MAYBE NOW--with the biggest barrier removed by an appeals court panel Friday--the long-obstructed regional drive to build a desperately needed new Wilson Bridge can proceed. The three-judge panel's unanimous, flat reversal of a ruling by U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin may signal a construction start by October.

Under that schedule, a new 12-lane bridge could be up and running by 2004, when engineers have estimated that the existing bridge might be too rickety to handle heavy traffic. Any more attempts to stall after all these years of detailed regional negotiations and agreements should be resisted. The remaining challenge is to secure money for the project.

As Judge Laurence H. Silberman's opinion noted, traffic volume on the existing bridge has surpassed 190,000 vehicles a day--more than twice the capacity it was designed to accommodate when built in 1961. This growth has produced "one of the worst rush-hour 'bottlenecks' in the region," the court pointed out.

The ruling also noted that the federal government's case for building a 12-lane bridge was based on 2020 traffic projections that "demonstrate that a 10-lane bridge would be insufficient." Studies by supporters of the approved design have shown that a 10-lane bridge would accommodate less than half of the per-hour capacity of the 12-lane version.

The region can't wait any longer. As the appeals court pointed out, "The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge is a microcosm of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area's traffic congestion problems." Other bridges must be built, with more roads to keep traffic from spilling over and jamming side streets. Transit improvements, telecommuting and creative alternatives to motor travel must be explored. Without major road projects to relieve today's congestion and begin to address tomorrow's volume, Greater Washington is headed for paralysis.