Clinton supports funding for Wilson bridge, but amount remains uncertain White House disputes Glendening's claim of $900 million pledge

May 07, 1998|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF Washington Bureau staff writer Carl Cannon contributed to this article.

The Clinton administration will push for additional federal funds to replace the traffic-clogged, dilapidated Woodrow Wilson Bridge linking Maryland and Virginia, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said last night.

But the extent of that federal support appeared to be uncertain.

According to Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Glendening, the Clinton administration has agreed to back $900 million -- up from $400 million -- toward the cost.

A White House official, however, said it was a "real overstatement" when asked if the administration agreed to support $900 million for the bridge project.

Linda Ricci, spokeswoman in the White House budget office, said only: "The issue is being addressed in conference. We hope to come up with the best possible package."

According to Feldmann, in return for the federal backing, the governors of Virginia and Maryland agreed to kick in an undetermined amount of money. Any remaining cost would be paid for by an undeveloped funding mechanism, such as bonds, he said.

Any agreement could bring federal and state authorities a step closer to resolving the dilemma of how to pay the $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion cost of replacing the bridge, infamous for its backups and chronic congestion.

"I'm pleased that we've gotten this far. We still have a way to go," Glendening said after a meeting between state and federal officials and lawmakers at the White House yesterday, according to Feldmann.

State officials do not intend to use tolls to help pay construction costs for the bridge -- a draw span linking Prince George's County and Alexandria, Va., over the Potomac River. "It would create the nightmare of all traffic jams on the East Coast if they tried to pay for this through tolls," Feldmann said.

The Clinton administration originally proposed $400 million for the bridge, with the rest coming from Maryland and Virginia.

The states balked. The Wilson bridge is the only federally owned bridge in the country's interstate system, and the states argued that overhauling it was a federal responsibility.

The Senate included $900 million in its version of the federal transportation bill, but the House of Representatives did not include funds. Congressional negotiators will try to hammer out differences between the two sides.

The bridge, which is part of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95, has long been the source of commuter headaches. Drivers sometimes wait more than an hour to cross. About 172,000 vehicles a day overwhelm the bridge's intended capacity of 75,000.

The accident rate near 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.

The bridge is estimated to have about eight years of life remaining, and a proposed $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion replacement span would take at least that long to design and build.

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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