Proposals unveiled yesterday for replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge suggest that the cure for the Washington area's worst traffic bottleneck may be worse than the disease.
The plans submitted by five prominent engineering firms for a new bridge to carry Interstate 95 traffic across the Potomac River have drawbacks so serious that federal and state officials rejected all of them.
But the plans reveal that several issues must be resolved before a design is chosen, perhaps next year:The new bridge between Alexandria and Prince George's County could be huge, perhaps nearly three times as high as the existing structure. The road surface in all five designs was 135 feet above the water; some officials prefer a height of about 70 feet. The current drawbridge is 50 feet above the water.
Officials are worried that a giant structure would loom over Alexandria, spoiling riverfront views. The new bridge could be very expensive. The proposal selected as the least undesirable would cost $780 million, according to its designer. The least costly of the five designs was $440 million. Local officials must wrangle the money out of Congress. The new bridge could be located at least 1,500 feet south of the current bridge, passing through wetlands and posing significant environmental questions. The new bridge could be close to some expensive real estate, such as the Portovecchio condominium complex on the Alexandria waterfront. That is likely to stir some powerful local opposition.
If federal and state officials go along with some of the ideas submitted as part of the $200,000 contest, and the construction money can be found, the bridge would have 14 lanes, compared with the existing six lanes. That would include a lane in each direction for rush-hour car pools.
Best of all, the Wilson drawbridge would be eliminated, ending drivers' long waits as the bridge goes up when ships pass beneath.
One proposal, submitted by Greiner Inc. of Timonium, Md., was chosen as the winner by a panel of 17 professional and civic leaders. That design called for a pair of parallel seven-lane bridges costing $780 million and snaking 1,750 feet south of the existing bridge. Greiner won the top award, $90,000.
Nevertheless, the panel said that while each proposal had strengths, "none represented a fully acceptable design," according to Fern V. Piret, the panel's chairwoman. She is Prince George's planning director.
One problem centers on the height. Although a 135-foot vertical clearance would accommodate vessels passing underneath, a bridge of that height would pose aesthetic and environmental problems on both sides of the river. It's also the most expensive option.
"Every effort should be made to reduce this height," the jury said.
Rod Pieretti of Steinman, Boynton, Gronquist & Birdsall, a New York engineering firm, said the five proposals could be easily adjusted by reducing the height to whatever officials want.
The firms rejected building a wider, taller bridge at the existing location because of the land expense and environmental impact on Alexandria, Jones Point Park and St. Mary's Cemetery. But officials said they would consider a new low-level bridge at the same location.
Another obstacle is the downstream alignment of the new bridge.
The five proposals generally run southeast from the Route 1 interchange with the Beltway on the Virginia side, along Cameron Run and Hunting Creek, across the Potomac to Smoot Cove in Maryland, and rejoin I-95 between I-295 and Route 210. That route traverses wetlands and cuts close to developments such as the Portovecchio condominium complex on the Alexandria waterfront.
"I'm not willing to sell any of these proposals," said Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr., who prefers a tunnel approach. "If it's not one we can defend, it's going to be pretty much dead."
The competition was sponsored by the Maryland, Virginia and District highway agencies and the Federal Highway Administration.
It was not intended to produce a final design for the new bridge, but to generate ideas from nationally recognized architects and engineers. A decision is expected next year.
Built for an average of 75,000 vehicles a day, the Wilson now is used by an average of 160,000 vehicles daily. By 2010, traffic is expected to swell to 236,000 vehicles.
State officials had hoped the competition would give them more options, especially varying heights. Ideally, officials would prefer a fixed span bridge with a 70-foot clearance, which would accommodate most vessels and is cheaper. They would negotiate with the Coast Guard and other users of the channel who say they need the 135-foot clearance.
The only one of six commercial users with ships that couldn't get under a 70-foot bridge is the Robinson Terminal Warehouse Corp., a newsprint storage and handling plant on the Alexandria waterfront owned by The Washington Post Co. Moran said it is inappropriate for officials to try to accommodate Robinson by designing a more expensive bridge.