DECISION TIME is near in Congress on what to do about the crumbling Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River. It is a major bottleneck in this nation's East Coast highway system -- and one that Congress and the president have full responsibility for fixing.
That's because this 37-year-old span is owned by the federal government. Asking the two adjoining states and the District of Columbia to foot the bill for a bridge they don't own would be the height of irresponsibility.
It is a clogged commuter route and a major passageway for trucks, cars and buses along the East Coast's busiest superhighway, Interstate 95. It handles 190,000 vehicles a day, twice its designed capacity. A 45 percent increase in traffic is projected by 2020.
But the bridge is, quite literally, falling down. In engineering terms, it suffers from "fatigue" and "excessive loading." Vibrations from trucks -- more than 27,000 a day -- pose a special hazard.
A replacement bridge, with 12 lanes instead of six to meet future demand, would cost $1.8 billion. The Senate is willing to put up just $900 million; the House hasn't put up a dime.
That's unacceptable. Safety demands that this crossing be replaced. Commerce is heavily dependent on the bridge.
There is a sensible way to finance this project: Set up a bridge authority with the power to sell construction bonds backed by the federal government. The United States would start paying off the debt service in about six years.
That way, Washington could live up to its financial and transportation obligations without creating problems under the balanced-budget accord.
The federal government would pay for this costly but vital piece of infrastructure much as a homeowner pays off a mortgage -- and as Congress has financed large projects for air-traffic control equipment and the international space station.
Washington politicians cannot responsibly pass the buck. In the next three weeks, a House-Senate conference committee should come up with a comprehensive financing plan so that a new Potomac River crossing is built well before the Wilson bridge reaches the point of collapse.
Pub Date: 5/08/98