On May 18, 2006 one half of South Old Town Alexandria's daily nemesis came to an end. The Outer Loop span of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project was dedicated and traffic began flowing across.
The ceremony was all smiles and back patting by politicians and construction officials. It's primary message was what has become the mantra of Virginia, Maryland and federal officials -- "On-time, On-budget."
What was not voiced was, on-noise, on-traffic congestion, on-disruption, on-misery, for both nearby residents in Alexandria City and those living in the south Alexandria portion of Mount Vernon District. And so it will continue into and throughout 2007.
As one of the largest and most costly, $2.4 billion, highway construction projects ever undertaken in the nation, the WWB Project closes out 2006 two-thirds complete. Yet some of the most disruptive construction lies ahead.
In August the Virginia land portion of the old bridge was brought down by a rapid fire detonation that was delayed by nearly 90 minutes through a series of miscommunications between bridge personnel and the Maryland State Police. When it did happen the concussion of the falling steel girders reverberated throughout the Old Town section of Yates Gardens rattling both resident nerves and their homes.
This event was accompanied by the formal closing of Jones Point Road thereby denying all vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian traffic to the Potomac River via that route. Only authorized vehicles will be permitted to use the road until completion of the project.
Additional explosions took place in December when tons of concrete in the counterweights of the old draw span were pulverized. All of this deconstruction had to be done in the wee-small hours of the morning due to the necessity of stopping Beltway traffic and diverting aircraft away from the site.
In addition to the actual bridge elements of the project during 2006 were: Completion of the roadway portion of the so-called "urban deck" over the Beltway on South Washington Street return
that primary thorofare to four lanes; Execution of various elements pertaining to the Route 1 Interchange necessitating seemingly ending traffic changes; and the closing of the Mobile Service Station at S. Washington and Church streets as a preamble to the creation of the Freedmen's Cemetery Memorial.
WITH THE DAWN of 2007, two-thirds of the project is complete. "Our efforts this past year were most definitely aided by our neighboring communities and commuters, who have experienced both pain and gain as construction has advanced," said Renaldo "Nick" Nicholson, Virginia Department of Transportation project manager."
As of December 1, 2006 the completion percentages of project elements were as follows: Overall project:65; New Potomac River bridges: 81; I-295 Interchange: 72; Route 1 Interchange: 68; Maryland 210 Interchange: 52; and Telegraph Road Interchange: 9. The latter will begin serious pre-construction activities in 2007.
The opening of the new south span in June required not only a carefully choreographed scenario but also a massive information outreach program in an attempt to divert as many travelers as possible away from the area. The first phase met with massive backups. The second went much more smoothly.
In order to gain added publicity for the detonation of the old span, the Project conducted a contest designated the "Toughest Commute Contest." The winner had the honor of symbolically pushing the plunger to detonate the Virginia land-based side of the old span.
That honor went to Dan Ruefly, a 29-year bridge crossing commuter from Accokeek, Virginia, who traveled the original span five days a week on the way to his Rockville, MD, office. Ruefly had been nominated by his daughter Tiffany who joined him that night on the roof of Hunting Tower to push the symbolic plunger.
A non-construction element was added to the project with the nesting of two bald eagles, named George and Martha, near the on-going project. Unfortunately, their story came to an unhappy ending in April when a vicious attack by an intruding bald eagle severely injured Martha.
She was treated for several weeks at a veterinary clinic in Delaware while George attempted to hatch-out their already laid eggs. His efforts failed and Martha, upon return to the nest, sustained a severe wing injury and had to euthanized in September.
The end of 2006 also brought the retirement of one of the most important local personalities associated with the bridge project since its inception. Reed Winslow, project coordinator for the City of Alexandria, served as the liaison between the City, residents and construction officials.
He served as the human bridge between all the factions bringing to that role more than 50 years experience as an engineer, with a background in highway design. As noted by Nicholson, "He was unique in that he had the ability to blend the engineering necessities with the community interests and come up with an amicable solution to some very tough issues."
Filling that role throughout the remaining years of the project may prove to be the toughest challenge yet for the Project and the City. "Reed was always an advocate for both the Project and the City," said Alex Lee, community relations manager, WWB Project.
UPCOMING MILESTONES by quarter for 2007 include:
•1st Quarter: Finishing the first half of the new Route 1 bridge that overpasses the Beltway and switching all Route 1 traffic onto the new structure; Opening the new ramp from I-95 north/Outer Loop to both northbound and southbound Route 1.
•2nd Quarter: Opening a new flyover ramp from northbound Route 1 to I-95 South/Inner Loop; Demolition of the existing Route 1 bridge overpass.
•4th Quarter: Award I-95/Telegraph Road Interchange improvement construction contract, the final major WWB Project construction contract.
The old bridge over the river, from the now demolished draw span to the Maryland shore, will remain in place for the next 16 months while the second new span is under construction. It is being used by contractors as a platform for construction equipment. Eventually, it will be demolished and hauled away by barge, according to Project officials.