- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

Officials dedicated the southern crossing of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge yesterday, as the governors of Maryland and Virginia walked from their respective shores and shook hands in the middle of the new six-lane span.

The southern crossing, or the Outer Loop, will open to three lanes of eastbound traffic by 5 a.m. June 12. It is the first span of the $2.4 billion bridge project to be completed. The northern span, or the Inner Loop, is scheduled to open to traffic in June 2008.

Called “Uniting the States,” the hourlong ceremony began at 11:11 a.m. when the Navy’s Blue Angels flew over the raised 2,000-ton, 150-foot-long drawbridges.

“It is a piece of priceless art,” said Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican. “This bridge is the bridge to everywhere, and a bridge worth every penny.”

Mr. Warner was among nearly 1,400 officials, workers and members of the press who attended the ceremony.

The drawbridges were lowered and Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, along with D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, met halfway on the new bridge and shook hands.

They hopped into a 1923 black Rolls-Royce convertible, which belonged to former President Woodrow Wilson, and drove across the new span.

Officials will open one lane for eastbound traffic at 8 p.m. June 9 and three lanes by 5 a.m. that Monday.

The same will occur the weekend of July 14, 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. July 17.

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

The new bridge is part of a 7.5-mile-long project. The bridge and associated road construction are scheduled to be completed in 2011. The project is more than 50 percent complete and is on budget, officials have said.

The old Wilson bridge, which opened in 1961, was designed to carry 75,000 vehicles a day. Today, an estimated 200,000 cars, trucks and buses cross the bridge daily.

The new bridge is expected to carry 300,000 vehicles by 2020.

“We are making history here today in dedicating this bridge,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

“This bridge will not bring an end to the metro area’s traffic problems, but it will make a difference,” Mr. Kaine said. “In the long term, it is a reminder of the progress we can make, when Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., come together and focus on the people we serve.”

Mr. Williams said, “The bridge is a symbol of the region’s cooperative efforts. If this means fewer traffic tie-ups, that’s good for all of us.”

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District’s only elected member to Congress, praised the new bridge for reducing “pet peeves” such as traffic congestion and long commutes. “When the whole region gets together, anything can get done,” she said.

Motorists and authorities have said the opening of the southern crossing is a step toward relieving one of the narrowest gaps in the Capital 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.

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, officials have said.

Twin drawbridges will have higher clearance over the Potomac River, reducing the number of openings for ships by 75 percent.

Shortly after the ceremony, a boat passed under the old and new bridges and spouted streams of water into the air.

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