- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

Bureaucratic rigamarole has pushed back the estimated completion date for the new Wilson Bridge again. Instead of sometime in 2004, state officials announced last week that the new span would not be ready until late 2005, perhaps even 2006.

The Wilson Bridge project has been plagued by setbacks, including haggling over union-only work rules, called Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) that were insisted upon by Maryland, which has overall authority for the project. The insistence upon the PLAs drove up estimated construction costs and set the stage for an initial $860 million bid that was a staggering 75 percent higher than officials had anticipated. This was the only bid submitted. So, while it was rejected out of hand due to its inflated size, officials still had to find a contractor willing and able to do the job within cost constraints. Their solution was to break up the project into three smaller sub-projects and bid these out to multiple contractors. One contractor would work on the third of the bridge extending from the Maryland shore to the center, and another would work on the section extending from the Virginia shore. A third contractor would complete the center section, where the two spans would meet. The theory was that by breaking up the work into smaller, more manageable sub-projects, more contractors would submit bids, and competitive pressures would help to keep costs within acceptable limits. Unfortunately, getting this process moving has proved to be another trouble spot.

The second round of bidding on the Maryland section was to have begun in October, with February 2003 set as the deadline for submissions. But Maryland officials announced that advertisements for bids to work their section of the new span won't be put out until January, and said that May is now the deadline for the actual bid submissions. In other words, Maryland won't even have completed the bidding process for its section of the bridge until next summer. And if the bids are over-budget again? Well, it looks like we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Meanwhile, motorists will have to endure the ever-worsening chokepoint that is the current Wilson Bridge for at least another few years perhaps three or four. Who knows? And the physical state of the old span originally designed to handle 75,000 vehicles per day but which now endures the load of 200,000 vehicles per day grows worse with each passing month. Officials announced that weight restrictions may have to be imposed, which would mean diverting heavy truck traffic elsewhere and creating a traffic nightmare for those unlucky enough to be caught in the mess. The old bridge is literally falling apart and becoming dangerous. Millions have been spent shoring it up including $4.5 million this summer but it just wasn't built to take the use it's subjected to on a daily basis. Moreover, it's entirely possible that further delays in the construction of the new span could outpace the ability of engineers and work crews to keep the old bridge from becoming too dangerous to use and not merely for heavy trucks. Such delays could be catastrophic effectively closing down the Beltway, the region's major transportation artery, cutting off Maryland from Virginia.

It's imperative, therefore, that officials get on the stick and see to it that red tape and bureaucratic rigamarole are not allowed to paralyze the Washington area's transportation grid. Getting a bridge built, on time and on budget, should not be this complicated.

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