Jones Point Park in Alexandria, a major recreation area for Northern Virginians, could become a dumping ground for highway debris under Maryland plans to reconstruct the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Current plans by the Maryland Highway Department call for constructing open drains on the bridge, which would allow debris and water to fall directly on the park 100 feet below.
Alexandria and National Park Service officials have expressed concerns about the drains' impact on the park. Last month, Alexandria began leasing Jones Point from the Park Service and already has begun a major improvement program, which city officials say is threatened by Maryland Highway plans.
"It's unbelievable that the bridge reconstruction is being designed to allow objects to come sailing down on a public park area," said Alexandria landscape architect James Chasnovitz. "In the rest of the United States when an interstate highway goes through park land an effort is made to have as little impact on a park as possible. Here, it appears no effort is being made at all."
Park Service officials say they have the same concerns.
"Maryland is treating the bridge as though it were an interstate highway out in the middle of nowhere," said John Parsons, assistant regional director for the Park Service. Maryland and Park Service officials hope to meet next week to discuss the issue.
Currently, the bridge, the southern link to the Capital Beltway, has 35 downspouts, designed to carry water runoff and small debris into drainage ditches leading to the Potomac River.
The Maryland plans, according to Parsons, call for open drains every four feet along the nearly mile-long bridge along the median and both sides of the span.
Wayne Klingan, assistant chief of bridge design for the Maryland Transportation Department, said he did not know how many drains would be built. All would be covered by grates, Klingan said, which would be large enough for most debris, such as bottles, cans and even hubcaps, to fall through.
Klingan confirmed that Maryland officials plan to consider Park Service concerns. "This is not a closed issue," he said.
He noted, however, that in the present drainage system, the smaller grates and eight-inch pipes that drain directly onto the ground get clogged. "They end up looking like gardens, with plants growing out of them on the bridges and water backing up . . . " Klingan said.
Virginia highway officials said last week they have reviewed the plans and approved them. "The old bridge does have downspouts, but there's been a lot of trouble with them. Open drains are a lot cheaper and get around the problem," said Virginia highway spokesman Eddie Reid.
Federal Highway Administration officials said Friday they plan to look into the issues raised by the Park Service and Alexandria, but agreed that the current drainage system is inadequate.
"What Maryland's telling you is correct, the drains on the Wilson Bridge are too small, they get clogged and you've even got trees growing out of them," said Stanley Gordon, chief of the Highway Administration's bridge division. "But I can appreciate the concerns about water and debris dropping on playgrounds or parks. . . . Bridge plumbing is a difficult problem, but a variety of things can be done and are done in New York and other cities with parks."
Alexandria and Park Service officials contend the new drainage system will be particularly dangerous since Maryland plans to place large piles of rock, known as riprap, under the bridge. Riprap is designed to prevent erosion. But Alexandria and Park Service officials say it would allow glass, metal and other debris to bounce off the rocks, creating a hazard for nearby park users.
Alexandria officials say the park now is used by many Northern Virginians and use will increase once improvements are completed. The park is now largely open fields and woods, with soccer fields, picnic and recreation areas and an old lighthouse.
The city already has begun work on a bicycle trail under the bridge, and had hoped to build parking areas and basketball courts there.
A U.S. Army Reserve Center also is located on Jones Point, beside the bridge, with a fenced-off parking area directly beneath it.
Use of land beneath the bridge by both the city and the Army Reserve may be prohibited under a 1978 agreement, however, in which the federal government gave easement for the bridge to Virginia. That agreement stipulates that the 200-foot-wide bridge right of way may be used only for highway maintenance.
Klingan said it is his understanding that the Army parking lot may remain and the city can build its bike trail, despite the easement, but that there could be no city parking or basketball courts. Maryland also plans to build a new entrance road into Jones Point beside the bridge and within the 200-foot right of way.
Virginia's Reid, however, insisted that "nothing and no one" are permitted under the bridge, except for one parking space for the bridge tender, who operates the draw span. He said the Army does not have permission for its parking lot, as far as Virginia records show, and the city has never requested permission for the bicycle trail or any other use of land under the bridge.
The Woodrow Wilson Bridge is the only federally owned bridge in the nation, but ownership is now being transferred to Virginia, Maryland and the District, which are to be in charge of all future maintenance after the federal government pays for the redecking.