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Frederick Douglass bridge hailed as D.C.’s ‘most important’ span during opening-week ceremony

The bridge was blessed during the Tuesday event, and the freedom fighter it was named for was recalled as an inspiration

The Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Eight years after a presidential commission called the District’s plans somewhat “uninspired,” city and federal officials on Tuesday cut the ribbon on a soaring new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge that they said shows what can be built when federal Washington and local officials team up on infrastructure.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and others waved District flags as they marched across the bridge, backed by members of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts marching band. The bridge was then blessed, and the freedom fighter it was named for was recalled as an inspiration.

Standing on the bridge deck about a mile south of the U.S. Capitol — where a $1 trillion infrastructure bill is pending following Senate passage last month — officials made the case that progress is difficult but possible. The project carried a price tag of about $480 million and included more than $200 million in federal funds, officials said.

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“I think of it as a workhorse bridge. It holds our city together, and it is a gateway to the D.C. economy,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “This is not only regarded as the most important bridge in the nation’s capital. I’m here to tell you it was the most costly … I had to squirrel funds, year by year, more than 10 years, to accumulate the funding.”

Norton said the bridge is emblematic of the kinds of projects needed nationwide. She said she hopes its dedication will help her nudge members of Congress to pass a vast infrastructure initiative that could similarly benefit their home states.

Bowser said federal support was crucial, as was local action over many years, including by officials who preceded her. She praised the D.C. workers who helped build a structure that connects both sides of the Anacostia River.

“Steny and Eleanor, we really can’t thank you enough for making sure we got the funds we needed to get this bridge done,” Bowser said. “The ultimate tribute to Douglass in Washington will be the name of our state, the 51st state, and Douglass Commonwealth.”

Under a D.C. statehood bill in Congress, the federal district — the seat of government — would shrink to a two-mile enclave, including key federal buildings and monuments. The rest of the city would become the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.

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On Tuesday, Hoyer said the Maryland-born Douglass, who began life enslaved and became a powerful abolitionist, “would say we’ve come a long way,” but there is still far to travel. He said early designs of the bridge were redrawn into the stunning structure set to open at the end of the week.

“I think what has been built here is a work of beauty,” Hoyer said.

The 1,445-foot-long structure is replacing a crumbling 1950s-era span to become the city’s largest infrastructure project in history, viewed as a key step toward transforming the shores of the Anacostia and connecting communities on both sides.

D.C. Transportation Director Everett Lott said the bridge will open to traffic in stages, first in one direction starting Friday about midnight, then the reverse direction the next day. It also is expected to open to pedestrians Friday night into Saturday morning, he said. Tuesday’s ceremony followed a 5K run and pedestrian preview of the bridge on Monday.

Construction started in summer 2017 and followed more than a decade of planning to address severe deterioration on the old bridge. A narrow pedestrian walkway is missing large chucks of concrete, revealing rusting steel below.

For Nettie Washington Douglass, Tuesday was her second event in nearly six decades at the bridge to honor her great-great-grandfather. She was there in 1965 when the South Capitol Street Bridge was renamed for him.

“It wasn’t the excitement of this bridge,” she said. The rededication of that then-15-year-old bridge was a nice honor, she said, but “this is a brand-new bridge, and it’s so different — the architecture, it’s just a beautiful, beautiful part of the skyline now in D.C.”

In recent days she met another descendant she had never seen in person, giving the public dedication a special personal meaning. “I am very moved,” she said.

The multiday celebration, meant to showcase the District’s rise, came the same weekend many in the city were shaken by a triple homicide in the Brightwood Park neighborhood, part of an overall rise in killings.

Asked about the slayings during a brief interview Tuesday — and balancing the city’s needs through accomplishment and tragedy — Bowser spoke of the interlinked challenges facing the District and the nation.

“That’s life, isn’t it? In any city in America, it’s not all peaches and cream. We have tough issues in big cities all across our country,” Bowser said. “And when we can do projects like this where we put people to work, and have huge investments from the federal government, they’re not disjointed. It’s part of a big spectrum of how to stop and interrupt violence by providing opportunity.”

As part of the ceremony, Bowser told dignitaries, workers and Douglass descendants that 200 D.C. residents were hired to build the bridge, and 45 minority- and women-owned businesses were part of the project, representing $91 million in contracting opportunities.

“And that is, we know, something Frederick Douglass would be proud of,” she said. Beyond the soaring arches, she said she found symbolism in the bridge’s connection between city neighborhoods.

“It is so important that no matter where we live, no matter what ward, what neighborhood, what background, how long we’ve been here,” Bowser said, “that we come together and we put bridges over challenges, bridges over things that have separated us in the past, and we form alliances to get things done for this great city of Washington.”