Wilson Bridge
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Wilson Bridge tender Louis Burrows stands at the helm of the control panels that raise and lower the spans. (By James M. Thresher – The Washington Post)

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On Up-and-Down Job, It's Mostly Downtime

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 1998; Page A22

When he's not shutting down the Capital Beltway in both directions, this is how Lou Burrows usually spends his time as the tender of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge: He reads the newspaper. Lifts weights. Eats. Reads some magazines. Pops a movie in the VCR. Waters the plants. Fixes an old lamp he found at a junkyard.

"If we had cable TV, it would be great," said Burrows, 60, of Bowie, who's had the job for 28 years.

Burrows has plenty of downtime because the Wilson drawbridge is down most of the time. Perched in a musty control tower above the roadway, Burrows often works seven straight days of eight-hour shifts without operating the controls that raise and lower the drawbridge for ships that need more than the span's 50-foot clearance.

Right now the drawbridge must be opened – and traffic stopped – about 220 times a year. Once the new bridge is built, the tender probably will have even more time to pump iron or catch up on old movies. The proposed replacement span would be 70 feet above the water, high enough for all but about 65 ships a year to pass under.

For this undemanding job, Burrows and three other tenders are paid $32,000 a year by the D.C. government, an expense that recently was criticized as "near meaningless work" by auditors delving into wasteful city spending.

"In that the drawbridge is lifted an average of once a day – and at least four hours' notice is given each time – the approach of staffing the Wilson Bridge 24 hours per day year round would seem to be a gross misapplication of scarce personnel," the auditors said in a report to the financial control board overseeing the restructuring of the D.C. government.

D.C. government officials agree but say their hands are tied by the Coast Guard, which manages navigation of the nation's waterways.

Ann Deaton, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said federal regulations require drawbridges to be staffed by tenders. In the case of the Wilson Bridge, she said, federal rules say the drawbridge must be opened "at any time for a vessel in distress."

That guarantees employment to Burrows and the other tenders – and lots more idle time. ("Officially," Burrows said with a twinkle, "we don't sleep.") There are some responsibilities, such as monitoring marine traffic on the radio for emergencies, although the Coast Guard does that, too. And the tender has a perfect perch to watch for accidents and jumpers, although state-installed cameras make that task less critical.

When people meet Burrows and he explains his job, Burrows said, "They say, 'Oh, you're the guy who stops the traffic!' I come back with, 'I'll be glad to go back to work. I need the rest.' "

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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