- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Rest in peace, Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge.

The 45-year-old transportation relic and notorious traffic bottleneck — officially relieved of duty earlier this summer by a newer, larger version of itself — ultimately met its fate early this morning, when a commuter detonated rigged explosives to demolish the old Potomac River crossing.

Construction crews already had torn down most of the old drawbridge once all Capital Beltway traffic was shifted to the new bridge span in July.

The remaining half mile of steel girders stretching over Jones Point Park in Alexandria was felled in a thunderous explosion at the hands of Dan Ruefly, an electrical contractor from Accokeek handpicked to finish off the old bridge.

“What an honor,” said Mr. Ruefly, 53, who won a contest sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project to find the motorist with the worst bridge-related commuting story. As the winner, he got to trigger last night’s detonation of 2,600 tons of steel. “It was great to be able to do this for all of those commuters who have sat on that bridge. It was worth the wait.”

For the occasion, the Beltway was shut down in both directions, creating backups to Telegraph Road in Virginia and Route 210 in Maryland; air travel was restricted and spectators were held hundreds of feet away. Some pedestrians trying to get a better vantage point broke through a security fence, delaying the big blow, which had been scheduled for 11:59 p.m.

At 12:33 a.m., Mr. Ruefly pushed down on the ceremonial plunger, setting off the explosives that reduced the remaining portion of the mile-long bridge to rubble and scrap metal in two-tenths of a second.

Mr. Ruefly has a long history with the bridge, having made a two-hour commute to Rockville nearly every morning for more than 30 years, coupled with a 90-minute drive home to Prince George’s County.

In September 1999, Mr. Ruefly shattered his hip in a crash when his Dodge pickup truck slammed into a tractor-trailer that had stopped on the bridge to help another motorist. The ambulance taking him to the hospital was delayed when the drawbridge went up.

His story was submitted by his daughter, Tiffanie — unbeknownst to Mr. Ruefly. A panel of veteran traffic reporters last week chose his story from among 312 entries.

The old bridge was a traveler’s landmark and, for years, the bane of many commuters. It had seen it all since it opened Dec. 28, 1961 — from major wrecks and miles-long backups to bridge-jumpers and vehicles catching fire.

Known as one of the region’s worst choke points, the old bridge narrowed the eight-lane Beltway into six lanes 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 daily.

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

The bridge will have 12 lanes total 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 (HOV) lane and for express buses or Metro transit rails.

The new bridge is part of a 7-mile road-and-bridge project that includes approaching highways of Route 1 and Telegraph Road in Northern Virginia and Interstate 295 and Indian Head Highway in Maryland.

The entire project is estimated to cost $2.4 billion and is on schedule to be completed by 2011.

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