Maryland highway officials were relieved yesterday when the lowest bid to build one of the costliest parts of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge came in $45 million under estimates, a sign that the massive project has not soared over budget.

State engineers had anxiously awaited the proposals to build the bridge's western section -- from the draw spans to the Virginia-side abutment in Alexandria's Jones Point Park -- as an indication of whether the $2.56 billion project was headed for huge cost overruns. State officials requested new bids on smaller chunks of the project, hoping to elicit more competition after the lone bid to build the entire bridge came in $360 million over budget.

Yesterday's apparent low bid of $115.5 million -- well below the estimates of $160 million -- will keep the project's overall costs for work awarded so far to 8 percent below budget, bridge officials said. "We're pleased," said a beaming Bob Douglass, project director for Maryland's bridge-building contracts.

The first such contract -- to build the draw spans -- was awarded in January. It was $18 million over estimates, a price that bridge officials said was close enough to stay under budget.

The Virginia-side contract will cover everything above water, including the arch-shaped concrete piers, steel girders, 12 lanes of asphalt, signs and lighting. Construction on the Virginia portion is scheduled to begin in April, and work on the draw spans could be underway this month, said project spokesman John Undeland. The concrete foundations are 90 percent complete.

Bids for the Maryland side of the bridge are due in May. Maryland is responsible for building the entire bridge and its nearby Capital Beltway interchanges, while Virginia is responsible for its Beltway interchanges. Maryland's statewide budget gap will not cause shortfalls for the project because the money is already committed under a financial agreement with the Federal Highway Administration.

The first of the two six-lane spans is scheduled to be finished by early 2006. Traffic will be shifted to the new span as the old bridge is torn down to make room for the second span, due by early 2008.

The new bridge will be twice as wide. The Wilson bridge is one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the Washington region. Built in 1961 to carry 75,000 vehicles daily, the decaying span now carries more than 200,000.

Yesterday's apparent low bid brought murmurs from the crowd of 70 people, many representing contractors seeking the job, as the bids were announced at the Maryland State Highway Administration offices in Baltimore. "Is that one-fifteen?" one man called out incredulously.

Douglass said highway officials worked hard to drive down the price through competition. Along with breaking the bridge-building into smaller chunks, the state advertised in engineering newsletters and gave contractors more flexibility in how to build the arched piers.

"That there was a lot of competition probably wasn't a secret to these guys," said Undeland, the project spokesman. "They really had to sharpen their pencils."

Yesterday's bid went to a joint venture of California-based Granite Construction Inc. and Corman Construction Inc. of Annapolis Junction. Bill Cox, Corman's president, attributed the lower-priced bid to more competitive rates from subcontractors and suppliers, whose work opportunities have slowed in the softening economy. He said Maryland officials also made it easier to submit competitive bids because of design changes that help lower prices.