A bridge too dear?

January 02, 1999

THE BIGGEST bottleneck along the East Coast's interstate highway system, the six-lane Woodrow Wilson Bridge spanning the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia, has to be replaced. Yet the federal government, which owns the bridge, isn't willing to put up enough money.

Close to 200,000 motorists -- two-and-a-half times the planned capacity in 1961 -- use this drawbridge each day, creating rush-hour gridlock that extends for miles along the Capital Beltway. It is both a major commuting route and a vital link along Interstate 95.

The bridge is slowly disintegrating -- pockmarked pavement, weakened steel under the constant pounding. Unless a new span is ready in six years, the Wilson Bridge may be closed to trucks. This, in turn, could create even more gridlock as 20,000 trucks a day are detoured through the District of Columbia and around the western beltway crossing.

Sadly, Congress failed to come up with a solution this year. It grudgingly allocated $900 million for a 12-lane replacement, leaving Virginia and Maryland to come up with the other $1 billion. To do that would mean freezing virtually all other Maryland road projects -- an untenable suggestion.

The drawbridge belongs to the federal government. Yet it wants to relinquish ownership and stick the states with the bulk of the bill. That's unfair and could delay construction.

The most sensible and equitable option would be for the Clinton administration to seek funds to pay the entire cost of replacing this federal bridge. Short of that, Congress should let a federal-state bridge authority sell construction bonds, paid off over a 30-year period by Washington.

A third option is far less desirable: charging tolls. That would be a logistical nightmare, with up to 48 toll booths required and not enough land on either the Virginia or Maryland side to make this work effectively.

Think of the delays during vacation season and on holidays, when the bulk of drivers aren't commuters with electronic toll-paying devices.

A solution must be found soon. Creative financing, with federal involvement, may be pivotal. Washington cannot forget that it owns this disintegrating bridge. It has an obligation to put up the funds to build a new one.

Pub Date: 1/02/99

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