WASHINGTON – Every time a heavy truck drives over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the catwalk beneath the deck shivers from the impact.
Fifty feet below, the Potomac River sparkles in the afternoon sun. Overhead, the blue steel girders shake and rattle as cars and trucks – about 165,000 a day – pass over the bridge.
“You want it to shake,” says Luke DiPompo, the District’s chief of bridge construction, as he strides calmly along the narrow metal platform. “It’s supposed to flex. But not to the extent that it does.”
Of the 10 most traveled bridges in Maryland – all located on the Capital Beltway in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties – the Wilson is the oldest and most in need of repair.
According to Maryland State Highway Administration data, it has a structural rating of five on a two- to nine-point scale, which means that it is in tolerable but not excellent shape.
The other nine heavily traveled bridges all received a rating of six or seven, which means they meet or slightly exceed minimum standards. They are the American Legion or “Cabin John” Bridge, bridges over Indian Creek, Little Paint Branch and Northwest Branch creeks, and over the George Washington Parkway, MacArthur Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue.
Most have been renovated or rebuilt in the last 10 years to meet the demands of the 150,000 to 200,000 cars that pass over them daily.
Capital News Service’s computer analysis of SHA data revealed the two bridges in Maryland that receive the most traffic are boxy, concrete structures that span Indian Creek in Prince George’s County. Almost 200,000 cars a day pass over each of the structures.
The two were built in 1963 and have not been rebuilt since.
“Luckily the bridges were strong enough and sturdy enough that they’re doing all right,” said SHA spokeswoman Valerie Edgar.
The Wilson Bridge is not so fortunate. When the six-lane structure was built in 1961, it was designed to handle 75,000 cars a day, said David Keever, project facilitator for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Improvement Study. Replacing the deck in 1981 did not increase its capacity.
The bridge now handles twice its intended volume, and Keever’s group projects that by 2020 it will be carrying 275,000 cars a day.
The constant flow of traffic takes its toll. DiPompo, who is in charge of the drawbridge, said bolts holding down the platform work loose from the constant vibrations.
“I think the tower rocks a little more than it did 20 years ago,” said drawbridge operator Louis Burrows.
Planners with the Wilson Bridge Improvement Study say that the bridge will have to be rebuilt or replaced in the next decade.
“It’s in guarded condition,” said engineer Fred Gottemoeller. “It’s showing a lot of signs of wear. In about eight or nine years the pace of repairs is going to pick up to the point where it will become very expensive.”
Maryland, Virginia and the District are now trying to pass identical legislation to create a Wilson Bridge authority that would raise funds for replacement or repair.
Estimates of the cost of replacing the bridge range from $225 million for a six-lane bridge to $1 billion to build a 12- lane bridge, state and federal officials said. Renovating the existing structure would cost $215 million, Keever said, but the bridge’s life span would not be as predictable. -30-