The day was supposed to mark the conclusion of an epic, billion-dollar effort to end gridlock on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but rush-hour preparations for the 11 a.m. ceremony, as well as the event itself, brought widespread criticism from motorists over one of the most horrendous backups in recent memory.
At its worst, the delay stretched nearly eight miles on either side of the Maryland-Virginia bridge and prompted a cacophony of angry honking from motorists.
Though motorists blamed officials for staging the event shortly after rush hour, others blamed motorists’ rubbernecking — slowing down to look at the cause of the commotion.
“The great irony is that the actual dedication event was so successful and so well organized it caused people to gawk,” said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “When you get that much rubbernecking something like this backfires.”
The ceremony was meant to celebrate a milestone in the eight-year, $2.5 billion project to alleviate a major traffic bottleneck, and Wilson Bridge officials brought in Sen. John Warner, Virginia Republican, to tighten the final bolt on the new span. Mrs. Peters, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, both Democrats, were also in attendance.
Throughout the event, disgruntled truckers blew their horns as they passed, interrupting speakers such as Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters and making it difficult for the thousands in attendance to hear.
At one point, the transportation secretary, appointed by President Bush, paused as the truckers made their feelings known.
“Mrs. Peters was very concerned herself,” said agency spokesman Brian Termail.
Mr. Termail said Mrs. Peters and other officials were especially concerned about one lane of traffic being closed as a buffer between motorists and the event and asked that it be reopened.
“When we stage an event, we don’t add to the traffic,” he said.
Wilson Bridge Project spokeswoman Michelle Holland apologized for the delays. Speaking on WTOP Radio, she urged drivers not to take their eyes off the road. Asked why the event was held on a weekday rather than on the weekend, Ms. Holland said it was planned well in advance.
“We started getting calls from angry drivers around the seven o’clock hour that the backup was four miles and growing,” said Jim Farley, vice president of news at WTOP, which first reported the problems.
“They wanted to know why this was going on during their drive time.”
The new twin-span bridge has six lanes in each direction, but only half will be available when the second span opens to motorists at the end of the month. By year’s end, only five lanes in each direction are expected to be open — with three local lanes and two “express lanes” separated by a concrete barrier.
Even then, though, relief will be incomplete. Work on the Telegraph Road exit on the Virginia side of the Beltway — the final phase of the project — will reduce the Beltway to three lanes in each direction until early 2013. Only then will the entire 7.5-mile corridor have five lanes in each direction.
“There will be some improvements” for motorists once the new span opens, and again when the spans increase from six lanes to 10, said Ronaldo “Nick” Nicholson, project manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation. “But until 2012, 2013, you will still have backups.”
Still, Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said, “This is a major step in the ending of one of the worst bottlenecks in the nation. I know today’s congestion was bad, but it doesn’t compare to the traffic we would see before the construction.”
The old Wilson bridge, which opened in 1961, was designed to carry 75,000 vehicles a day. Today, an estimated 200,000 cars, trucks and buses cross the bridge daily.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.