- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

Drivers, after years of sitting in traffic during their daily commutes over the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge, will get some relief next month when crews open the new southern crossing.

Officials with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project expect to begin opening the southern crossing, or the Outer Loop span, to traffic the weekend of June 9 or June 16. Only one lane will be open during the weekend. Three lanes will be open by 5 a.m. the following Monday.

The same will occur the weekend of July 14 or July 21 when officials move three lanes of the Inner Loop onto the southern span. Only one lane will be open during the weekend. Three lanes will be open by 5 a.m. the following Monday.

The six new lanes on the southern crossing will carry all traffic for the next two years, or until the northern crossing is complete.

“This is a major milestone for the project, but more importantly, it is a big step forward for long-suffering travelers,” said Bob Douglass, project manager for the Maryland State Highway Administration, one of the agencies involved in the project.

Officials will dedicate the new southern span Thursday, at a ceremony titled “Uniting the States.” State, federal and D.C. officials are expected to attend the ceremony, during which Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams will walk from the Maryland side to the middle of the drawbridge and shake hands with Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta.

Several government officials will speak at the ceremony, which is slated to begin at 11 a.m.

One of the highlights will be the first car that drives on the new bridge: a black 1923 Rolls Royce that belonged to President Woodrow Wilson, for whom the bridge is named.

The southern crossing is the first section of the new Wilson bridge to open to traffic.

The northern crossing, or the Inner Loop span, is scheduled to open in June 2008. Also that year, the revamped Interstate 295 and Route 210 interchanges will be completed. The new Route 1 interchange will be finished in 2009, followed by the Telegraph Road interchange in 2011.

Certain ramps at Route 1, I-295 and Route 210 will be closed to coordinate the switch to the new crossing, project officials said.

The overall $2.4 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project is more than 50 percent complete, transportation officials from Maryland and Virginia say.

“We’re almost ready to open the first phase as we anticipated, with Maryland and Virginia in sync,” said Ronaldo “Nick” Nicholson, project manager with the Virginia Department of Transportation. “It’s a megaproject with local interests, state interests and others.

“It’s on time and on budget,” Mr. Nicholson said. “The cooperation between Maryland and Virginia was much better than anticipated. The two states have worked together to solve problems.”

Maryland State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen agreed. “We’ve effectively dealt with the challenges of higher steel prices and maintaining traffic flow for more than 200,000 vehicles each day with relatively few problems,” he said. “It is a real success story that we plan to continue to project completion.”

The entire 7.5-mile project is scheduled to be finished in 2011.

Drivers say the opening of the southern crossing is a step toward relieving one of the narrowest gaps in the Beltway. The eight-lane Beltway narrows into the old six-lane bridge and, as a result, creates one of the worst bottlenecks in the country.

“It’s going to be a joy when they get it finished,” said Dean Foster, owner of the CTS trucking firm in Alexandria. “We go where the job is. Most of the time, we have gone over the 14th Street Bridge. … I think it’s going to be better when they get [the Wilson Bridge] finished.”

Tonya Strozier, 34, crosses the bridgetwice a day between her home in Waldorf, Md., and her job at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria.

Crossing from Maryland into Virginia at 6:30 a.m. usually takes about 45 minutes. Going home at 4:30 p.m. takes about an hour, she said. “It’s gotten slower the last couple months,” she said.

Crews will begin demolishing the old Wilson span sometime in July.

The first Wilson Bridge opened on Dec. 28, 1961, on what would have been the 28th U.S. president’s 105th birthday.

The original bridge was designed to carry 75,000 vehicles a day. Today, an estimated 200,000 cars, trucks and buses cross the bridge each day, transportation officials said. The daily traffic includes about 14,000 multi-ton trucks and semi-trailers, officials said.

The annual traffic over the bridge is estimated at 73 million motorists.

Much of that overload, which is physically wearing out the bridge, comes via Interstate 95. The original crossing plans did not include I-95 traffic. In 1975, north- and southbound travelers were expected to take I-95 through the District. Rerouting I-95 traffic was necessary, and the Wilson Bridge got the load.

Construction of the new Wilson Bridge began Oct. 16, 2000, with dredging of the Potomac, which was barely 2 feet deep across 70 percent of the river’s width.

Once completed, the new bridge will provide 12 lanes: eight for traffic, two for merging onto the interchanges and two others for high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes, express buses or Metro transit rails.

One of the main improvements is the addition of wide shoulders, where disabled vehicles can be moved out of traffic and emergency vehicles can travel, project officials said.

There will be a pedestrian or bike trail on the outside shoulder of the Inner Loop. There will be overlooks on each side of the Potomac. Most of the bridge is high enough that on a clear day motorists will be able to see the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.

The new Wilson Bridge also will include twin side-by-side drawbridges with higher clearance over the Potomac, reducing the number of openings for boats by 75 percent.

The new bridge will be 70 feet above the river’s surface, and will open an estimated 60 times a year. The old bridge has a 50-foot vertical clearance and opened about 260 times a year, blocking vehicular traffic both ways for several minutes.

The new drawbridges will work like seesaws balanced on 2-foot-diameter trunions, or fulcrums, of specially forged steel. They will take about 90 seconds to open to allow vessels to pass and take another 90 seconds to close, said John Undeland, a spokesman for the project.

Overall, officials with the Maryland and Virginia transportation departments and the Federal Highway Administration worked together to rebuild entrances and exits for the new bridge.

It required major reconstruction of the Route 210 overpass, the Route 210 interchange and two I-295 interchanges in Maryland, and the Telegraph Road interchange and three Route 1 interchanges in Virginia.

“It’s very complex,” said Srinivas Gunna, a project engineer who coordinates work on the bridge.

The most complex part of the project were the drawbridges, Mr. Gunna said.

Each of the four slabs weighs 4 million pounds — 2,000 tons — and are raised and lowered by electric motors that have as much power as a subcompact car. When lowered, the slabs are one-eighth of an inch apart, allowing for summer and winter expansion and contraction.

Also, the bridge lanes had to be built to slope 2 percent lower to the outer edges to allow rainwater to drain. Steel cables with 1.2 million pounds of strength are channeled through giant V-shaped piers to ensure support, Mr. Gunna said.

Area police hope the new bridge will decrease the number of accidents along the corridor.

Officials have said that area has twice the accident rate of similar highways in Maryland and Virginia and the American Legion Bridge.

“Usually, it’s just the volume of traffic,” said Sgt. Terry W. Licklider, a spokesman for the Virginia State Police. “The biggest problem is when there is a crash up there, and we have to send emergency vehicles.”

Sgt. Licklider said more accidents have occurred because drivers often don’t pay enough attention.

“We are looking forward to its completion,” he said.

The new bridge is designed to last 75 years.

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