bonds that would be backed and paid off by the federal government.
"We need this innovative financing added to this act," said Virginia Transportation Secretary Shirley Ybarra. "It is the best option we've come up with."
The method is unusual enough to raise some eyebrows on Capitol Hill, though it has been used to finance other federal projects such as air traffic control equipment and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's international space station project.
Once Congress decides on its share, the states will have to decide whether the money is enough to begin moving forward with construction.
Federal highway officials agree that there are places to scale back the design, shoulders to trim, extra asphalt that could be pared down, and interchanges, which range in cost from $115 million to $320 million apiece, that could shrink.
But so far, the states have also taken the position that they will settle for nothing less than full federal funding of the bridge span, and no less than the normal 80 percent federal funding of the interchanges.
Backers of a new bridge say the only alternative is forcing trucks onto other highways that run through other local communities. Bruce Orkin, 43, of Bethesda, a surgeon who moved to the area nine years ago, understands what that would mean to him and his Montgomery County neighbors.
"If traffic is diverted, it would turn what is a mild nightmare now to a horrific nightmare," he said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company