Fanfare to greet I-95 span dedication

May 11, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Maryland and Virginia transportation officials will begin next month the transition of drivers from the decrepit old Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the first of two new Potomac River spans being built in its place at a cost of $2.4 billion.

The concrete is dry, many of the signs are in place and there's little to do but paint the lines for traffic lanes and finish the control tower before Maryland-bound drivers can begin using the eastbound lanes of the new Interstate 95 bridge.

About five weeks later, motorists can say goodbye permanently to the pitted and rusty old bridge - first dedicated in 1961 - when three westbound lanes open.

Officials of the Woodrow Wilson project outlined the schedule yesterday in a briefing on plans for a dedication celebration a week from today on the new bridge. A tour of the near-completed span under a cloudless Washington sky showed a stunning view of the Potomac and the capital's monuments from a bridge 20 feet higher than the drawbridge it will replace.

The event planned May 18 - scheduled well before the actual opening to accommodate contractors - is an ambitious display of political stagecraft.

The celebration will bring together Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland, Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta - among other dignitaries - to bask in the completion of the first phase of a project that has been in the planning since the 1980s.

The theme will be "Uniting the States," and the plans call for guests to arrive while the new drawbridge is locked in the up position. When the signal is given, the bridge will be lowered - taking about 90 seconds to lock into place. Ehrlich and Williams will cross from the Maryland side while Kaine and Mineta will advance from the Virginia side for what officials call a "magic handshake" over the river.

They will then hop into former President Woodrow Wilson's 1923 Rolls-Royce to return to the reviewing stand. At some point, the Navy's Blue Angels jets will zoom upriver and perform a thundering flyover.

Project officials are hoping but not promising that about three weeks later - on the weekend of June 9-12 - they will open the first three lanes. If not then, the opening will likely occur the next weekend, said project spokesman John Undeland.

The three lanes carrying traffic from Maryland into Virginia will open the weekend of July 14-17 or July 21-24, Undeland said.

That will give motorists three lanes in each direction - the same as on the current bridge. The difference is the replacement bridge will have shoulders - a serious shortcoming of the now-outmoded bridge.

The real payoff in traffic flow is expected to come in 2008, when the second six-lane span is expected to open. The old bridge is scheduled for demolition.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan promoted the huge public works project as an important achievement of the Ehrlich administration. "This is a big one - and it is coming in on time, on budget," he said.

Officials will urge motorists to stay away from the area on the transition weekends, warning that traffic could be reduced to a single lane for part of the time. They warned that anybody setting out to be the first to cross the new bridge could end up being the last to cross the old span after a horrendous backup.

"We're fiighting the obvious curiosity factor," Undeland said. "Everybody and their brother's going to want to drive over that brand, spanking-new bridge."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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