Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Construction crews building the new Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge stepped closer toward its completion yesterday, using two powerful cranes to hoist the first steel beam for one of the new spans into place.

Crews used 250 bolts to secure the 57-ton girder onto two V-shaped crumble-proof concrete piers on the Virginia side of the Potomac. In the months ahead, 183 more girders will be put in place before the six lanes of traffic on the southern span are ready for commuters by mid-2006.

“This bridge is very robust,” said Jim Ruddell, construction manager of Potomac Crossing Consultants. “We’re on schedule. I think it is unusual for a project of this size to be doing so well.”

Contractors plan to bring in two beams each night during the midnight shift to minimize traffic problems, and then install them during the day, starting on the Virginia side and working toward Maryland.

The southern span will connect the Outer Loop of Interstate 495. When completed, it will carry all traffic (three lanes in each direction), and the original Wilson Bridge will be demolished. The northern span, which will connect the Inner Loop of I-495, will be completed by mid-2008.

The new spans will have a total of 12 lanes, two of which will be available for future rail transit, bus service or high-occupancy vehicles. A bicycle path across the bridge also is planned. The total cost of the new crossing is estimated at $826 million.

The new bridge also will include twin side-by-side drawbridges with higher clearance over the Potomac, reducing the number of openings for boats by 75 percent.

The old bridge, named after former President Woodrow Wilson, opened Dec. 28, 1961. It is six lanes wide — one of the narrowest gaps in the Capital Beltway, which is eight lanes wide for much of its length. That causes major traffic congestion during morning and evening rush hours.

The old bridge carries about 195,000 vehicles each day, nearly three times more than it was designed to carry. Mr. Ruddell said the new spans would be able to carry 295,000 cars daily. Daily traffic across the bridge is expected to grow to 300,000 vehicles by 2020.

“We’re only 30 percent completed,” said Mr. Ruddell, adding that the total construction project extends 7 miles into Maryland and Virginia.

The estimated cost of the project is about $2.43 billion. The project includes rebuilding interchanges of Route 1 and Telegraph Road in Virginia, and of Interstate 295 and Indian Head Highway in Maryland. The entire project is slated to be completed in 2011.

The new bridge will contain 13,500 tons of steel, the equivalent of 1,200 large school buses. The steel and other construction materials are especially strong.

Mr. Ruddell said the “high-strength steel” resists pressures of 50,000 to 60,000 pounds per square inch. The strongest steel girders used before resisted up to 40,000 pounds.

Other construction materials also are top-grade, Mr. Ruddell said, to avoid problems like those that troubled the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Annapolis recently. The new road surfaces on the Bay Bridge were weak and shallow and began to crumble, causing long traffic tie-ups.

Construction of the new Wilson Bridge began in October 2000. Much construction time has been devoted to building the 410 V-shaped concrete piers on the shores and the 629 steel pipe piles driven into the bottom of the Potomac to support the bridge foundation.

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