- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

Motorists trying to cross the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge yesterday from Maryland into Virginia sat in expected backups as road crews continued to shift Capital Beltway Inner Loop traffic onto the new bridge span.

Vehicles lurched across the old Wilson Bridge for the last time, as the shorter-than-predicted delays kept drivers waiting nearly an hour in scorching temperatures.

The weekend work began Friday night when the Inner Loop was reduced to a single lane for about four miles so workers could connect it to the new bridge. Ramps on both sides of the Potomac River will continue to be closed through tonight, resulting in detours on such connecting major roads as Interstate 395 and Route 301.

The closures could last until 5 a.m. tomorrow, depending on how quickly the scheduled roadwork is completed.

In the days leading up to the work this weekend, officials warned of possible backups lasting for three hours and stretching up to 14 miles.

The traffic delays, though still significant, were shorter than predicted but could worsen today, said John Undeland, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project spokesman, said.

By midday yesterday, drivers were inching through backups of about 1 miles and 45 minutes to an hour long. At the peak yesterday afternoon, delays were about 90 minutes, and traffic was backed up for two miles.

Though skies were intermittently overcast, temperatures hovered in the low 90s much of the day and the humidity was nearly unbearable, adding to drivers’ frustrations.

Mr. Undeland said most motorists have heeded the warnings to avoid the area, but he remained cautiously optimistic.

“We still have a ways to go, but so far [traffic] isn’t too bad,” he said.

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

The old bridge was officially relieved at about 2:30 yesterday, after Paul Chang of Mechanicsville, Va., drove across the span. Mr. Chang’s white 1999 Toyota Camry was the last of more than 73 billion vehicles to cross the old bridge since its opening in 1961.

The last five motorists to cross the old bridge received a special, silver-dollar-sized medallion engraved with an image of the new bridge, Mr. Undeland said.

The old Wilson Bridge was notorious for its congested lanes, as the region’s traffic had woefully outgrown its capacity. The eight-lane beltway narrows into the six-lane bridge, creating one of the worst choke-points in the region.

The old bridge was designed to carry 75,000 vehicles each day. Before it was shut down, officials estimated that nearly 200,000 vehicles crossed 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 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 scheduled to be completed by 2011.

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