The lowest bid to build the draw spans of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge came in $18 million over engineers' estimates yesterday, but relieved Maryland officials declared that was close enough to assure they could continue the project.

Maryland highway officials were stunned last December, when the lone bid to build the entire bridge came in $360 million -- or 75 percent -- over budget, threatening massive cost overruns on the largest transportation project in the region.

The state rejected that proposal and called for new bids on the twin six-lane spans, dividing the work into smaller chunks in the hope of creating more competition and a lower price.

"This was a huge hurdle," said Parker Williams, head of the Maryland State Highway Administration. After the budget-buster bid last year, he said, "we had to ask the question, 'Is this project buildable?' "

Williams said yesterday's price of $186 million for the draw spans proved it is. "I think we've got a workable bid here," he said. "I think we're in the financial parameters of affordability."

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said the bid showed "the market telling us this is as good as we're going to get with a project that's this complex and this big."

Potential problems with the one-mile bridge still loom. Williams said completion of the first span is at least one year behind schedule. Engineers also have raised their estimates for the entire bridge to $600 million, an increase of $100 million.

Moreover, most of the large contracts have yet to be awarded. It's still too early to know whether estimates on other parts of the project, such as building the rest of the spans and rebuilding nearby Capital Beltway interchanges, will hold.

Williams said he expects the total price of the entire project to remain at $2.4 billion, because of cost savings in other areas.

The project, which encompasses 7.5 miles of the Beltway, is designed to relieve the worst traffic bottleneck in the region.

Built to carry 75,000 vehicles, the 40-year-old bridge is decaying under the weight of 200,000 trucks and cars that rumble over it daily along Interstate 95, the main route along the East Coast. Bridge officials have said they will continue to make any necessary repairs to keep the existing bridge safe until its replacement is built.

Construction on the draw spans is scheduled to begin this spring. The first six-lane span is scheduled to be completed by 2006, with the second by 2008. Work to build the bridge foundations in Jones Point Park and the Potomac River is 85 percent finished, bridge officials said.

State officials still have to review all the paperwork before awarding the draw span contract to the joint venture of Pennsylvania-based American Bridge Co. and Wisconsin-based Edward Kraemer & Sons Inc. They bid $186 million to build the two draw spans, considered the most technically complex parts of the new bridge. State engineers estimated the cost at $168 million.

The next lowest bid was $221 million.

Yesterday's bid-opening ceremony -- the kind that usually draws a dozen or so onlookers -- drew a crowd of more than 100 to the State Highway Administration headquarters in Baltimore.

Employees from the state's contracting department opened the bids from sealed orange envelopes before reading them aloud to a hushed crowd of engineers and construction officials bucking for one of the largest highway contracts in Maryland history.

"This is like the Oscars of the engineering world," whispered project spokesman John Undeland.

Alan Krimm from the contracts division read off the five proposals for "Contract PG3455173R." Compared to the stunned expressions and dropped jaws that greeted the lone $860 million proposal last year, word of a low bid $18 million over estimate lightened the mood in the room.

Even with yesterday's higher-than-budgeted bid, Undeland said the overall cost of contracts already underway or complete remains $15.3 million under budget. Sixteen of the 19 contracts awarded so far came in under estimates, bridge officials said.

But Bert Ely, an Alexandria consultant who has objected to the width of the bridge, expressed concern about the increase in its cost. "The problem is they're so far over the cost estimates of just a couple years ago," said Ely, legislative chairman of the Coalition for a Sensible Bridge, an Alexandria citizens group.

"When you relate that to all the other transportation needs in this area," he said, "that's a lot of money. That would buy a lot of Metro cars."

Maryland Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who chairs the General Assembly's transportation appropriations subcommittee, said the estimated price increase on the bridge itself pales in comparison to last year's prospect of exceeding the estimated cost by $360 million.

"The main thing is to get out of that $860 million range and get down to the $600 million range," Franchot said. "Most importantly, we can move forward."

Stacie Leavitt, center, confers with Cianbro headquarters in Pittsfield, Maine. The firm's bid was the second lowest.Maryland State Highway Administration employees Alan Krimm, from left, Georgia Russell and Teresa Van Kirk look over bid proposals in Baltimore.