Moving to break the impasse over construction of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday he would move forward on the $2 billion project, allowing the work to begin by fall, as scheduled.
The project had boiled down to a game of chicken as Maryland and Virginia refused to go forward without a commitment of more federal funds from Congress.
The dilapidated six-lane bridge, which spans the Potomac River between Prince George's County and Alexandria, Va., is a vital link for Washington commuters as well as for East Coast traffic along Interstate 95. If the bridge is not replaced by 2004, dangerous conditions will force its closure, detouring traffic through the District of Columbia and along the Capital Beltway. The bridge carries more than twice the traffic intended for it 40 years ago and is a point of daily gridlock.
Ultimately, Glendening decided he couldn't wait.
"The consequences of inaction are unacceptable because the risk to the traveling public would be too great and the burden on business too high," he said in a letter yesterday to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater.
Michael Morrill, the governor's communications director, said Glendening wants "to keep the momentum going" on the Wilson Bridge replacement. The governor had a series of meetings in the Washington area yesterday to explain the state's position and seek support for the project, Morrill said, but he declined to discuss details in advance of a planned announcement today.
In a midday presentation to the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and in conversations with members of Maryland's state and congressional delegations, Glendening said he would put contracts out for bid next month for dredging and preliminary work on the support piers.
"I don't think there's much issue about the fact that at a certain point the bridge won't be able to ferry traffic of a certain type," said John Derrick, president and chief executive officer of Potomac Electric and Power Co. and chairman-elect of the trade board.
In tandem with their counterparts in Virginia, state officials have promised $200 million toward the project. The states had vowed not to go forward without a commitment beyond the $1.5 billion already promised from Congress. Wilson is the only federally owned bridge in the interstate system, making it a federal responsibility, the states argue. A request for $600 million in additional federal money is stalled in Congress.
In a bill passed June 30, Congress agreed to spend $170 million of already committed federal funds for the initial work, including dredging and constructing foundations, allowing Maryland immediate access to that money.
But some believe Maryland is going out on a limb without a guarantee of more from Congress.
"This is a big, big gamble because it takes the heat off of Congress to provide additional money," said Bert Ely of the Coalition for a Sensible Bridge.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he supports starting work on the bridge as long as it does not commit Maryland to spending more than the General Assembly has approved in the budget.
"We're going to lose a year if we don't move," Taylor said.
Taylor said Maryland's unilateral move may upset Virginia officials, who had wanted both states to hold up the project until the federal government agreed to provide more funding.
But he said the work to be done was what Maryland would be obligated to do anyway, since the state owns the Potomac River.
The bridge is to be 12 lanes wide. Environmentalists criticize it as a contradiction of Glendening's Smart Growth philosophy.
"If we build a 12-lane bridge with carpool lanes, by definition they're depending on cars," said Joy Oakes of the Sierra Club.
Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.