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D.C. unveils plans for new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. Take a look (video).

The District’s Department of Transportation is beginning construction to replace the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. (Video: DC Department of Transportation)

The District is set to begin its largest construction project in history: replacing the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, which opened in 1950 over the Anacostia River and is one of its busiest commuter gateways, carrying 70,000 vehicles each day.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) unveiled the design of the new bridge Thursday, touting it as a major step toward the transformation of the shores of the Anacostia into a world-class waterfront. City officials say the project will spur economic development on both sides of the river.

“Investing in our infrastructure is key to how we can continue to be a growing city and the best city in the world, and improving our bridges is very critical to this mission,” Bowser said.

“Today, we are taking a huge step toward improving the District’s infrastructure and building a safer, stronger D.C.,” Bowser said. The new bridge will “provide an iconic gateway between Anacostia and downtown D.C. When completed, this will be a tremendous structure and a fitting memorial for a remarkable American icon.”

The new, wider bridge will be built parallel to the old one, near Nationals Park. Traffic ovals will be constructed at each end of the bridge, and sections of South Capitol Street will be re-created as a scenic boulevard. The project includes the reconstruction of the interchange with the Suitland Parkway and Interstate 295.

The  bridge, projected to open in 2021, is designed to increase pedestrian and vehicular safety, add multi-modal transportation options and increase access to the river.

Renderings and video simulations of the bridge show a distinct structure with parallel arches, a multi-use path and pedestrian overlooks. The green areas on each side of the bridge will provide space for community activities.

Replacing the 68-year-old bridge has long been in the city’s plans. The bridge has continued to deteriorate despite maintenance; corrosion has eaten holes through the thick steel beams that were placed six decades ago. The aging bridge got a major overhaul a decade ago, but as with thousands of bridges across the country, it is falling apart faster than repairs can be made, according to engineers.

“If it’s the largest project in D.C. history, this Frederick Douglass bridge also has taken the longest to build,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who helped secure more than $200 million in federal funding over the past decade for the new bridge.

“I was able to get earmarks (by) screaming that one of these days we were all going to be embarrassed because the South Capitol (Street) bridge was going to come tumbling down,” she said.

Bridges are generally built to stand for 50 years before needing replacement. That puts the Douglass Bridge past its life span. The average bridge in the United States is 43 years old. Many of the nation’s 600,000 bridges are at the end of their lives, with 56,000 of them officially found structurally deficient last year, according to a report released by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The city has awarded a $441 million design-build contract to South Capitol Bridgebuilders, a joint venture of Archer Western Construction and Granite Construction, with AECOM as the lead designer.

The District Department of Transportation estimates the project will contribute more than 1,300 jobs and have an economic impact of $787 million for the greater Washington region.

The initial work for the new bridge will coincide with the commemoration of the bicentennial of Fredrick Douglass’ birth next year. Douglass, who was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore into slavery in 1818, escaped as a young man and became a leading voice in the abolitionist movement. He moved to Washington in 1872.

“Mayor Bowser, you have found the most appropriate way to honor Frederick Douglass,” Norton said Thursday. “Build this bridge.”