On Wilson, worsening delays Commuting: Future traffic reports look ominous as almost 200,000 vehicles cram the bridge between Virginia and Maryland daily.

April 13, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

It is just past 7 a.m. near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, one of the worst bottlenecks on the East Coast, and two folks are getting to know each other. The Wilson Bridge way.

"She hit my car," Kyong Jyong says, pointing at Stacey Lipkins.

Standing on the shoulder, Lipkins looks at Jyong, leans her head on her car roof and sobs. Behind them, cars stall. Traffic radios buzz about an early morning accident. Drivers groan.

Another day, another fender-bender, another reason to avoid the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Deemed by experts as perhaps the slowest-moving stretch of Interstate 95 between New York and Miami, this bridge between Maryland and Virginia is overused and overstressed.

Indeed, if a traffic artery could have an aneurysm, this one would. It is so narrow that cars sometimes wait more than an hour to cross. It is so crowded that 172,000 vehicles a day overwhelm its intended capacity of 75,000. It is so dilapidated that it crumbles, literally, as drivers rumble over it.

"The Woodrow Wilson Bridge is only getting worse every day," said David Chapin, assistant deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Transportation. "The consequences of doing nothing are really quite dramatic."

Fearful of a disaster, state and federal officials are calling for a new span. The bridge has about eight years of normal life left in it, and a proposed $1.6 billion replacement span would take at least that long to design and build.

Yet even as the Wilson is described as a "ticking time bomb," the bridge remains in a bureaucratic bottleneck all its own -- under the care of both everyone and no one. Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and the federal government -- all of whom control a portion of this bridge -- are refusing to pay the bulk of its pricey replacement.

Backing up to trouble

The bridge, which connects Alexandria, Va., and Prince George's County over the Potomac River, is part of the Washington Beltway and I-95. Any routine trouble on that roadway within several miles of the span causes immediate backups on the Wilson.

Just look at a smattering of troubles that caused bridge delays in one recent week:

A fender-bender on the span prompted a two-car accident from rubbernecking. A disabled car blocked a lane because there was no shoulder to pull onto. Cars backed up after a woman in a Ford Bronco ran out of gas and stalled in the right lane. Traffic even slowed when the driver of a red Mazda parked by the bridge's "No Stopping Any Time" sign to relieve his carsick child. And then there was the stop-and-go bang-up between Jyong and Lipkins.

The fender-bender happened like this: Jyong, a Virginia-bound commuter, said she hit the brakes on her Ford pickup in Maryland as she approached the bridge. Lipkins, traveling from Queens, N.Y., for a Virginia vacation, said she didn't notice. So, with her two children doodling in their Springtime Puppy Coloring Fun books in the back seat, Lipkins said, she hit the gas on her Mitsubishi Galant.

Boom. No injuries were reported, but the crash added about 20 minutes to drivers' travels.

Such fender-benders are too plentiful to count, although Washington drivers cannot easily forget the deadly accidents. Only last month, a tractor-trailer crashed approaching the bridge and killed a married pair of senior citizens bound for Florida.

The accident rate just before the bridge is twice the average of the interstate highway system, federal officials say. In 1996, authorities reported 254 accidents, one of them fatal, on the bridge and on either side of it.

Commuter crossing

Although the bridge sits smack in the center of the north-south route between Maine and Florida, it is primarily a conduit for local commuters. Marylanders heading to work at the Pentagon and other military facilities are likely to cross the Wilson every day, as are Virginians heading to corporate headquarters for firms such as Giant Food and Cellular One.

The bridge is so clogged that the American Automobile Association put it on its Top 10 list of the nation's worst bottlenecks.

There are several reasons. The bridge contains only three lanes in each direction, while most of the Beltway runs four lanes both ways. Rush hour backups can begin five miles before the span.

What's more, major thoroughfares dump seven lanes of traffic onto the roadway approaching the bridge. Going west to east, U.S. 1 adds 1,500 cars in a typical busy hour; east to west, Interstate 295 pours in 1,000 drivers in the same time.

And finally, the span sits just 50 feet above the Potomac and must lift about 220 times a year to accommodate large vessels (although not during rush hour). With an average of 87 vehicles crossing the bridge per minute -- a number expected to double in 15 years -- every second is critical.

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