Bridging the Potomac $1.6 billion solution: Replacing Woodrow Wilson span won't be cheap, but it's necessary.

July 07, 1996

WHAT IS 35 years old, six lanes wide, overcrowded and crumbling? If you guessed the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across )) the Potomac River, you are right. The key question, though, is whether officials from Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and the federal government can agree on a replacement span before the structure deteriorates to the point that trucks have to be barred from using it.

They're inching toward a solution. Two options are alive. Neither will be cheap: A 150-foot-high 12-lane bridge ($1.6 billion) or a combination high bridge and tunnel ($2.1 billion). Drivers will pay tolls as low as $1.25 (12-lane bridge) or as high as $2.40 (bridge-tunnel).

The Wilson bridge is a notorious bottleneck along Interstate 95. Eight lanes narrow to six at the span, which is subject to heavy local traffic, crushing rush-hour demand and drawbridge openings. All that pounding has worn down the bridge, which wasn't built for such a strain.

Alexandria city officials have lobbied hard to block a replacement bridge, fearing it will mar the view and detract from the charm of that historic tourist town. But a new architectural design with a distinctive arched bridge and thinner decks seems to have eased concerns.

Price is critical. The tunnel-bridge option is one-third more expensive and would stretch construction time. A 12-lane high bridge would simplify construction and design. Still, don't look for an opening until at least 2005.

By Oct. 1, the jurisdictions must give Congress an answer. But nothing happens until Congress sets the size of its contribution. That will determine what's possible and the likely toll. None of the jurisdictions has the money to underwrite its share except through user fees.

This is a complex project -- the engineering will take three years; construction could last five. The multi-jurisdictional nature adds to the difficulty. And finding the funds hasn't been easy. Still, progress has been made recently toward removing the biggest traffic bottleneck -- and safety hazard -- along the I-95 corridor.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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