- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

The risk-takers, the rubberneckers and the out-of-towners converged yesterday in a sweltering 6-mile backup near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge construction project to create the delays that officials had predicted.

“Rubberneckers have a huge cumulative, rippling effect on traffic,” said project spokesman John Undeland. “We need folks to be rolling through the area as quickly and safely as possible.”

The longest backups were several miles long approaching the bridge on the Inner Loop of the Capital Beltway, which was narrowed from four lanes to one, from the Interstate 295 exchange in Maryland to Route 1 in Virginia. The one-lane reduction was 3 miles long.

However, motorists trying perhaps to get a glimpse of the newly arrived, 466-ton steel beam or the 1,500 tons of asphalt for this weekend’s work created backups that lasted as long as three hours.

At its peak yesterday, traffic extended 6 miles from the bridge to Route 5 in Oxon Hill, on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.

The delays were in sharp contrast to the minor ones created during a similar project July 15 to 17 on the Outer Loop.

The combination of light traffic, little rain and a massive public-awareness campaign during that phase helped crews finish their work about 24 hours early.

However, project officials warned motorists that conditions were more complex this weekend and implored them not to “let down their guard.”

They cited I-95 traffic not being diverted this weekend, Saturday traffic on the Inner Loop being heavier than on the Outer Loop, and crews needing four times as much asphalt to help realign lanes and ramps to the bridge.

Area motorists seemed to take the advice and avoided the area by using the western half of the Beltway, Route 301 through Maryland or I-395 through the District.

But that did not appear to be the case for long-distance travelers.

“We’ve noticed that much of the traffic has out-of-state license plates,” said project spokeswoman Michelle Holland.

Officials could not divert I-95 traffic from the north merging into the Beltway, or I-495, because of the impact on area traffic, Ms. Holland said.

Still, officials placed radio and newspaper ads in such northern cities as Philadelphia to warn motorists who planned on traveling south this weekend.

Despite temperatures in the mid-90s and the humidity, which resulted in a National Weather Service heat advisory and a Code Red air-quality alert for the region, officials had no reports of vehicles overheating or workers getting sick.

The backups had decreased by evening to about 3 miles, near St. Barnabas Road, but drivers still waited two to three hours to get through the bridge area.

The scheduled deadline for this weekend’s construction is tomorrow at 5 a.m.

This weekend’s work — known as the second phase of the “Beltway Shift” — also will help complete construction on the Washington Street overpass and open the first of two bridges by spring 2006.

Several ramp closures also slowed traffic yesterday and are expected to do the same today.

The ramps between the Inner Loop and Route 1 are closed, and the Inner Loop ramp to Mount Vernon will be closed until 2008.

The I-295 South ramp to the Inner Loop is closed, and traffic is being detoured 2 miles on the Outer Loop.

“It’s safer not to have traffic attempting to merge right at the point where the lane closures begin,” Ms. Holland said.

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