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Wider sidewalks, higher railings, new lighting planned for Roosevelt Bridge

Major structural repairs will begin as early as 2024 to increase the life of the bridge by 25 years

Repairs are underway on the Roosevelt Bridge in Washington this year. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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A plan for a multimillion-dollar overhaul of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge calls for major structural repairs and upgrades to pedestrian and bike accommodations along the busy route connecting Washington and Northern Virginia.

The rehabilitation of the 58-year-old bridge would add wider sidewalks and higher railings, which would “greatly improve pedestrian and bicycle mobility,” the National Capital Planning Commission said in a report this week. It would be the first full rehabilitation since the bridge opened in 1964.

The commission on Thursday approved preliminary site plans for the project, offering an initial glimpse at the proposal and giving the District Department of Transportation an early green light to extend the bridge’s life by at least 25 years. The structure is past its 50-year life span and was rated in “poor” condition in 2018 — a designation that doesn’t necessarily mean it is unsafe to use.

Construction isn’t expected to begin until 2024 at the earliest and would cost about $150 million, according to DDOT. The bridge, which carries Interstate 66 over the Potomac River, is an important commuter route that supported a daily average of about 150,000 vehicles before the pandemic.

The Roosevelt Bridge’s condition has declined in recent years, prompting emergency repairs and the closure of three travel lanes since February after an inspection found steel support beams had deteriorated. Traffic is restricted on part of the bridge to two lanes in each direction, while vehicles weighing more than 10 tons are restricted, sending buses and heavy commercial vehicles to different Potomac crossings.

D.C. transportation officials said the emergency work, which is expected to be completed by the end of summer, will enable the bridge to support normal operations at least until the full rehabilitation is complete. DDOT Director Everett Lott said Thursday that crews are continuing to install temporary beams and are on track for completion by the end of August. In April, DDOT officials had said much of the bridge could reopen as early as this month.

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The 3,200-foot-long bridge was constructed in two units: one that goes between the District and Theodore Roosevelt Island over the Potomac, and the second between Theodore Roosevelt Island and Arlington County over the Little River.

The most recent Federal Highway Administration records, from a 2020 inspection, indicate several of the bridge’s features, including its railings, do not meet current standards. They note the deck condition is rated “poor.”

DDOT’s plans, released this week and approved Thursday, call for significant structural upgrades, including deck replacement, concrete and stone repairs, and retrofitting the bridge’s pin and hanger assembly.

The road’s signage and lighting will be replaced. And the bridge will be painted to its original white “to create a cohesive aesthetic between the bridge and nearby monuments and the Arlington Memorial Bridge,” according to DDOT.

The road’s configuration will change to create 10-foot sidewalks, although details of those changes will be developed in plans. Existing sidewalks on both sides of the bridge vary in width between four and six feet and, according to DDOT, do not meet safety standards.

Officials say a wider sidewalk will improve the experience of pedestrians and cyclists in the shared path. Replacing the 36-inch railings with 42-inch railings and existing traffic barriers that DDOT says “provide minimal protection” will make the pathway safer, officials said.

The improvements will also create better connections to trails and other nearby destinations. The north sidewalk connects to the Mount Vernon Trail in Virginia and the Kennedy Center in the District. The south sidewalk does not connect to trails, but a National Park Service plan envisions better connections from the south sidewalk between D.C. and Arlington.

The National Capital Planning Commission urged DDOT to explore adding lighting to the pedestrian path, noting that DDOT’s plan doesn’t include the option. The commission said lighting should be selected to “improve pedestrian (and bicyclist) comfort and continuity with adjacent streetscape character, protect the night sky and surrounding natural resources, and elevate the quality of this important gateway.”

Dennis Leach, Arlington’s transportation director, said the county welcomes progress on the plan after about a decade of talks on the need for a full bridge upgrade. He said the county supports the pedestrian and bike improvements, saying the crossing is “by far the worst experience” compared with other Potomac crossings.

“With these improvements, it will get a whole lot more use,” he said.

The Roosevelt Bridge project would be similar to the recent two-year, $227 million rehabilitation of the Arlington Memorial Bridge, which involved months of closed and shifted lanes, as well as traffic disruptions.

According to DDOT, the bridge will stay open to traffic during construction, but the work will require a closure of two travel lanes for an extended period, accompanied by reduced lane widths and lower speed limits.

Leach said the county will work with the District to ensure disruptions are minimal. He said past experiences have proved such traffic challenges are manageable.

“We lived through the reconstruction of Memorial Bridge. It was totally rebuilt and we managed. And that was done before the pandemic,” Leach said. “People in the region will adjust and hopefully some of them will choose rail.”

Leach said Metro should have normal rail service with the return of its 7000-series cars by the time construction begins. The rail cars, which make up 60 percent of Metro’s fleet, were suspended in October after a federal safety investigation revealed a wheel defect on a small number of cars. Metro expects to restore 64 rail cars to service this summer, with the rest of the fleet to follow.

The transit agency also will be operating the second phase of the Silver Line to Washington Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, which would be another option for commuters in the I-66 corridor.

District officials said that the Roosevelt Bridge is a high priority and that the city is coming up with a funding plan, including the use of local and federal infrastructure money.

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Lott said the city is ready to move the rehabilitation project forward, describing the state of the bridge as “functional obsolete.” He said this year that the city will work on the project design and expects to launch a competitive bidding process next year.

The planning commission, which has review authority of the project, is expected to review the final site development plans next year. Stephen Staudigl, a commission spokesman, said those plans are likely to come before the board next spring.