Inside the corroded carcass of the Memorial Bridge, rust dust and scraggly flakes pile up alongside 1930s columns, droppings from decades of decay that have narrowed one of Washington’s grandest entrances.
With the echoing thump-thump of cars above and the rush of the Potomac River below, it’s a place of contrasts, full of lead and asbestos and history. A faint patina has settled on brake pads that helped keep 5-million-pound counterweights from flinging the drawbridge open or shut too quickly.
It was once the fastest, longest such levitating span in the nation, with futuristic lights that would emerge as the bridge’s soaring leaves lifted, signaling drivers that a ship was passing and the trip between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery would have to wait a few minutes for the pinnacle of American ingenuity to do its thing.
Now the bridge, decades past its prime, is subject to emergency repairs, weight limits that will banish most buses and the closure of parts of two lanes for at least six months, maybe much longer. Steel beams helping to hold up the deck are so weakened by age and the elements that they “no longer meet load-bearing standards,” according to the National Park Service.
The span is suddenly shifting from being a mere member of the 61,000-plus club of “structurally deficient” bridges nationwide to being an emblem of what happens when Washington dithers.
“This is not just the symbol, but the reality, of failed leadership,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), standing before the iconic span Monday with other elected officials. “The United States is the richest country in the history of mankind. We’re the democratic leader, the military leader, the human rights leader, the financial leader, the education leader of all the world. Why, oh why, can we not be the investment leader?”
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) argued that Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, whose histories are linked geographically by the bridge, “were infrastructure people.” Lincoln, Kaine noted, pressed for infrastructure spending in Congress and Lee worked on a key span of the Mississippi River while working for the Army Corps of Engineers. Lee’s former family home sits atop a hill across the Potomac.
“This one is not complicated and it’s not controversial,” Kaine said, adding that a recent 60-day stopgap transportation funding measure is intended to “put some pressure on ourselves. . . .This should be a no-brainer for Congress.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) on Monday also introduced a bill dubbed the Save Our National Parks Transportation Act; it’s meant to direct new funds toward federally owned roads and bridges.
Park Service officials said they have more than $5 billion in needed transportation-related fixes nationwide, but they have just $250 million a year to cover them. That’s about what it would cost to rehab the Memorial Bridge, Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said.
Never mind other priorities, such as the roads at Yellowstone National Park, where partial fixes, patches and overlays made with limited funding have left some roads treacherous. “These numerous overlays of asphalt have also raised the road surface, creating dangerous drop-offs at the pavement edge in many places along the corridor. Inattentive drivers, while sight-seeing and viewing wildlife, have been involved in many accidents, as wheels drop off pavement edges and the drivers over correct,” the Park Service said.
Jarvis said a partially shut Memorial Bridge sends a message he can’t stomach.
“We’re inviting the public to see their national parks. This is the nation’s front yard. We should be proud of this,” Jarvis said. “If were are going to invest anywhere to demonstrate to the American people that we’re proud of our country, we’re proud of our history and our assets and the symbolism of this bridge, it kind of sends the wrong message when you go across the Memorial Bridge and it’s closed because we can’t afford to fix it.”
Jarvis said the bridge remains safe, but it is held up by what amounts to a corroding “erector set,” with deterioration at key structural points caused by dripping water and road salt. Some areas, including column bottoms, are out of reach to inspectors because they are encased in concrete.
The bridge was “built for a 50-year life, and we’re now at 80 years. . . .The fix has to come out of my budget. And my budget is inadequate to fix it,” he said.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Monday that Americans are known for responding resolutely when there’s a wolf at the nation’s door, less so when there are termites in the basement.
“Today, the termites are becoming the wolf,” Foxx said.