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A Big Bridge for Big Traffic

Mount Vernon CAC members hear an update on Wilson Bridge, and its famous resident.

Residents of Mount Vernon who associate the Wilson Bridge with detours, delays, and the din of falling rebar and concrete in the middle of the night had a chance to gain some perspective on the project April 11 at The Mount Vernon Citizen’s Advisory Committee meeting at Mount Vernon Police Station. Alex Lee, Community Relations Manager for Potomac Crossing Consultants, was invited to give an update on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project. He took the opportunity to impress the audience with the tremendous scope, size, weight, and engineering precision of the $2.45 billion dollar project that is not scheduled to be completed for another five years. This is a fitting time to be updated on the project, as the underwater work has finally be completed. “Literally over the past 6 months the bridge has come out of the water,” Lee said.

Lee began prefaced his vision of the bridge with a justification for its existence. He described listening to the radio traffic reports. “Every morning when we get up we hear “Wilson Bridge,” every evening we hear “Wilson Bridge.” It’s not a traffic hour; it’s a traffic period.” Lee said the problem is only projected to get worse. The current bridge has twice the accident rate of similar highway bridges in Virginia and Maryland, including the American Legion Bridge. Nearly 200,000 cars cross the bridge everyday. Most of them do not cross very quickly. On average, there are seven hours of congestion on the bridge every day. Buy by 2020, one hundred thousand more cars are projected to be crossing each day.

In order to handle these enormous numbers, the new Wilson Bridge is going to be enormous. To give it a solid base, engineers dredged up 340,000 cubic yards of mud from the river bottom. Contractors arranged for tugboats to tow the mud in barges 170 miles to Weanack, VA and drop it in a former sand and gravel pit. The bridge’s supports rest on concrete blocks set into this excavated area of the river bed. Lee said that to visualize the size of these blocks, audience members should imagine a high school gymnasium completely filled with concrete.

The supports rising from these concrete blocks will hold the bridge’s span 78 feet above the river. Calculations of boat traffic height show that this should reduce the number of drawbridge openings 65 percent, to about 70 per year. The majority of openings are caused by large recreational sailboats with tall masts. The drawbridge arms raise high above the water creating an opening wide enough for any ship to pass through. But when they swing shut, they will fit as tightly as a perfectly hung front door. Less than 1/8 of an inch will separate the two arms of the bridge. “It’s pretty challenging,” Lee said of the project.

The CAC audience was eager for an update on the bridge’s most famous neighbors. Lee obliged, calling up on his Powerpoint a photo of a bald eagle. “This is the female. This is Martha,” he said, identifying it by its striping. “Her feathers were a little more ruffled last week. She got in a fight with another female and was injured.” He explained that the bridge’s environmental specialists trapped her in a trash can with holes and took her to an eagle rehabilitation center in Delaware. Although the National Park Service recently created an animal sanctuary in the area, the eagles “didn’t get the NPS memo,” Lee said, nesting on land near the bridge construction instead. The husband recently abandoned the nest and the couples’ chicks perished. “Martha’s in rehab. The nest is not viable anymore. And the male went off with another female,” Lee summarized, amid loud exclamations from many female members of the audience. But he would not be drawn into a discussion of avian family drama. “I’m not saying it’s a male/female thing…I’m talking about a bridge.”

Responding to a question from a concerned citizen, Lee said that the engraving of President Wilson has been removed from the old bridge and will be mounted on an obelisk that will grace the new span. He also said people will have the opportunity to walk across the bridge in 2008, when the second span is open.

Although the new bridge is being built as a response to increasingly heavy traffic, many in the audience were concerned that the excess capacity of the new bridge would actually create more traffic. Lee responded that several lanes of the bridge are designed to accommodate light and heavy rail. However, there is no rail-line to run across the bridge. Although the Metro has spokes going out into the suburbs, there is no linkage that connects them. “We don’t have the wheel going around,” Lee acknowledged. He encouraged the concerned members of the audience to advocate for cheap public transport instead of widening roads. “As citizens you have a right to express your opinion” to elected officials and VDOT, he said.

Lieutenant Shawn Bennett said the Mount Vernon Police have a good relationship with the builders of the new bridge. “We’ve worked very closely with VDOT… the partnership with the Wilson bridge folks has been outstanding.”

Bennett updated the audience on news from the station. He displayed the Chief’s Challenge trophy, which the Mount Vernon station won for making the strongest effort among all eight Fairfax stations to reduce traffic incidents and fatalities. He said the station collaborated with CAC president Judy Schultheis to compile a 74 page book of photos and write-ups of their traffic-related efforts.

He also acknowledged the CAC members who had traveled to the Board of Supervisors Budget hearings last week to advocate for the station. “I want to thank those that got on the bus… we were very well-received at the budget hearings.”

Bennett also addressed the challenges that come when the county’s public school students are set free for a week. “Spring break for students is a very happy time,’ he said. “Spring Break for the commanders of Mount Vernon District Station is a very timid time.” He cited a sharp rise in crime that occurred during last year’s Spring Break. This year the station has put extra officers on duty, borrowing many from the County, to minimize the problem. Due to this “coordinated effort,” he said, Spring Break has been “very positive” so far.