- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2006

For one lucky commuter, the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge is going to be a blast — literally.

Officials for the replacement bridge project are sponsoring a contest to find the motorist with the worst commuting story. That harried driver will be allowed to push the button that brings down the old Potomac River crossing.

“It’s going to be a great occasion,” said John Undeland, a spokesman for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project. He also called the contest a reward for “so many commuters who have struggled to get across the old bridge, traveling at single-digit miles-per-hour.”

Construction crews have already begun dismantling the old bridge, which was officially retired last month when all Capital Beltway traffic was shifted to the new bridge span. The remaining half-mile will be exploded in two-tenths of a second, Mr. Undeland said.

The contest winner gets to push a button to detonate the explosives — an opportunity likely to attract more than a few commuters.

Ebrima Ceesay, 38, of Alexandria said he is all too familiar with the sluggish traffic near the old bridge, having to cross daily to get to work.

“If you live in this area, you’re going to get stuck in bridge traffic eventually,” he said. “Lately it’s worse. You could be waiting from an hour to God knows how long.”

Mr. Ceesay, a US Airways employee, said the opening of the new spans has helped, but he routinely gets stuck in traffic near the bridge for long stretches, the worst coming this summer when he got caught in backups caused by weekend construction that reduced the four lanes of Interstate 95 to one lane across the bridge.

“I was on my way back from the beach, and I ended up sitting for two hours,” he said.

Nicole Washington, who commutes to work daily from Mitchellville to Alexandria, said the backups were so annoying that she changed her route. Instead of traveling most of the distance via the Beltway, she now takes Route 50 to the Anacostia Freeway, hitting the Beltway about a half-mile before the bridge.

“The Beltway, it can be terrible in the morning near the bridge,” said Miss Washington, 52, a project coordinator for the American Society for Training & Development on King Street. “Before I began taking Interstate 295, it would take an hour and a half to drive 20 miles.”

Mr. Undeland wants drivers with similar experiences to call 703/329-0300 or visit www.wilsonbridge.com/toughestcommute. Contestants are to describe the time and distance of their commute; how long they have crossed the bridge; and particularly grueling trips.

The contest ends Aug. 18 at 7 a.m. A team of veteran traffic reporters will select the winner, who will be notified when and where to push the button.

The explosion is scheduled for midnight Aug. 24, when traffic is light. For 30 minutes, the Beltway will be closed in both directions and air travel near the area will be restricted.

The steel segment that will be torn down is over Jones Point Park, Mr. Undeland said. Residents there and in nearby communities will be alerted, and spectators will be held 750 feet from the explosion.

The old Wilson Bridge, which narrowed the eight-lane Beltway into the six lanes, was known as one of the worst bottlenecks in the region. It opened in 1961 and was designed to carry 75,000 vehicles each day. By 2000, when construction of the new bridge span began, nearly 200,000 vehicles crossed the bridge daily.

The new bridge is designed to carry 300,000 vehicles a day by 2020. Its twin drawbridges are being built 20 feet higher than those of the old bridge, which will also make openings 75 percent less frequent.

The bridge will have a total of 12 lanes on both spans when completed. Eight of the lanes will be for traffic, two will be for merging onto the interchanges and two others will be a high-occupancy vehicle lane and for express buses or Metro transit rails.

Traffic began using the new Outer Loop span of the Beltway in June. The span will carry Inner and Outer Loop traffic for the next two years, until work on the second span is completed.

The bridge is scheduled for completion in mid-2008, though construction will continue until 2011 on the interchanges for I-295, MD-10, Route 1 and Telegraph Road. The $2.4 billion project is operating on schedule and budget, Mr. Undeland said.

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