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Area Residents Live With "The Bridge"

Project becomes a daily topic for commuters through the construction zone.

The adage "change is the only constant" is never more applicable than when applied to one of the largest and most expensive highway construction undertakings in the nation — the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.

It is constantly causing changes in traffic patterns, daily commuting schedules, and the lives of area residents. That will continue through 2011.

Proponents of the twin-span structure, which upon completion will have consumed $2.43 billion in tax dollars, contend it will greatly ease traffic flow in the region. Opponents maintain it will be outmoded upon completion, due to the ballooning volume of traffic in and through the metropolitan area.

Regardless of which point of view is correct, or if neither is on-point, the reconstruction of the only drawspan on the national interstate highway network impacts the daily lives of those living in its shadow, whether they are residents of the City of Alexandria or the Mount Vernon district of Fairfax County. "The Bridge" is the nemesis of every weary traveler, long distance drivers and daily commuters alike.

Opened in 1960, the present structure carries more than 195,000 daily trips, for a total of 70 million travelers per year — more than three times what original estimates expected. By 2020 the number is projected to increase to 300,000 vehicles per day.

Included in that increased traffic flow has been an exponential increase in large tractor-trailer trucks. These have exacerbated the present bridge's deterioration, by vastly increasing the constant pounding on the bridge's superstructure, accelerating the breakdown of the superstructure, according to structural engineers. These factors showed the need for a new bridge.

Following a decade of study, it was decided to build a twin span structure that would encompass 12 lanes. Eight of those lanes would align with the Capital Beltway and four — two on each side — would serve as access and egress lanes. The remaining two lanes would be reserved for future mass transit — bus service, high occupancy vehicles or a future Metro line, to be known as the Purple Line.

Construction on the new bridge began in 2000. Touted by Virginia Department of Transportation officials and project representatives as "on time and on budget" the first southern span is scheduled to open in the spring of 2006.

It will ultimately be dedicated to carrying the Capital Beltway's outer loop traffic.

Most impacted by this project is the City of Alexandria. It has had to adjust traffic patterns in the south end of Old Town to accommodate large trucks traveling to and from the construction area. These trucks bring with them a marked increase in the noise factor, due to pile driving and crane operations, and they have caused disruption of traffic flow at the south end of Washington Street due to expansion of the Beltway overpass.

BRIDGE CONSTRUCTION has also taken its toll on the last large open space area in the city, known as Jones Point Park, located at the southern tip Alexandria. Prior to the bridge project, this historic site was the venue of city celebrations and events as well as a dedicated passive recreation location. At present, the park's use is extremely limited. The current plan calls for this area to be converted to a combination of active recreation areas, historic/archeological preservation sites and a reduced portion for passive recreation upon completion of the bridge project.

The primary stumbling block to the final design of the park is the removal of 200-plus parking places originally planned for under the newly-completed bridge. As a result of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the federal government, which owns the park through the National Park Service, ordered all future parking under the bridge to be removed from the plans to alleviate security concerns. The relocation of those spaces is now the subject of debate among Alexandria officials and citizens.

Traffic patterns on South Washington Street are expected to be in an alternating status until 2008, due to work on the Beltway overpass connecting Old Town with the George Washington Memorial Parkway. During morning rush hours there will be three northbound lands and one southbound. That will be reversed during evening rush hours.

Those patterns are controlled by overhead signals. A red "X" indicates closed lanes, while a green arrow indicates the lanes open for traffic. Upon completion of the overpass construction, the normal traffic pattern of two lanes each way will be restored.

Other elements tied to the bridge replacement which impact travelers include:

* Connecting the Capital Beltway with the new southern span of the bridge. Two portions of this were completed this summer with additional activities plan for the future.

* Building bridges over Cameron Run and Hunting Creek to align with the widened Beltway.

* Rebuilding and widening the Capital Beltway and Route 1 interchange, both as the latter feeds traffic both south and north. This will include widening a portion of Route 1 south. Scheduled completion by 2009.

* Redesigning and rebuilding the Telegraph Road Interchange with the Capital Beltway. This will take place after the new bridge opens. A second element of this is the new design for the intersection of Telegraph Road and Huntington Avenue just south of the Beltway.

IN ADDITION to the bridge project, motorists using the Virginia portion of the Capital Beltway are also confronted with the rebuilding of the Springfield Interchange, known locally as "The Mixing Bowl," due to its wide array of ramps, flyovers and intermingling of traffic in all directions.

Originally this entire project was scheduled for completion in 2007. However, a recent announcement from VDOT indicated the project is behind schedule. No new completion date has been announced at this time.

Alexandria and southeastern Fairfax County residents can avoid this congestion by using the George Washington Memorial Parkway to Route 235 at the Mount Vernon Estate. This intersects with Route 1 at Woodlawn Plantation.

By following Route 1 south past Fort Belvoir and Lorton, motorists can rejoin I-95 at Woodbridge. They can also access the Fairfax County Parkway just south of Fort Belvoir's Tully Gate.