Going south? Avoid I-95's Wilson bridge this weekend


The people in charge of replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge are spreading the news from New Jersey to Virginia: Stay away this weekend.

Starting tonight, transportation officials will narrow Interstate 95 to one lane as it approaches the Potomac River in Maryland as they begin the process of switching southbound traffic from the old bridge to the new one.

Those who insist on driving over the bridge could be in for a long wait.

John R. Undeland, a spokesman for the $2.4 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, said some motorists spent up to three hours in a seven-mile backup during a similar closure last year.

Project officials are suggesting that people take alternate routes this weekend, hoping to divert three-quarters of the bridge's normal southbound weekend traffic.

"We have signage going as far north as New Jersey," said Michelle Holland, a project spokeswoman.

Sometime this weekend, the last traffic will cross the decrepit old bridge. Vehicles will be diverted onto the three southbound lanes of the new bridge, which opened to northbound traffic last month.

Demolition of the old bridge will begin almost immediately after this weekend's changeover.

The 5,900-foot existing span is, in a sense, limping to its finish line. It made its debut in 1961 - the same year as the Berlin Wall, a structure of comparable popularity.

"It's notorious," Undeland said. "It's just synonymous with congestion and backups and accidents."

In 1994, a high-powered team of engineers concluded that decades of vibration and heavy truck traffic were taking such a toll on the bridge that it had only about a decade of useful life left. The engineers concluded that it would be more cost-effective to replace the visibly deteriorating structure than to try to rehabilitate it.

Holland said the demolition will start with the part that extends from the Virginia shore and includes the drawbridge. The part of the old bridge between the Maryland shore and the drawbridge will remain standing for several months as a staging platform for construction of a second new span.

That span is expected to be finished in 2008, completing a construction project that began in October 2000. When it opens, the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge will carry six lanes of traffic in each direction and include shoulders.

The current bridge carries three lanes in each direction, with shoulders only 7 feet wide. When it was built, it was expected to carry about 75,000 vehicles a day. In recent years, average travel has exceeded 200,000 vehicles a day.

The current drawbridge must be opened about 260 times a year to let ships pass through on the way to or from Washington. The new bridge is about 20 feet higher and is expected to reduce that number to about 60.

This weekend's lane closings will begin at 8 p.m. today and could continue through Monday at 5 a.m. They will extend from Maryland 210 to the U.S. 1 interchange in Virginia.

Officials of the bridge project have posted electronic message boards around the Mid-Atlantic region warning motorists of potential tie-ups in southbound travel. This changeover is expected to have more impact on Maryland drivers than the opening of the three northbound lanes did.

Southbound drivers are being urged to use routes such as the American Legion Bridge on the western side of the Capital Beltway, U.S. 301 through Southern Maryland or Interstates 295 and 395 through the District of Columbia.

"All the alternatives are a quicker way to go than the Wilson Bridge this weekend," Undeland said.


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