District officials, swamped with complaints from Georgetown residents, are looking for ways to ease the traffic congestion caused by the closing of the Q Street Bridge for repairs.
But first, says the city's chief transportation engineer, he wants to apologize.
"Anything we do has negative impacts, and we try to make judgments to keep it at a minimum," said Gary Burch, of the Department of Public Works. "But on this one, we missed it. The inconvenience to the community was a little more than we anticipated."
A lot more, about 250 angry residents told Burch and other city officials at a meeting last week organized by D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
This is what the Oct. 19 closure wrought, they said: bumper-to-bumper traffic for a mile from the P Street Bridge over Rock Creek Park west to Wisconsin Avenue; a doubling in the number of Metro buses--from 180 to 340--along P Street NW virtually overnight; a mile detour for the pedestrians who previously used the Q Street Bridge to walk east into Dupont Circle and downtown.
"What this all points to is the agency really doesn't know how to inform the public adequately about what they're planning on doing and they don't get the feedback beforehand," said Juliet Zucker, executive director of the Citizens Association of Georgetown. "It's in the planning stage that's the problem."
Now, after the fact, Public Works is trying to fix the problems as best it can, Burch said.
The Q Street Bridge--formally known as the Dumbarton Bridge but often called the Buffalo Bridge for the four bison sculptures that adorn the concrete structure--is undergoing a much-needed structural rehabilitation, he said. Opened in 1915, the 400-foot-long historic landmark, with its graceful arches, serves as one of the eastern gateways into Georgetown. It is a bridge that is both ornamental and practical.
"Some say it [the design] is the perfect marriage between architects, engineers and city planers. It's a beautiful bridge," Burch said. "As a result, that makes it tougher to renovate and rehabilitate. Most bridges today tend to be functional."
The bridge's concrete supports and reinforced steel must be replaced. Unlike in modern bridge construction, the concrete supports run the width, instead of the length, of the structure.
Those 30 to 40 supports will be cut, removed and rebuilt a few at a time during the renovation, expected to last a year--nine months with the bridge closed and three months with it open. Because of the unusual construction of the bridge, removing any piece of a support could significantly weaken the structure, Burch said.
"The construction is like a fabric that is stitched together," he said. "Breaking the fabric in any way could compromise the bridge."
So to ensure safety, Public Works decided to shut down the bridge entirely, an unusual action.
"Our policy is to never close a bridge or road completely unless we can deal with inconvenience or we have no alternative," Burch said.
"I'm convinced we don't have alternatives."
The problem, said Art Schultz, of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, is that the bridge was closed with minimal public notice and plans to prevent traffic gridlock, caused by the detour around the bridge, were not implemented before the closure.
Since the meeting called by Evans, some measures to ease the congestion have been put into place. Police officers have been posted on P Street at the entrance to Rock Creek Parkway during rush hours to control traffic. Metro has re-routed "dead-head" or out-of-service buses off of P Street NW in Georgetown.
Traffic signals at P and 22nd streets NW and P and 23rd streets NW will be retimed to move traffic more quickly out of Georgetown. Additional signs have been posted warning drivers that the Q Street Bridge is closed.
The possibility of constructing a temporary footbridge alongside the Q Street Bridge is being studied, Evans said.
And Burch and Public Works officials are discussing with the contractor a new construction schedule. The contract currently calls for a 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. work day.
The District has proposed extending the work day through the evening to cut about three months off the closure of the bridge.
"I'm not sure if I had called a meeting Oct. 10 [before the bridge closed], if I would have had more than 10 people show up," said Evans, who lives on P Street NW and experiences the car and bus congestion outside his front door. "Sometimes the crisis has to be upon you to create a response. But everybody's working now. If any fault can be laid at anyone's feet it is that DPW and the police department did not coordinate any plan to handle this."
A follow-up meeting with Georgetown residents to discuss the status of these measures will be held in about a week, Burch and Schultz said.
"We didn't know the impact was going to be as irksome as it initially was," Burch said, "so we're in a period of adjustment now to minimize that."