Bad news for D.C.-area drivers Wilson Bridge: Tolls, drawbridge could make replacement a $1 billion folly.

November 26, 1995

IF YOU HAVE occasion to use the Washington beltway -- especially the southern portion where it crosses the Potomac River to Alexandria, Va., you're about to be taken for a very expensive ride that will make commutes worse, not better.

Officials from Virginia and the District of Columbia pulled a dirty trick on commuters and frequent beltway travelers. While voting to replace the deteriorating Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the regional panel endorsed a traffic-stopping drawbridge and likely will require cars to stop and pay a toll. The net result: even bigger backups on this busy section of Interstate 95, increased driver frustration and a $1 billion embarrassment.

What makes this situation doubly embarrassing is that the regional panel refused to allow a public hearing on whether it was wise to replace the Wilson bridge with another drawbridge. It rejected appeals from the three Maryland representatives that the driving public should be given a chance to express its views on building drawbridges along busy interstates. Instead, the D.C. and Virginia members ignored the needs of the 172,000 drivers who use the bridge daily and sided with the handful of marine interests that require a raised drawbridge to navigate that portion of the Potomac.

The big winner in this dispute is the Washington Post Co. It owns a newsprint warehouse company that is expected to force the majority of the new bridge openings. It was the Post's counsel who pushed for a quick vote on a drawbridge replacement without any public hearings. Alexandria officials also wanted to ensure a drawbridge in hopes that some day that town can benefit from cruise ship business.

This probably means that at least 65 times a year, the new drawbridge would be raised, stopping traffic in both directions. Along with toll congestion, the scene on I-495 at the Potomac could be total gridlock.

Given the enormous costs involved -- alternatives range from $1 billion to over $2 billion -- you would expect that a replacement bridge would eliminate existing backups. But that does not seem to be in the cards. The decision has been made -- and the public has been effectively excluded from the process.

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