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Wilson bridge is falling down Key D.C. beltway link: Officials haggle over $1 billion replacement cost


IT IS UNBELIEVABLY congested and clogged with traffic, especially in rush hours. It is decaying under the stress and strain. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a key link in the Washington beltway tying southern Prince George's County to Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac River, must be replaced -- before it falls down.

But with what? And who is going to come up with the $1 billion it will take to construct an interstate river crossing of this magnitude?

Compounding matters is that four governments are involved in the negotiations: the federal government, which owns the bridges, and Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, which maintain the bridge. Then there are the nearby companies that ship goods under the existing drawbridge but might not be able to do so with a replacement bridge.

Even the options are daunting: a 12-lane tunnel; a double-decker drawbridge; parallel drawbridges; a combination tunnel and drawbridge, and a 135-foot-high fixed-span bridge. Coming up with agreement on the replacement structure has proven divisive.

Then there's the matter of money. Federal highway officials simply don't have an extra $1 billion to spend on the Wilson bridge. The most likely option is some sort of toll roadway, though Congress would probably have to give its consent to a toll facility on the busy I-95 corridor along the East Coast. One possibility now being discussed: A bridge employing high-tech electronic toll collection for regular users, a regular toll for all others.

Within a year, officials may have an answer on what to build and who's going to pay for it. That means a new bridge won't be completed until 2004 at the earliest. For travelers over the Wilson bridge (172,000 vehicles a day), it leaves a troubling question: How long can this bridge stand all that pounding?

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