- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

The second major phase of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge construction project begins today at 8 p.m., with officials warning that few delays during the first phase could lull motorists into entering the 7-mile stretch and creating massive backups.

“Our biggest concern is that just because [the first phase] wasn’t a total nightmare, people will let down their guard,” said project manager John Undeland.

Officials predict backups as long as 15 miles and 60- to 90-minute delays, even if 75 percent of motorists avoid the Inner Loop of the Capital Beltway near the bridge, which crosses the Potomac River and connects Maryland to Virginia.

“Even if traffic decreases by 75 percent… it’s going to be gridlock city,” Mr. Undeland said.

This weekend’s work — known as the second phase of the “Beltway Shift” — will allow crews to pave new road alignments on the Inner Loop, help complete construction on the Washington Street overpass and open the first of two bridges by spring 2006.

To accomplish the task, officials this weekend will have to narrow the Inner Loop from four lanes to one lane — from the Interstate 295 exchange in Maryland to Route 1 in Virginia — and block several ramps.

The ramps between the Inner Loop and Route 1 will be closed. The Interstate 295 South ramp to the Inner Loop will be closed, and the Inner Loop ramp to Mount Vernon will be closed until 2008.

The closings and restrictions are scheduled to last until Monday at 5 a.m.

Motorists are advised to take the western half of the Beltway, Route 301 through Maryland or Interstate 395 through the District.

Although few delays occurred during the July 15-17, officials said this weekend’s project is more complicated.

For example, the Inner Loop handles more vehicles than the Outer Loop.

On a typical Saturday in August, about 81,000 vehicles are on the Inner Loop, compared with about 72,000 on the Outer Loop, Mr. Undeland said.

In addition, there are no plans this weekend to divert traffic from Interstate 95, a major highway for East Coast travel, and crews might need to lay four times more asphalt than they did in July.

The work in July was completed about 24 hours sooner than expected.

Officials attribute their success in July mostly to crews needing less asphalt than expected, no major thunderstorms and a successful awareness campaign, which included TV and radio ads, road signs, a Web site, a press day and advisories as far away as the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

The campaign was restarted for this weekend, but officials are still worried about motorists dismissing the warnings because the traffic jams rarely were longer than two miles in July.

Ronaldo Nicholson, project manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation, thanked motorists for their efforts last month and asked for the same this weekend.

“Extremely long backups and delays will occur if motorists don’t divert from the area,” he said.

The worst backups are expected to occur tomorrow at about 2 p.m.

The entire $2.43 billion, 11-year project — which will expand the bridge into two 6-lane spans — is scheduled to be completed by mid-2008.

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