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Bridge Sound Wall Approved

Alexandria residents living near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge were warned two years ago, "It's noisy today and it's going to get noisier in the future."

Well, maybe not.

The admonition came from Thomas M. Heil, environmental manager, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project. He issued it to a room full of concerned citizens attending a noise abatement meeting. He then presented three options for lessening the projected traffic noise on the new bridge.

One of those options called for a sound barrier on the bridge extending from the abutment at South Royal Street out approximately 1,600 feet to the former location of the old Seaport Foundation building. No one held out much hope that would happen due to the aesthetic arguments being put forth against it.

Within the past two weeks that skepticism was vanquished. First the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts gave their approval and, on April 3, the National Capital Planning Commission voted, without discussion, to approve a sound barrier on the north side of the replacement bridge for the originally suggested length.

What broke the impasse was the design of the wall. Instead of being a solid opaque structure it will be a constructed of "a transparent material called Paraglas that is one and one-half inches thick and eight feet in height." It is an acrylic product that is UV-stabilized to eliminate yellowing. "The result is a distortion-free, transparent material," according to the NCPC report.

IN GRANTING THEIR approval the Fine Arts Commission was "somewhat disappointed that it was needed at all. But, finally settled on the decision that if we must have it let's make it as pleasing as possible," said Frederick Lindstrom, the Commission's assistant secretary.

"The bridge engineers came up with this design material based on examples in Europe. It remains to be seen if it really works. But, the only way to really find out is to build it," he added. "Our job is not to assess performance but rather aesthetics. This way those that want the wall will get it and we maintain the view."

NCPC's approval, according to Eugene Keller, project review officer, was, "A result of staff meetings over the past several months with our bridge consultants, VDOT, and the Fine Arts Commission. It was thoroughly vetted through VDOT."

Keller emphasized, "It met our recommended requirements for aesthetics plus the documentation submitted to us showed that the material has been very successful where its been used in Europe. It has reduced the decibel count ranging from a minimum of four to a maximum of eight. That meets the goal of the bridge project of reducing the noise level based on projected 2020 vehicle traffic."

WHEN THE NOISE WALL controversy began designs were based on the standard opaque material commonly used throughout the nation. C.F. Gee, VDOT's acting chief engineer at the time of the 2001 citizens meeting, cited a series of objections to the wall in general and that type construction in particular.

"It would detract from the aesthetics of the "signature" bridge that has been approved through a public process, would impact on the safety of pedestrians on the bridge, create a tunnel effect to west-bound traffic, and be a detriment to the maintenance of the bridge and safety to traffic during inclement weather," he wrote to Alexandria Mayor Kerry Donley.

In a return letter, Donley reiterated the city's support for a sound wall on the bridge. "We favor a noise wall mounted above the parapet between the vehicle lanes and the bike path ... because it has the potential to provide benefits throughout the area where there is the most noise impact," Donley emphasized.

A sound barrier on the north side of the replacement bridge has been favored by Dr. William Bowlby, the nationally known noise consultant hired by the city to review the entire noise question posed by the new dual spans and increased traffic flow projected to 2020.

Bowlby's opinion was buttressed by Heil in an interview after the August public meeting. He stated, "Strictly from a noise position, there is nothing better than a barrier on the bridge."

To accomplish the compromise, Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services' Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project liaison officer, Reed Winslow, said, "VDOT people have worked diligently with us to arrive at a design both the Fine Arts Commission and NCPC would accept."

The only caution Winslow voiced was, "They have both approved the concept (of a sound wall on the bridge) but, they want to see it again when the design is finally completed."