Wilson bridge crumbles... While Congress fiddles: Lawmakers shrug as key I-95 span over Potomac falls apart.

November 09, 1997

ONCE AGAIN, CONGRESS has ducked a responsibility that falls directly in its jurisdiction. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have shelved until next year an important highway reauthorization bill containing two conflicting plans to replace the heavily traveled, crumbling Woodrow Wilson drawbridge linking Maryland and Virginia.

It's just as well: Both chambers on Capitol Hill want to fob off on the two states much of the financial burden for replacing this interstate highway bridge.

The federal government owns and operates the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that abuts Alexandria, Va., and Oxon Hill in Prince George's County. So you would figure that Congress and the president are the ones to make urgently needed repairs or build a new crossing. That's fine in concept, but not when a replacement for the Wilson Bridge would cost $1.75 billion. Congressmen, and the Clinton administration, are running for cover.

So the Wilson Bridge sits and slowly falls apart. It carries 172,000 vehicles a day along busy Interstate 95 -- twice its design capacity. Repair needs are constant. Each passing day, it gets a little less structurally sound. Its useful life is just seven years.

But if Congress approved bridge replacement money today, it would take seven years before a grand opening. As Virginia's transportation chief put it, even "if everything goes right, we are right at the brink of a major regional transportation crisis."

Without federal action, the day may be approaching when trucks are totally banned from the bridge.

That would create a horrific traffic jam at the other key regional road crossing -- the American Legion Bridge joining Montgomery County and Fairfax Co., Va., on the western side of the Capital Beltway -- as well as routes through the District of Columbia. It would severely impact the trucking industry, which is heavily dependent on I-95 to carry its cargo up and down the East Coast.

Both the House and Senate plans -- as well as the Clinton administration's proposal -- are unrealistic.

Under the best scenario (the Senate bill), Maryland taxpayers would have to put up a whopping $450 million for the bridge. That could require a higher state gasoline tax or it would mean a sharp cutback on all other state road projects for years to come -- to replace a bridge Maryland doesn't even own.

Washington politicians are being irresponsible. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge is federal property. It is in a state of disrepair. It is a critical bottleneck for East Coast interstate traffic.

What is required is a seven-year federal payment plan from Congress and the president to fully fund this vital project -- before a crumbling bridge over the Potomac becomes a falling bridge.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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