Emergency repairs that will enable the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge to safely support the weight of regular traffic will probably last through the summer and cost about $6 million, the District Department of Transportation said, becoming the latest hindrance to the Washington commute as more employees return to in-person work.
Vehicles are being pushed into the two outer lanes in each direction while those weighing more than 10 tons are restricted, forcing buses and heavy commercial vehicles to different Potomac crossings. The restrictions are prompting transit agencies and some drivers to find other options at a time when traffic levels are rising and Metrorail is operating with reduced service.
Bridge users already are encountering delays and rethinking their commutes. At least six commuter bus routes from Northern Virginia are being rerouted to other entry points into D.C., such as the Arlington Memorial Bridge and the 14th Street Bridge.
Fairfax County resident Alan Lawrence was on his first trip back to the office Monday when he encountered a 20-minute backup at the Roosevelt Bridge. He said his only warning came from colleagues, who sent text messages that morning after encountering bumper-to-bumper traffic that resembled the pre-pandemic commute.
“It’s really a mess,” said Lawrence, who manages a software company office downtown. “The frustration is we just started going back to the office this week. Over the next several weeks as everybody starts going back to the office, this is just going to be a nightmare.”
The emergency closure followed an inspection last week that found steel support beams had continued to deteriorate, according to DDOT. The agency said this week that crews recently discovered excessive damage after a contractor removed loose rust. The short-term fixes will involve steel repair to the floor beams, DDOT said, but the work won’t start until materials arrive — a schedule likely to be affected by supply chain issues.
Virginia and Arlington County transportation officials are urging commuters to plan ahead and choose alternative routes, including using Metrorail when possible. Those who use the Roosevelt Bridge should expect delays for up to six months, they said, although no significant effects have been reported this week as commuter traffic hovers below pre-pandemic levels.
Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kathleen Leonard said the state had been in contact with the District about rehabilitation plans for the bridge and was brought onboard Friday to coordinate the emergency lane closures. She said the priority in the coming months will be to ensure drivers are aware of weight restrictions and changes to traffic patterns.
The pathway for bicyclists and pedestrians is not affected, DDOT said.
Some motorists who were surprised to encounter blinking arrows at the bridge have reported inadequate signage and alerts since the closure Friday night. Others have posted photos of traffic jams on social media.
Michael Mills, a Capitol Hill resident who uses the bridge weekly to get to Arlington’s Ballston neighborhood for hockey games, said he was caught off guard Friday night as he returned home from a game.
Heeding the advice of regional transportation officials, he said he will consider the 14th Street Bridge as an alternative. Even if the partial closure is inconvenient, he said it’s reassuring to see the city taking precautions.
“I will try it again this Friday and if it slows me down, then I will just go a different route,” he said. “You don’t want to repeat what happened in Pittsburgh,” he said, referring to the bridge that collapsed Jan. 28, injuring several people hours before President Biden was scheduled to speak in the city about funding to repair the nation’s infrastructure.
District officials say the emergency repairs will enable the Roosevelt Bridge to support normal operations. That will be followed by a full rehabilitation in a couple of years using funding from the federal $1.2 billion infrastructure law Biden signed in November.
The District is slated to receive $225 million in federal infrastructure funding over five years to repair eight bridges in the city, including the Roosevelt Bridge, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said last month.
The Roosevelt Bridge carries Interstate 66 over the Potomac and is a commuter artery that supported about 150,000 vehicles daily before the pandemic. It has not had a major rehabilitation since it opened in 1964 and was rated in “poor” condition in 2018, officials said — a designation that doesn’t necessarily mean it is unsafe to use. It is also past a bridge’s 50-year life span.
A report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers last year gave District bridges a B-minus grade, saying that about 3 percent of bridges in the city are classified as poor even as “significant progress” has been made in the past decade to rehabilitate and replace old spans.
About 30 percent of the District’s 244 highway bridges — 208 are owned by DDOT and 36 fall under the National Park Service — will need to be rehabilitated in the next decade, according to the engineering report. Those include bridges built or rehabilitated before 1980.
The report listed the Roosevelt Bridge, along with the H Street Bridge near Union Station, as top priorities. Both “have continued to deteriorate in recent years and are now considered to be in poor condition,” the report said. A bridge rated as poor could become unsafe without substantial improvements, according to the engineers group.
Although rush-hour commute levels into D.C. are down compared to before the pandemic, traffic could pick up in the coming weeks as more companies and federal agencies call back workers. Even with reduced traffic levels, some commuters this week reported backups and delays.
“We do encourage people traveling between Arlington County and Washington, D.C., to consider other routes on Key Bridge or Memorial Bridge, or transit options like Metrobus, the DC Circulator bus or Metrorail,” said Arlington County spokeswoman Claudia Pors.
Bus riders, however, are also being affected by the Roosevelt Bridge restrictions. At least six routes that carry passengers between Northern Virginia and downtown Washington are using alternate crossings, including Metrobus Routes 3Y and 16Y, which service Arlington.
Metro said Monday the routes will detour until further notice: The 3Y, from Langston Boulevard to McPherson Square, is entering the District over the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge while the 16Y, which travels between Columbia Pike and Farragut Square, is traveling over the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Both routes continue to serve all stops, but passengers should expect delays and consider switching to Metrorail, transit agency spokeswoman Sherri Ly said.
The rail system is struggling through its own service problems, with 60 percent of Metro’s rail car fleet out of service until at least April because of a federal safety investigation.
Fairfax Connector said Routes 697 and 699 are detouring to Interstate 395 and the 14th Street Bridge, which probably will extend travel times for passengers heading downtown. Riders should expect a longer trip, although the changes will not affect the number of stops served.
Two OmniRide routes that serve Prince William County — the 601 from Manassas and the 611 from Gainesville — also are using the 14th Street Bridge while skipping three stops in the morning in the District. OmniRide officials said they will evaluate the effects on service in coming weeks.
DDOT Director Everett Lott said over the weekend that the city is restricting heavy vehicles from the bridge “out of an abundance of caution.”
In the meantime, Lawrence said he will time his arrival at the bridge later than the usual 8 a.m. to avoid the thickest traffic and also will consider other routes. He said he expects that traffic will worsen as offices reopen. The bridge chaos, he said, might result in the company reconsidering plans that require workers to be in the office three times a week.
“We’re going to have to figure out how everybody can manage this and not add another 30 or 40 minutes to their commute every morning,” he said.