The Woodrow Wilson Bridge, whose reputation as a tormenter of motorists needed no bolstering, demonstrated anew in Wednesday's record snowstorm its unmatched position as the Achilles heel of Washington area highways.
Police and highway officials in Maryland and Virginia said the span, which carries the southern part of the Capital Beltway across the Potomac River, was closed for about 12 hours in both directions Wednesday night and yesterday morning, causing traffic jams that stretched as far as 15 miles. Hundreds of motorists abandoned their vehicles, while others spent the night in them on the highway.
The traffic paralysis, hardly a first-time occurrence on the 26-year-old bridge, prompted Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening to call yesterday for a summit at which Maryland and Virginia officials would map strategy for quickly removing vehicles from the bridge in future snow emergencies.
"It's an absolute mess," said tow-truck operater Al Beaston, whose sentiments yesterday were more reserved -- and less profane -- than those of others who were caught in, or helping to unsnarl, the Beltway imbroglio.
At its peak, the gridlock ensnarled as many as 60,000 cars, Maryland officials said.
Beaston was one of hundreds of tow-truck operators called by Maryland and Virginia authorities yesterday to haul away the countless jackknifed tractor-trailers and abandoned cars littering the bridge and the approaches to it, officials said. It was not until around noon that traffic began to move steadily in both directions again.
Severe traffic congestion has been a chronic problem on the Wilson Bridge for several reasons, including major storms, emergency maintenance and inopportune operation of the drawbridge.
Over the years there have been calls to widen or otherwise add to the span, the most recent of which came from Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) a few weeks ago.
Placing accountability for problems on the bridge is not easy, highway officials say.
The bridge is owned by the federal government. Its surface maintenance is the responsibility of Maryland, while Virginia is in charge of lighting. The District is in charge of maintaining the draw span, while the Coast Guard has final authority over when it is raised and lowered, according to Virginia transportation spokeswoman Marianne V. Pastor.
More than 127,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, she said.
The traffic jam reached full flower late Wednesday night as wrecked or abandoned trucks and cars made the bridge increasingly impassable, eventually prompting Maryland authorities to close it, according to officials.
Most of the vehicles whose route was then blocked were able to leave the Beltway, but some were trapped, either by snow and other traffic or by a lack of fuel, witnesses said.
Several people whose vehicles were stuck simply abandoned them and walked to nearby hotels, including Howard Johnson's on Rte. 1 just south of the Beltway, where the crowd overflowed onto the couches in the lobby, desk clerk Sheila Dell said.
Among those spending the night on the Beltway, most of whom were truckers, a foul mood generally prevailed, witnesses said. Ill-tempered motorists cursed one another as they jockeyed their vehicles in a fruitless attempt to slice through the congestion.
"They were in a big hurry to get nowhere," said tow-truck driver Jeff Harris, who spent the night with Beaston removing stranded vehicles.
One entrepreneur saw the potential for profit. WMAL radio reporter John Matthews, who became stuck in the traffic while reporting on it, said he saw one person doing a handsome business yesterday morning walking among the immobilized cars selling bologna sandwiches.
Staff writers Retha Hill and Jeffrey Yorke contributed to this report.