WASHINGTON – Opponents of a new Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge got a rough reception Tuesday in a federal appeals court, where they argued that further environmental studies are needed on the proposed 12-lane replacement bridge.
Despite what they conceded was “aggressive” questioning by a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, opponents of the bridge plan said they think the ruling could go either way.
At issue is a lower court’s April ruling that said the U.S. Department of Transportation failed to consider “reasonable alternatives” to the 12-lane bridge. Traffic officials have said the current six-lane bridge carrying Interstate 95 over the Potomac River is inadequate for the amount of traffic that crosses it each day, and it needs to be replaced.
If the lower court ruling is overturned, bridge backers say, construction could start as early as late 2000. If it stands, construction on a new bridge would be delayed until at least October 2001 while another environmental impact study is completed.
A lawyer for the Coalition for a Sensible Bridge argued Tuesday that a 10- lane bridge would be nearly as effective as the 12-lane alternative and that it had been ruled out too quickly by planners.
“They’re using traffic projections from 20-30 years out to . discard every alternative,” said S. William Livingston, the coalition lawyer. “You can’t throw out reasonable alternatives.”
But the three-judge panel appeared reluctant to accept Livingston’s explanation that a narrower bridge would accommodate “almost as much” traffic.
“It carries almost as much traffic, but at a much slower rate,” said Judge Laurence Silberman. “Doesn’t the traffic demand have to drive the plan?”
Judge Stephen Williams noted that while a 10-lane bridge would accommodate 22,560 cars per hour in rush hour, such a bridge would be at or above capacity by 2020. A 12-lane bridge could handle an additional 2,090 cars per hour.
By 2020, Williams said, projected delays on a 10-lane bridge would be over 15 minutes, compared to delays of 6 to 8 minutes on a 12-lane bridge. The cost of expanding the bridge at a later date “is astronomical,” Silberman said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Daria Zane agreed, saying the 10-lane bridge was ruled out early because it clearly would not work.
“When you look at the purposes and needs, the 10 lanes fail,” said Zane. “It was legitimate to rule out based on extensive studies.”
Even if a 10-lane bridge was chosen, Zane said, there would be no “significant” differences in the environmental and historical impacts between it and a 12-lane bridge.
John Undeland, a spokesman for the Wilson Bridge Project, said an appeals decision is expected by Jan. 1. Neither he nor Bert Ely, chairman of the legislative committee for the Coalition for a Sensible Bridge, would predict which way that ruling might go.
“There is a certain amount of playing devil’s advocate in these cases,” Ely said after Tuesday’s hearing. “I’ve been told before not to try to judge the outcome by the kinds of questions asked.”
Opponents include Ely’s group as well as the Historic Alexandria Foundation and the Alexandria Historic Restoration & Preservation Committee. The city of Alexandria was originally involved, but it settled with the government early this year.