"A better name for the Francis Scott Key Bridge these days might be the Car Strangled Spanner." If you're reading this in a traffic jam somewhere on or around Key Bridge, you might take comfort in knowing that joke was written 25 years ago by a reporter for The Post, and it would have been topical at just about any time since the bridge was completed in 1923.

The history of Key Bridge is a history of reversible lanes, restricted ramps, repairs, redeckings, cantilevering and confusion, of trolley tracks being torn up and traffic signals tinkered with, of spectacular accidents and people jumping off on a drunken dare and sometimes living to tell about it. The bridge has borne all this uncomplainingly on its seven graceful arches, and now, well before it shows any sign of crumbling into the Potomac, it is getting a repair job and facelift to restore some of the more ornate features of its youth. It deserves it, even if the project does play hell with the traffic for eight months or so. Key Bridge is Washington's liveliest and most interesting span.

Only Key and Memorial of all the Washington area's bridges seem not to have been products of one utilitarian era or another. And while Memorial is a lively place at times (especially when the Pentagon joggers -- the armies of the lunch hour -- are out) it is what it's called -- a pristine memorial in a park-like setting. Key Bridge is less serene and more alive, primarily because it plunks itself into the middle of an old and active section of this city and makes itself a part of it. People walk it at all hours, looking upstream toward the wilder reaches of the Potomac or down toward the bend where the river flows placidly by the Kennedy Center and the Watergate. The underside of the bridge where it meets land ineorgetown is a massive, grubby space, but like some old bridge in Europe, it does have a sort of lived-under look. In any event, it will be made prettier in coming months.

The main improvement, however, will be the undoing of an earlier improvement, one inflicted in 1952, when the eight-foot-high globe lamps that had lit the bridge since 1923 were replaced with high-rise lamps that cast a modern, highway-engineer-approved glare. Now they're going back to the old globes and widening the sidewalks. In time perhaps Key Bridge will be an avenue of light, life and warmth with sufficient candlepower to warm even the cold canyons of Rosslyn.