WASHINGTON – Maryland and Virginia officials said they can only pay $400 million of the projected $1.9 billion cost to replace the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge and the federal government will have to pick up the rest.
The federal government has “an obligation” to increase its commitment from $900 million to $1.5 billion for a new 12-lane bridge to carry Interstate 95 over the Potomac River, said lawmakers and highway officials from the two states.
“The fact of the matter is that the federal government owns this bridge. As such, I believe that this ownership engenders a special obligation on the federal government to fund its replacement,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D- Mechanicsville, to the House Subcommittee on Ground Transportation.
But some subcommittee members said the government was already spending too much on the bridge, claiming that the price tag has soared simply because it is in Washington’s backyard.
“I think this is a classic example of misplaced priorities in Washington,” said Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb.
Local officials insisted their funding request is not out of line. The federal government is only being asked to pay for 80 percent of the project, instead of the 90 percent that it would most likely fund under other circumstances, they said.
The Wilson Bridge is currently a six-lane bottleneck on the Capital Beltway that engineers say is in dire need of replacement. It carries twice as much traffic as it was designed to handle and routinely backs up for miles in each direction during rush hour, witnesses said.
The federal government has allocated $900 million over fiscal years 1998 to 2003 for design and construction of a $1.9 billion, 12-lane replacement. Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., have agreed to pay $400 million, but say the federal government needs to kick in the final $600 million in fiscal years 2004 to 2007.
Maryland officials said the $200 million they have set aside is the most they can afford, even though Gov. Parris Glendening last week unveiled a $1.3 billion road-building program. The governor said the state has enough in its surplus to fund that construction program without raising the gas tax.
“The $200 million is already coming from Maryland’s general fund, which is the same fund for things like park and school development,” Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari told the subcommittee.
In a prepared statement, Virginia Transportation Secretary Shirley Ybarra said the commonwealth is also ready to commit $200 million to the local portion of the bridge project.
The District’s share of the project is still unclear. The city has put aside $4 million, but Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said Maryland and Virginia should bear most of the financial burden since they contribute most of the traffic.
“(Residents) of Maryland and Virginia come into D.C. everyday and don’t leave one cent. The District just has to take whatever flows into it,” Norton said.
Area congressional representatives tried to dispel the notion that the Wilson Bridge mainly benefits locals. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics said that trucks annually carry $58 billion of goods — 1.3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product — across the Wilson Bridge.
“Despite the impression that this bridge serves local interests, it carries a significant volume of interstate commerce for the Mid-Atlantic region. If we are denied the $600 million it will effect the national economy,” said Rep. James Moran, D-Va.
Besides Moran and Hoyer, the hearing attracted Maryland Reps. Albert Wynn, D-Largo, and Constance Morella, R-Bethesda; Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Charles Robb, D-Va.; and Rep. Thomas Davis, R-Va.
“Unfortunately, the Wilson Bridge is deteriorating, crumbling and decaying at a disturbing rate,” said Morella.
“We must construct a new bridge that will provide mobility for the 21st century, preserve the environmental standards and protect the interests of those most affected by the scope and design of the bridge,” she said. “I think that we can do that, but we need your help.”