No Quick Action
By Alice Reid
They sit in the pre-dawn traffic as it inches along the Capital Beltway toward the Potomac River and squeezes onto the jammed Woodrow Wilson Bridge, never knowing if the trip to work will take 45 minutes or twice as long.
They cringe when the metal drawbridge clanks and vibrates under the weight of 18-wheelers and dump trucks, wondering how much longer the bridge will last.
And they're a jaded lot, the commuters who use the bridge daily. Most of them think nothing will change any time soon at the 37-year-old bridge even as engineers, many area residents and officials agree that the crumbling structure needs an expensive replacement.
"I think we're in deep," said James Smith, 53, who commutes from Southern Maryland to Falls Church for a Defense Department job. "I think the politicians are going to keep talking and talking, and I think we'll end up with a disaster."
As congressional leaders begin meeting to work out how much, if anything, the federal government will pay of the estimated $1.6 billion price tag for a new 12-lane bridge and interchanges, most regular users, interviewed as they pumped gas at an Alexandria service station, are fed up with waiting for a fix.
"One of these days the bridge is going to fall in while we wait for Congress to make up its mind," said waitress Millie Suite, 55, who works in an Old Town restaurant and lives in Southern Maryland, crossing the bridge twice daily. "I would like to see a new bridge before I die."
Some commuters even admit to thinking about how they would react to a bridge collapse, even though regular inspections and maintenance are supposed to ensure that the bridge is safe if not perfectly sound. They know the rules for escaping from a submerged car.
"I have to let the van fill up with water," said Karen D'Alessandro, 32, of Waldorf. "Then I can open the door."
D'Alessandro, Suite and Smith are among about 70,000 commuters, most of them Marylanders, who use the Woodrow Wilson Bridge daily, making the bridge one of the region's most vital transportation links and one of its most persistent bottlenecks.
Originally planned and engineered to carry about 75,000 vehicles a day, 37 years later the bridge is burdened with more than twice that load. The bridge is a gateway from Maryland to Virginia job centers such as the Pentagon and Crystal City inside the Beltway. There also has been major job growth in outlying areas of Northern Virginia, particularly in the Tysons Corner area and the Dulles corridor. And residents of the rapidly growing bedroom communities of Prince George's County and Southern Maryland have little choice but to drive across the bridge to reach them.
Most of them hate it and report that the backups are getting worse.
"Used to be at 6:30 a.m. I could ease on over. Now it's backed up at that hour," said an Alexandria firefighter who lives in Maryland. He did not want to give his name because city officials oppose plans for a 12-lane replacement bridge.
Russ Perkins, of Mount Vernon, regularly finds late-afternoon traffic jams running two miles from Indian Head Highway to the bridge as he tries to return home from his job in Southern Maryland.
"Probably there will be backups all day in another 10 years," said Perkins, 53, an aeronautical engineer who has served as a citizen adviser on the bridge. "Time is running out."
But like several other drivers, Perkins questioned the need for building vast interchanges costing hundreds of millions of dollars to serve the bridge. He prefers smaller, less-complicated, less-expensive interchanges, even though they would not divide local and through traffic or provide separate access for drivers in HOV lanes.
"That's the central issue to be addressed, now that there's such pressure on funding for the bridge," he said.
The drawbridge added to ensure access for ships to the Alexandria and D.C. waterfronts is also unpopular with many drivers, who would prefer a bridge high enough to let ships through without ever stopping traffic.
As for funding, many commuters realize a new bridge would be expensive, and they know the federal government owns the bridge. But most want a practical and quick solution to the funding issue with a minimum of haggling between Congress and the states.
"The feds should go ahead and build the bridge," said Mike Darcy, 37, of Mount Vernon, who crosses the bridge several times a week in his job as a shipping executive. "Then let the states repay them if necessary."
"Name the bridge for Ronald Reagan, and the money will pour in," D'Alessandro suggested.
One thing just about all users agree on: They don't like the idea of tolls, which would be necessary only if a new bridge were financed with certain types of bonds.
"I would be one of the big complainers, given the amount of taxes I pay," said Carole Downey, 48, of Forest Heights. "I wouldn't want to pay more."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company