- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

It’s a trip that countless cars in the metropolitan area have made, but last night’s crossing of the Potomac River on the Capital Beltway was special nonetheless.

The first cars rolled across the new bridge at 9:41 p.m., making their way from Virginia to Maryland amid little fanfare and lots of construction — and almost 12 hours later than officials had set for the new span to open for traffic.

The first driver across the bridge did not speak English, but a passenger in his Toyota identified himself as Ted Shin of Virginia, said John Undeland, spokesman for the new Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge project. The next cars across were a Honda driven by Anthony Ferbish of the District and a Chevrolet driven by Kristine Egleston of Maryland.

Road crews labored through the night Friday and through much of the day yesterday to lay and mill fresh pavement in order to switch Outer Loop traffic to the new bridge, which stands to the south of the old Wilson Bridge.

Officials for the $2.4 billion bridge project, which is halfway complete, were pleased thattraffic was not as congested yesterday as they had expected.

Even though Outer Loop traffic across the old bridge was reduced from three lanes to one for most of the day, the low volume of vehicles created relatively brief delays, officials said.

“The worst backup occurred Friday night back to the Telegraph Road interchange,” project spokeswoman Michelle Holland said, adding that yesterday’s traffic created only a mile-long backup.

Officials had warned motorists to stay away from the area this weekend, predicting hourlong delays and backups of several miles.

Traffic moved slowly, but steadily, on the single lane of the old bridge.

Late Friday, officials closed access to the Wilson Bridge from Interstate 95 northbound, forcing traffic around the west side of the Beltway. Police cars were stationed at the entrance ramps to the new bridge along with orange barrels to keep motorists from entering.

On July 17, all Beltway traffic will be directed across the six lanes of the new bridge.

“That one is when we are expecting the worst traffic … we want people to really stay away that weekend,” Mr. Undeland said.

The three lanes of the new bridge were closed again last night as 425-foot-long steel beams were erected for the new Route 210 interchange.

All three lanes will be open for Outer Loop traffic tomorrow by 5 a.m., as well as the closed Route 1 ramps, or the contractors will be fined, officials said.

A scaffold was set up on the Washington Street overpass so residents could climb up and watch for the first cars crossing the bridge.

“The traffic patterns have changed so substantially around here that even I — a native — get lost sometimes,” said Christie Susko, who lives near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. “I don’t use the bridge anymore unless I have to.

“But it is great that the project has been on schedule so far,” she said.

Previously, the eight-lane Beltway narrowed onto the old six-lane bridge — creating one of the worst bottlenecks in the country.

However, the opening of the first new span may not relieve traffic much until the second span is completed in June 2008.

The six lanes on the southern span of the bridge will carry all traffic for the next two years, or until the northern crossing is completed.

Michael Vonk, who works at the Naval Research Lab, estimated he has crossed the bridge between 5,000 and 6,000 times over the past 20 years. He hopes traffic may get a little better.

“Before [the new bridge], there was nowhere for accidents to go. At least now they have wide shoulders now where accidents can move to,” he said.

Once both spans of the new bridge are completed, there will be 12 lanes: eight for traffic, two for merging onto the interchanges and two others for high-occupancy vehicle lanes, express buses, or Metro transit rails.

Officials report that the project is on budget, despite the higher steel and asphalt prices.

The new dual bridges are part of a 7.5-mile-long project, including the bridge and four key interchanges, due to be completed in 2011.

The old Wilson Bridge, which opened in 1961, was designed to carry 75,000 vehicles each day. Now, officials estimate nearly 200,000 vehicles cross each day.

The new bridge is designed to carry 300,000 vehicles daily by 2020. Its twin drawbridges will have a higher clearance, which will make openings 75 percent less frequent.

Demolition of the old bridge will begin next month to make way for construction of the second span.

• Stephanie De Pasquale contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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