House bill skirts court ruling on I-95 bridge over Potomac

Woodrow Wilson overhaul would be able to proceed despite pollution concerns

June 10, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Two House members from the Washington area proposed legislation yesterday that would allow the stalled overhaul of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to proceed despite a judge's ruling that the federal government had not properly examined the project's impact on the environment or historic sites.

At a Capitol Hill news conference, Reps. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, and Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican, argued that continued construction on the project is sorely needed.

The aging six-lane span across the Potomac River is crumbling under the weight of traffic congestion, which typically swells to more than double the bridge's intended capacity.

Additional environmental study could delay replacement of the federal drawbridge, a vital segment of Interstate 95 that links Prince George's County and Alexandria, Va., by an additional 18 to 24 months, highway planners say.

"We consider [it] to be a true crisis for the metropolitan Washington region," Wynn said yesterday.

The lawmakers said the judge had invited congressional guidance in crafting his interpretation of the federal laws governing clean-air mandates.

While the proposed 12-lane span would relieve safety concerns and ease traffic, the measure to speed its overhaul is likely to encounter opposition, even among those pushing for a new bridge.

Several area lawmakers -- including Reps. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican; Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat; and Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats -- have declined to back the bill, saying they fear it would aid those who would weaken environmental regulations.

The Clinton administration opposes the bill on similar grounds.

"This would set a precedent which probably would not be a good one," Hoyer said. "Anytime you run into a problem, you could deem the [environmental] laws complied with -- and the law's objective would not be met."

Last month, U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin ruled in favor of local environmental activists in a lawsuit filed by them. Sporkin found that the Federal Highway Administration had failed to determine the effect of added air pollution from traffic on the 12-lane bridge on the area, or its impact on historic sections of Alexandria.

In addition, the judge wrote that the highway agency had inappropriately rejected a 10-lane alternative plan favored by the activists, yet had used that more modestly sized proposal as the basis for its environmental review.

The Justice Department has until Monday to determine whether to appeal Sporkin's decision. It has not disclosed what it will do, a source of frustration for Wynn and Davis.

Several environmentalists reacted with dismay to the bill, which was proposed by lawmakers they often consider to be allies.

"The implications are terrible if we can, all of a sudden, override environmental laws," said Nancy Davis, chairwoman of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, and no relation to the Virginia representative.

"If we do it once, the precedent is obviously very dangerous all over the country," she said.

Maryland, Virginia and federal officials are working intensely to reach a new agreement on financing for the bridge, which is owned by the federal government. Under last year's highway financing bill, Congress set aside $900 million toward the bridge's cost. But Maryland and Virginia officials, who must pay the remainder, warn that their expenses would consume their entire transportation budgets for years.

Pub Date: 6/10/99

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