City Paper is not for tourists
Alonzo Hines lives on Gale Street in Northeast, but he comes to Jones Point Park at water’s edge in Alexandria to fish. He’s got his spot staked out among the quiet line of old-timers who work the Potomac, and on nice days he rests on an overturned bucket, catches the sun on his face, and waits. Catfish, rockfish, perch: It depends. It’s not that important, anyway. There is plenty of movement to distract the eye and help him idle away the hours: flocks of birds flying in formation, planes taking off from Reagan National Airport, barges slowly slinking down the river.
His favorite activity, apart from reeling in a big old fish, is watching the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, which looms overhead on a phalanx of concrete pillars in a state of decrepit postwar glory. Like a lot of structures erected during the optimistic construction boom of the late ’50s, the bridge was put together with a lot of hope and promise, but under design standards far less stringent than the ones employed today. Congress appropriated $14 million for its construction in 1956. When it was first going up, curious pedestrians and kids on their bicycles would cluster to watch man conquer the river one more time.
Today, it’s simply a part of the landscape. There are no lions or buffaloes or golden arches to give its bare-bones architectural structure any glamour. It just feels like one more stretch of the Beltway. Stand below it, and the constant rumble of cars and trucks is so ferociously loud it fast approaches white noise. But it’s not without majesty. When the drawbridge opensgrinding traffic on the bridge to a haltHines pauses and briefly forgets about the fish. At 78, he still takes the time to marvel at the engineering.
“It’s a beautiful sight,” Hines says, in an old-black-Washington accent thick with the North Carolina drawl of his youth. “It’s just exciting to watch how it opens up over the deepest part of the water, and the ship goes through, and then it closes and goes back in its place.”
Another fisherman farther down the line agrees.
“It’s amazing how quiet it gets when they open the bridge up,” says Mark Webber, a 30-something white guy from Fairfax County. “It’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop. It’s pretty wild. That’s a hell of a lot of steel they bring up.”
Hines doesn’t use the bridge much himselfcan’t remember the last time he actually drove across it. He usually takes the 14th Street Bridge if he feels the need to venture into the Old Dominion. He has followed the news in the papers, though, and he shrugs his shoulders when talk turns to the rancorous regional debate surrounding the need to expand its size.
“It’s a heck of a lot of money to build a new one,” he says. “It’s the shortest route home for people who live in Anacostia and work in Virginia. But it’s a heck of a lot of taxpayer money to build a new bridge. I’d rather them just add to this one.”
Hines might as well speak to the seagulls. For more than a decade, planners and politicians have grappled with the fact that the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is, by all accounts, falling apart. The forces of commerce, sprawl, fiercely provincial local politics, and a myopic approach to transportation policy have combined to condemn the bridge to an early death.
It opened in December 1961 as the first direct link between the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, joining Oxon Hill in Prince George’s County with the city of Alexandria at a critical juncture of the densely traveled Capital Beltway. It’s 1.1 miles of very important highway. The Beltway crosses the Potomac River twice: north of D.C. at the American Legion Bridge, and south at the Wilson. The bridge is an absolutely essential link in Washington’s fragile transportation infrastructure, but it’s about to snap.
“The bridge is literally crumbling,” says John Undeland, public affairs director for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Center. Undeland’s Duke Street office in Alexandria serves as ground zero for all information related to the massively high-profile public works project. “The maintenance costs are skyrocketing. The wear and tear on the bridge is a huge concern.”
The Woodrow Wilson Bridge is 37 years old, well beyond your standard midlife crisis. The abuse she takes on a daily basis, particularly during the two lengthening rush hours, has gotten on her every last nerve. She’s approaching a full-fledged nervous breakdown, cracking up a little more each day. Estimated cost of shock therapy: $1.9 billion.
It’s no wonder she’s such a wreck. She is almost universally loathed, hosting a countless stream of unappreciative users who utter slurs against her even as they cross the river on her back. Of course she’s a neurotic creature suffering from a host of deep-rooted psychological complexes. And she knows her days are numbered.
It probably all goes back to her roots as a stepchild at best, an orphan at worst. Celebrated by no one and used by everyone, she sits in suspended animation between a cluster of jurisdictions that all think she should be someone else’s problem. A complex agreement hatched in her infancy has hindered effective management: She is wholly owned by the federal government. Maryland maintains her, and Virginia is responsible for providing electrical power. Because she is also a part of the Beltway, state troopers from both states deal with accidents on both sides of her.
But the District operates and maintains the drawbridge, which exists directly above a fluid southern corner of the D.C. boundary line. The control tower is staffed by employees of the D.C. Department of Public Works. When Ivin Pointer jumped from the bridge on Nov. 4, he happened to stand on a part that belongs to D.C., so District cops were involved in taking him down.
It’s like having four different parents, each of whom fights with the others for custody on a regular basis, although they don’t really want the responsibility of raising you. They agree on only a few major points: You are an ugly, burdensome, and obsolete pain in the ass. They’re tired of footing the bill for your face lifts. You’re done. And they’re very excited about the new baby.
Thirty-seven years is an astonishingly short life for a bridge. The Wilson Bridge’s early demise should serve as a dire warning that our cultural tendency to build out before thinking through has serious consequences. Transit analysts love referring to that Field of Dreams line: “Build it, and they will come.” Maryland’s Interstate 270, once heralded as a solution to gridlock, has come to epitomize it instead: A sea of cars courses along a pipeline that has allowed even more people to live farther from the urban core. In Washington’s outer suburbs, cheap town-house developments go up by the nanosecond, attracting young couples who want an affordable piece of the elusive American pie and a safe place to raise their kids. Counties are now scrambling to build new schools; it’s a point of pride if a school system can keep temporary trailer classrooms to a minimum.
The Wilson Bridge’s planners, who were in the business of seeing into the future, quickly realized that they knew not what they had wrought.
“The bridge started becoming over-capacity before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon,” says Undeland. “The existing bridge will be demolished. It’s a sad-sack, undramatic structure.”
The bridge doesn’t clearly register in the minds of many Washingtonians. Never driven across it? You’re not alone. It’s that big drawbridge downriver that’s always mentioned on the morning traffic reports, some hulking piece of transit arcana that a lot of people seem to bitch about. Backed up at St. Barnabas Road? Tie-ups all the way to Telegraph? Unless it’s a regular part of your daily commute, the uproar engulfing the bridge debate may not make a whole lot of sense.
Most people see the bridge only when they are at their worst. The Cranky Commuter, whose mental health and carefully orchestrated schedule fully depend on All Lanes Open, All the Time, sees it from the vantage point of the car, on the way to and from work. Few people, save the Alexandria residents who regularly convene at Jones Point Park with their dogs and soccer balls, have taken the time to roam beneath it.
But the bridge is not just a blip on the Boston-to-Miami fast lane. It’s an intensely local resource: comprehensive studies have shown that a full 85 percent of the traffic crossing the bridge is for local or regional trips.
Most of the traffic carries suburban dwellers to suburban jobsthe bulk of it folks from Southern Maryland commuting to jobs in Northern Virginia. Other suburban residents use the bridge to get to jobs in downtown D.C., particularly those close to Capitol Hill. District residents who routinely traverse the bridge tend to live east of the Anacostia River and take I-295 to the Beltway.
“I take the Woodrow Wilson Bridge every day,” says David White, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Ward 8. “When I’m heading out at 5:30 in the morning, all six lanes are fully active. It doesn’t take but one flat tire to jam things up for hours. Sometimes traffic backs up to South Capitol Street.”
The bridge was built as America’s fascination with the automobile was quickly escalating into a national addiction. Though the hope is that a planned new Woodrow Wilson Bridge will alleviate congestion rather than create more of it, skeptics predict that the new bridge will outdate itself just as quickly as the old.
“It’s a vicious circle,” says Clifford Winston, an economist who studies transportation issues at the Brookings Institution. “They will put in 12 lanes, the cars will fill up, the trucks will hurt it, and then they’ll need 24 lanes. This happens all over the country.”
But the volume of traffic that the bridge would eventually carry was never envisioned when it was first designed. The bridge’s future was sealed when it became an unwitting component of the East Coast’s busiest thoroughfare.
“The Wilson Bridge became a part of Interstate 95, and it was not intended to,” says Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “During the great highway debates of the 1960s, Marion Barry and other neighborhood activists effectively fought to have I-95 bypass the District. [Therefore] 95 does not go through the city. It goes over the bridge instead.”
Sam Smith, the editor of the Progressive Review, fondly recalls the District’s ferocious battle against I-95.
“The iron law of traffic is that traffic will fill whatever road space is available to it,” says Smith. “They wanted to build a major highway straight up through Brookland. We weren’t going to put up with this being another L.A. There were freeway fights all over the country, but D.C. really led the movement. We stopped 1,500 [lane] miles of freeways from coming through this town.”
Because the Wilson Bridge crosses a commercial waterway, a drawbridge was deemed necessary to allow larger ships to continue navigating the river. In the beginning, writers were enchanted with the mechanism that allowed the vessels to pass through the Potomac’s choppy channels. From a 1970 article in the late Washington Star Sunday Magazine: “Now the 50 tons of concrete and metal arched upward toward the control tower like the jaws of some Silurian beast, leaving a gaping chasm of dark and rushing water…”
But today the drawbridge, which is raised about 220 times a year, is primarily viewed as a huge inconvenience to motorists. A drawbridge on the Beltway: It’s like having a belt whose buckle is constantly being undone. The U.S. Coast Guard controls the operating schedule of the bridge, which depends on ship traffic. A complex set of Coast Guard regulations dictates exactly when the drawbridge opens; it remains closed during rush hours.
“The bulk of the traffic is recreational sailboats,” says Linda Gilliam, a bridge-management specialist with the Coast Guard. “But the main reason for the drawbridge is commercial. Commercial barges depend on that waterway for their livelihood, and we have to make sure they are accommodated.”
Huge ships carrying hefty rolls of raw newsprint regularly dock in Alexandria at the Robinson Terminal Warehouse Corp., a subsidiary of the Washington Post Co. Conspiracy theorists have long mused that Post coverage of the bridge debate is skewed by the corporation’s vested interest in keeping the drawbridge open.
Drivers may get stuck for 20 minutes or more during a drawbridge opening, and the traffic volume has continued to escalate beyond control. A bridge designed to carry 75,000 cars a day now moves nearly 200,000 vehicles, almost three times the traffic it was intended to support.
All those cars all come from somewhere. And there are a lot of them. The Texas Transportation Institute recently determined that the Washington area has the second-highest traffic congestion in the country, after Los Angeles. Part of the blame is placed on the fact that job growth in the outer suburbs has outpaced that of Washington proper.
“There are too many jobs and too many people in Washington,” says Tim Lomax, a research engineer at TTI, suggesting that the entire region is overbuilt. “If the federal government was to move to Seattle, there wouldn’t be nearly as much traffic. But Washington does not have enough multimodal transportation facilities. The transportation has lagged behind the burst of regional development.”
Our Metro system appears efficient, but it was designed primarily to funnel suburban residents to federal jobs downtown. Building the Red Line simply allowed more people to live even farther out. It’s great that a number of people take mass transit to work, but it would be better if they still lived in the city. But who could blame the flight of families in the ’80s, when staying put meant putting up with a corrupt local government, crime, rats, and a decaying school system?
What’s worse, Metro is increasingly inefficient. Transit analysts estimate that one in four District residents now commutes out of the city to workto a high-tech job near Dulles Airport or along I-270, or to an entry-level job at a suburban mall or hospital or office park. Reverse commuting is on the rise, with urban dwellers taking Metro to the end of the line and then scrambling to find a way out to the strip mall. Of course, many people just drive instead.
Stand under the bridge, and you’ll hear it groan, creak, shake, rattle, and roll. Drive across it, and you’ll hit patches of worn pavement and feel your blood pressure rise.
Though it’s still intact, the Wilson Bridge is a chronic disaster from a commuting perspective. The Beltway to the north and south is eight lanes wide, but the bridge has only six lanesthree in each direction. A bottleneck always occurs as drivers try to merge onto it, and as a result the accident rate on the bridge is twice that of the rest of the Beltway.
“If we could just tack a few more lanes onto the bridge, we would have done it a long time ago,” says Kirby. “But the bridge can’t handle increased capacity in its current state. You’ve essentially got to build a whole new bridge.”
What’s worse, there are no shoulders. Get into a fender bender with Little Miss Road Rage, and an entire lane is fucked while you scream at each other about insurance.
“We watch the Wilson Bridge all day long,” says Steve Kuciemba, the general manager of SmartRoute Systems, a multimedia traffic service that Web-cams photo stills of a variety of regional backups to traffic junkies. “The congestion happens like clockwork. It suffers greatly when there is an accident. The segment can’t handle it.”
Though psychologically it is far removed from downtown Washington, tie-ups on the bridge do affect the District. The Potomac Division of the American Automobile Association (AAA) recently polled Washington-area motorists and found that District residents overwhelmingly support the plans for a bigger and better bridge.
“D.C. residents favor moving forward with a new bridge,” says Mantill Williams, an AAA spokesperson. “Northern Virginia has an increasing number of employment centers, and District residents are using the bridge more often. Whenever the bridge is backed up, it has a huge effect on D.C. traffic and other arteries. A lot of people try to avoid the bridge, and then they cut through the city.”
Nov. 4, 1998, will go down in infamy as the Day the Traffic Stopped. District police closed the Woodrow Wilson Bridge for five hours to deal with Ivin Pointer, the Alexandria man who will forever be known in the local lexicon as “the jumper.” Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles H. Ramsey immediately incurred the full wrath of greater suburbia when he made the decision to close the bridge over fears that Pointer, 32, was suicidal and might have a gun. After pacing on the bridge for what seemed an eternity, the distraught computer consultant was shot in the leg with a beanbag bullet. He jumped into the river and was immediately rescued.
The radio was full of frantic reports warning of backups; news stories highlighted the children stranded at day care.
Ramsey quickly became seen as the bridge’s troll: a grouchy urbanite who didn’t understand the needs of area commuters. Everybody from traffic reporters to news anchors was all but calling him a nincompoop.
“I’m still amazed at the amount of discussion that incident still generates,” says Ramsey. “I’m sensitive to the issues of commuters, but we thought the guy was possibly armed with a gun. He could have started shooting at motorists. We don’t arbitrarily shut down bridges. It was a drastic measure, but it was a drastic situation.”
Ramsey says that officials “at a higher pay grade than mine” are discussing ways to better coordinate such episodes in the future. It’s not just to placate Maryland and Virginia; there are dire economic and environmental consequences every time the bridge doesn’t act like one: business meetings missed, time wasted, fossil fuel burned, air quality affected.
“The bridge is a major commuter and commerce route,” says Bob Grow, staff director for the transportation committee at the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “When we had the incident with the jumper, everything came to a screeching halt. If the bridge is disabled for any reason, you have 20-mile backups.”
Traffic tie-ups dampen the area’s economy, and hinder the delivery of goods and services. More than 14,000 of the vehicles that use the bridge daily are heavy trucks moving groceries and merchandise from warehouses to stores throughout the region.
Engineers warn that unless the bridge is replaced, and soon, weight limits will be posted, forcing 18-wheelers to find creative ways of crossing the Potomac.
“If it’s not replaced, we’re going to see 14,000 heavy trucks going through the District,” says Grow. “The main concern is that all of the truck traffic would come through the city to go over the 14th Street Bridge.”
Nearly every business association in Washington seems to have an opinion on the need to get rolling with the new bridge. Whether they quietly lobby behind the scenes or add their voices to the deluge of opinions on the project, players with a stake in the region’s economy have made it clear that they’re anxious to cut red ribbons.
“Interstate 95 is one of the most heavily traveled truck routes in the nation,” says Darrin Roth, a senior transportation policy analyst for the American Trucking Associations. “It’s the East Coast’s main street. The Wilson Bridge is a critical link in that. For the Wilson Bridge to be closed to trucks altogether or weight-posted would be devastating to the flow of truck traffic. A new bridge should be built as soon as possible. We’d oppose anything that would have the potential to hold up the construction.”
Building a bridge is a complicated exercise regardless of who is making the decisions, and those complications are squared when so many jurisdictions are involved. Any major decisions about the bridge involve the federal government, Maryland, Virginia, the District, and more than 60 agencies: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to name a few. Since 1992, a coordination committee that reads like a who’s who of local government heavies has multitasked on everything from transit trends to community concerns to environmental studies to bald eagle and fish-spawning issues.
They discussed building a tunnel instead, but deemed it far too expensive, as well as damaging to the Potomac riverbed. They looked at doing away with any drawbridge, but the replacement bridge would have to be so high that the incline would have to start even farther back, screwing up more interchanges and neighborhoods. They examined tolls, but tolls are wildly unpopular with suburban constituents.
The Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project held a design competition, and the winning entry was unveiled in November with tremendous pomp and circumstance: a twin-bridge, draw-span facility that will go up just south of the current one, taking out an apartment building at Hunting Towers in the process. There will be six lanes in each direction, with two lanes reserved for either rail transit or high-occupancy vehicles. There will be bike paths. At an increased height of 70 feet, the new bridge will require fewer than half as many drawbridge openings as the old.
“Since its unveiling, the design has received rave reviews,” reads a promotional brochure. “A citizen at an open house commented that the graceful, swooping lines of the repeated ‘faux arches’ had the appearance of several seagulls taking flight from the river.”
Instead of seagulls taking wing, the city of Alexandria saw red. The city judged the proposed new bridge too big and pushed for 10 lanes instead of 12, over concerns that more lanes would bring more traffic to Old Town’s quaint streets. Residents were not just being whiny NIMBYs: The bridge really is in Alexandria’s back yard. And although the difference between 10 and 12 lanes seems minimal, it would have a profound impact on the size of the footprints the bridge leaves on both ends.
“It is fair to say that Alexandria is clearly the most affected jurisdiction,” says Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley. “A number of Alexandria residents and businesses will be displaced. The widest bridge in the world will run along our borders.”
The new bridge is to be built at a width of 237 feet, and even at that size, authorities will have to make an either/or choice between accommodating mass transit and high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. It’s just the kind of shortsightedness that has led to the middle-aged demise of the current bridge.
The city of Alexandria filed a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration in U.S. District Court in December 1998, listing a spate of environmental and historic preservation concerns. The suit claimed that impacts on the city had not been properly evaluated during the planning process, and that 12 lanes were two lanes too many.
For that lawsuit, the seven-member city council took a tremendous amount of heat. Editorial after editorial blasted Alexandria for being obstructionist and monkeying with a plan that had been discussed for years. Harsh verbal volleys were fired back and forth across the river like revolutionary cannon fire.
“We have so much to lose,” says Del Pepper, a member of the Alexandria City Council since 1985. “The main problem with the new bridge is that it is too large. It negatively impacts our community. It’s just horrible to have to live around all of that noise.”
Every jurisdiction in the region pressured the Alexandria council to drop its suit. In the days leading up to a contentious Feb. 9, 1999, council meeting, in which the council was voting whether to push forward with its litigation or settle, the lobbying intensified. The Alexandria Journal referred to councilmembers who wanted to drop the suit as the “Sensible Three”; those holding firm were the “Litigious Three.” Pity Councilmember Lois Walker, who found herself in the unfortunate role of swing vote.
“To continue legal action is to fall prey to the hysterical nonsense wrought by a handful of activists that a new span would somehow ruin the character of Old Town (it is a half-mile away) and irreparably damage the environment,” ran the Journal’s editorial on Feb. 9.
The afternoon preceding the vote, Mayor Donley sat in his offices at his day job as senior vice president of the Virginia Commerce Bank and fielded requests for media appearances.
He had stuck to his guns to date, managing to wangle concessions for Alexandria: The width of the bridge would be reduced by 18 feet, an access ramp would allow entry to the city’s Eisenhower Valley business corridor, and millions of dollars in improvements would be made to Jones Point Park. The federal government had assured that the span would initially be limited to 10 lanes. Transportation officials had agreed to study the feasibility of another bridge crossing on the river, farther south.
(Another bridge would possibly connect Route 234 in Prince William County, Va., with Maryland’s Routes 210 and 301 in Charles County. The feds have committed only to possibly funding a “study,” but prepare for another possible bridge battle a few years down the road.)
“My job is to look out for the citizens of Alexandria,” Donley said. “We want to maximize the benefits and minimize the effects of a 12-lane bridge. While there may be disagreements on the best way to do that, I need to protect the city, and that’s what I’ve done.”
That night, the council voted 4 to 3 to drop its lawsuit.
Faxes of approval immediately began making the rounds on machines all over town.
“We see the council’s action as being a win-win,” says Kathy Snyder, the chair of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. “There were things that Alexandria did need to get out of the process, and we’re very pleased with the leadership of our mayor. It was a very difficult emotional decision for members of the council.”
The car drivers’ lobby is equally thrilled.
“Area motorists are breathing a collective sigh of relief after the Alexandria City Council decided to drop its lawsuits,” says an AAA press release. “The decision comes after a slim majority of Council members voted 4-3 in favor of a compromise with the Federal Highway Administration…”
And on the editorial page of the Washington Post a few days later, under the headline “All Aboard,” appeared the following:
It’s official, if only a decade or so late: Alexandria has dropped its protracted opposition to the rest of the region’s plans for a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. There’s no guarantee that the new bridge will be built before the old one falls into the Potomac, but with all the participating governments aboard, the most important transportation project in the region can proceed.
Not everyone is popping champagne.
Although the city of Alexandria may have dropped its lawsuit, a coalition of citizens in Alexandria is pushing forward. The Alexandria Historic Restoration and Preservation Commission, the Coalition for a Sensible Bridge Inc., and the Historic Alexandria Foundation all filed in conjunction with the city’s suit as plaintiff-interveners and have not withdrawn their filings.
And the residents of nearby apartments, who will undoubtedly be run over by the greater regional good the bridge will provide, won’t be going quietly.
“We are destroying at least one apartment building, possibly two, in Hunting Towers and taking out nearly 1,100 people to put in this bridge,” says Robert Peavy, the president of the Porto Vecchio Homeowners Association. Porto Vecchio is a swank condo community on the river; Hunting Towers is a trio of low- and middle-income apartments next door. Residents of both communities are faced with the common fact that they are going to have to either move or welcome the bridge at their front door. “We believe that the [bridge] needs to be replaced. But we are opposed to the idea of building a bridge that is so large and so tax-dollar-burdened,” says Peavy.
“I am violently against the new bridge, because I adore Hunting Towers,” says Julie Tatham. Like many of her neighbors, Tatham is up in years and has lived in her apartment for decades. She stops pushing her grocery cart long enough to share her anger. “I love my apartment. They are crowding us out. Why don’t they have a tunnel? Why doesn’t Maryland do something? We are very upset about it, because we love our apartments. If I have to move, I will, but the idea breaks my heart.”
Bob Holland, a Hunting Towers resident who is active in the Coalition for a Sensible Bridge, thinks planners are missing the point.
“For some of us, this whole process is somewhere between sad and infuriating,” Holland says. “There has been no official informing that we are going to have to move. Planners show that one of the towers will be taken out, but that doesn’t mean that some of us won’t still be here when they blow it up. I haven’t decided whether I am leaving yet.”
The city of Alexandria, after taking a severe beating and winning a few rounds, has caved. But the interveners in the lawsuit have not. Their case is moving forward, and oral arguments are expected to be heard in March.
“The city is dropping the suit, but we are not,” says Judy McVay, who spearheads the Coalition for a Sensible Bridge. McVay’s home in Old Town Alexandria has been turned upside down by the Wilson Bridge. Her dining-room table is piled high with documents and fliers; her phone rings constantly. “I’m disappointed, yes. Surprised, no. The fact of the matter is, it’s not a popularity test. It’s going to be decided in a court of law.”
Covington & Burling, the powerhouse District law firm, is representing McVay and her comrades in the struggle pro bono.
“[T]he legal rights of the only community directly in the path of the Bridge cannot be cast aside in favor of the political will of the outer suburbs and vested transportation interests,” says the original filing dated Dec. 4.
Attorneys at Covington & Burling continue to be optimistic that they have a strong case.
“Historical and other assessments have to be completed before you can go forward,” says attorney Mitchell Dolin. “The government failed to complete all those evaluations.”
Others aren’t so sure.
“Alexandria’s decision to settle takes a huge cloud off the whole project,” says Grow, of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “It takes a lot of panache out of the citizens’ lawsuit.”
Much remains to be sorted out beyond the legal case. There is still the funding issue: The federal government has committed $900 million, but someone needs to pony up more. The feds want out; they don’t want to own the new bridge. One of the jurisdictions will have to agree to own it, or a bona fide regional authority will have to be created. That coalition may be harder than the bridge to buildno one jurisdiction wants the bridge, or more specifically its costs, to land on it.
Engineers have set 2004 as the completion date for Woodrow Wilson Bridge Part Deux. An ambitious construction schedule has been set backward from that date; a fleet of design consultants has been chosen to upgrade four critical interchanges: at Virginia’s Route 1, Telegraph Road, and I-295, and Maryland’s 210.
“This is the biggest project in the mid-Atlantic area,” says Undeland. “We’re working back from 2004. We have to be in the water by October of 2000.”The foundation work will begin then, and the first of the twin bridges is planned to open by 2004. At that time, traffic on the current bridge will shift to the new one, and then the second span will be completed. If you think congestion is bad now, just wait until the construction begins.
Few people understand the Woodrow Wilson Bridge like the four drawbridge operators for the D.C. Department of Public Works. To get to their control booth, you walk up a shaky spiral staircase and along a narrow catwalk directly underneath the constant thunder of the cars and trucks. Traffic shadows slice menacingly dark rectangles over the industrial-green grates positioned a few feet from your head. Anyone who thinks the current bridge will last should check it out from this vantage point: It vibrates constantly, and the jarring is enough to unnerve anyone with even the mildest fear of heights. Look down at the roiling channels of the Potomac below, and scenes from a
Hollywood disaster movie start filling your imagination.
The tenders, working alone in eight-hour shifts, man the control room around the clock. The booth is in Washington, and everyone jokes about the need to fly the District flag. A set of binoculars hangs at the ready. Not a whole lot really happens on a typical shift; the tender listens to the traffic reports, chats with favorite tugboat operators, and opens up the drawbridge as needed. The Fourth of July is by far the favorite night to work; the tenders fight for the bird’s-eye view of the fireworks. And though they feel oddly removed from the traffic below, they can sense exactly when the crunch begins.
“You can’t miss rush hour,” says Billy McLean, 55. McLean lives in Bowie, Md., and has been tending to the Wilson for five years. He’s comfortable in the control tower, which is outfitted with an overstuffed chair, a radio tuned to jazz, some hanging plants, and a small kitchenette. The only complaint is that there’s no cableand he can’t really run out for lunch. McLean points across the river to the District’s Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant and the ribbon of cars beyond: “When rush hour starts, you can see it backed up beyond Blue Plains. Some people know the number to the tower, and they call up to see how bad the traffic backup is going to be.”
McLean knows all of the bridge’s lore. He points to the exact part of the bridge’s deck where Pointer jumped and reminisces about police chases that he’s heard on the radio and watched in action. Motorists stranded during drawbridge openings or accidents often bang on the door and beg to use the bathroom.
McLean intends to retire in a few years; he’s not planning to stay on to tend the new Wilson Bridge. And despite the ambitious construction schedule, he can’t really imagine a new one going up.
“You hear a lot of talk about the Wilson Bridge,” McLean says. “If I go someplace and people ask where I work, I tell them I’m an operator on it, and then I hear an earful. But I probably won’t be here when they build the new one.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.