ANNAPOLIS – The Board of Public Works approved a design Wednesday for the new Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, but only after both Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and State Treasurer Richard Dixon sharply criticized the drawbridge design and complained about feeling rushed to vote.
“I’ll vote for it, but I think you’re just giving in to pressure,” Schaefer said to the transportation group who presented the new design concept.
The three-member board, which also includes Gov. Parris N. Glendening, unanimously approved the design. Glendening sat quietly throughout his colleagues’ debate. More than 190,000 cars traveled over the bridge daily in 1997, and the number is expected to reach 300,000 by 2020, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration. Yet, the bridge is designed to handle 75,000 cars daily.
Cracks, potholes, loose nuts and bolts and bent support rods mar the bridge. The road has been resurfaced, and increased supports have been added, but transportation officials estimate the bridge will require substantial repairs by 2004 if it isn’t replaced.
The approved plan, created by a Maryland firm, will create twin drawbridges to replace the current one carrying traffic over the Potomac River between Oxon Hill, Md., and Alexandria, Va. It will cost an estimated $1.9 billion.
Schaefer said architects are repeating the same design flaws of the current bridge.
“One of the problems with the bridge now is continually having to open it, and we’re going to go back and do the same thing,” Schaefer said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. You’re going to have a new drawbridge; it’s just going to be prettier.”
The new bridge will be 20 feet higher with a stricter and shorter opening schedule regulated by the Coast Guard to prevent excessive decay, said Robert Healy, assistant deputy chief engineer with SHA.
“That sounds good here, but it’s not going to happen,” Schaefer said. “They’re going to open that bridge whenever they want to.”
While a taller bridge would cost about the same as the proposed drawbridge, Alexandria residents opposed building a bridge that would have to be as much as 135 feet high for boats to pass, Healy said.
Trying to submit a design without a moveable span would create a stalemate over the plans, said John Porcari, secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation.
“This is our No. 1 transportation project, but the reality is other jurisdictions are adamantly opposed to a high bridge,” he said. “It could tie this process up for year. We are satisfied that this design meets our needs.”
Transportation officials stressed the urgency of moving forward with construction. “We hope to begin quickly with construction so it’s important that we approve a design,” said Elizabeth Homer, deputy administrator with SHA. Bridge construction is scheduled to begin in late 2000 with the first of the two bridges finished in 2004 and the second in 2006. Glendening underlined the speed required. “I know this isn’t our preferred design, but it could be a real problem if we don’t solve this quickly,” he said. Both Schaefer and Dixon said the panel is rushing a decision at the expense of adequate debate about the design. “This bridge has been under discussion a long time,” Dixon said. “I don’t like that it’s being pushed down our throats, and we have to accept it.” The replacement twin drawbridges will be 6,300 feet long with 12 traffic lanes and a pedestrian walkway and bike path. The 12 lanes will consist of 10 regular lanes and two lanes reserved for high occupancy vehicles, express buses and transit vehicles. The bridges are expected to adequately handle the projected 300,000 vehicles that will use it daily by 2020.
The new bridges will be further downstream than the original, which will be demolished. A 15-member jury of federal, state and local residents, transportation experts and historic preservation groups chose the new plan after an 11-month competition.