WE DON'T HAVE to tell drivers of the 105,000 cars and trucks using Woodrow Wilson Bridge every day that their Potomac River crossing is coming apart -- they've been taking their lumps all too long already, and they and anybody else worried about safety know that it's more than about time that those in a position to fix this bridge get the word in no uncertain terms. And while we're at it, the people of Prince George's County deserve a little attention and lot of roadwork from the state of Maryland on its portion of the Capital Beltway approach to the bridge.
Bureaucratically speaking -- which means, eliminating any obvious or direct solution to a clearly disastrous situation -- the Beltway/bridge situation is a classic: Wilson Bridge is the only federally owned bridge on an interstate in the country, and -- get this -- all three local jurisdictions, the District, Maryland and Virginia, share its annual operating costs. Maryland maintains the roadway, if you can call it maintenance; Virginia pays the electric bill, apparently on time; and the District runs the tower and draw span.
Out of the running, though, is the flow of traffic most days, in no small way due to the dangerously decrepit surface of the bridge and the fact that there is no place for disabled vehicles to pull off of the six-lane span. So what about those repairs?
Usually a state picks up 10 percent of interstate highway bridge repairs. But because Uncle Sam owns this one, there has been legislation floating about in Congress over the years to provide full federal financing of a fix-up. Only last December, Rep. Margorie S. Holt (R-Md.) won House agreement for an amendment to do just that; but in the absence of a clear decision by the Carter administration and the end-of-the-session legislative jams, the proposal died in the Senate.
The old money offer seems to have died, too, with the Reagan administration talking about less -- maybe 75 percent -- from federal funds and the rest from Maryland. The reaction to this in Annapolis has been stunningly silent, matching the state's financial deafness when Prince George's officials plead for help on the Beltway.
At the age of 19, Wilson Bridge has passed from traffic nuisance to serious hazard -- unless you find something scenic about being able to see the river through a hole in the bridge. It is not wolf-crying to warn here and now that unless repairs are made, this bridge and the Maryland roadway connecting to it are ripe for tragedy.
Congress and the Maryland state highway people can continue to look the other way in the name of frugality now, but it is a terribly dangerous way not to do business.