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Woodrow Wilson Bridge


Woodrow Wilson Bridge

Woodrow Wilson Bridge
Carries 12 lanes of I-95/I-495, pedestrian traffic
Crosses Potomac River
Locale Alexandria, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Oxon Hill, Maryland
Maintained by Virginia Department of Transportation and Maryland State Highway Administration
Design Double-leaf Bascule bridge
Total length 6,736 feet (2,053 m)
Clearance below 70 feet (21 m)
Opened December 28, 1961 (original span)
June 10, 2006 (June 10, 2006) (new outer loop span)
May 30, 2008 (May 30, 2008) (new inner loop span)
Closed 1961 span closed July 15, 2006. Demolished August 29, 2006.
Daily traffic Approx 250,000 veh/day

The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge (also known as the Woodrow Wilson Bridge or the Wilson Bridge) is a handful of drawbridges in the U.S. Interstate Highway System. It contained the only portion of the Interstate system owned and operated by the federal government, but was turned over to the Virginia and Maryland departments of transportation upon project completion.[1]

The Wilson Bridge carries Interstate 95 and Interstate 495 (the Capital Beltway). The drawbridge on the original span opened approximately 260 times a year, causing frequent disruption to traffic on the bridge, which carried approximately 250,000 cars each day.[2] The new, higher span requires fewer openings.

The bridge's west abutment is in Virginia, a small portion is in Washington, D.C., and the remaining majority of it is within Maryland (because that section of the Potomac River is within Maryland's borders). About 300 feet (90 m) of the western mid-span portion of the bridge crosses the tip of the southernmost corner of the District of Columbia. Therefore, the bridge is the only bridge in the United States that crosses the borders of three jurisdictions. The section in Washington, D.C. is also the shortest segment of Interstate Highway between state lines.[3]

The bridge is named in honor of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), who, when elected in 1912, was serving as the Governor of New Jersey, but who was a native of Staunton, Virginia. While he was President, Wilson reportedly spent an average of two hours a day riding in his automobile to relax or to "loosen his mind from the problems before him." President Wilson was an advocate of automobile and highway improvements in the United States. In 1916 he stated "My interest in good roads bind communities together and open their intercourse, so that it will flow with absolute freedom and facility".


  • 1961 bridge 1
  • 2008 bridge 2
    • Construction 2.1
    • Use and features 2.2
  • Gallery 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

1961 bridge

The original Wilson Bridge from the north in 1991
The original and new spans side-by-side in 2007

The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge was planned and built as part of the Interstate Highway System created by Congress in 1956. Construction of the bridge began in the late 1950s, and it opened to traffic on December 28, 1961.[4] Edith Wilson, the widow of President Woodrow Wilson, died that very morning; she was supposed to have been the guest of honor at the bridge's dedication ceremony.[5]

As originally built, the bridge had six traffic lanes, and was 5,900 feet (1,798 m) long. The structure was built as a bascule bridge to allow large, ocean-going vessels access to the port facilities of Washington, D.C.[4] Designed to handle 75,000 vehicles a day, the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge became extremely overcrowded by 1999, as it was handling 200,000 vehicles a day, more than 2.6 times the original design capacity. The bridge had serious maintenance problems, and underwent continuous patchwork maintenance beginning in the 1970s. It was completely re-decked in 1983.[4]

One of the reasons for the excess traffic was that it was not originally planned to be part of the major north–south Interstate 95, but rather, as part of the circumferential Capital Beltway. I-95 was planned to bisect the Capital Beltway with a shorter through-route, extending north from Springfield, Virginia across the Potomac River, through downtown Washington, D.C., and the northeastern section of the District, and into Maryland to reconnect with the Beltway near College Park, Maryland. While the portions in Virginia and in the District south of New York Avenue were built, the remaining segment – designated the Northeast Freeway – was successfully opposed by residents, and construction was finally canceled in the late 1970s. The portion north of Springfield was designated as a spur, I‑395. The eastern half of the Capital Beltway was additionally signed as I‑95.

Other sources of increased traffic have been growth in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and increases in suburb-to-suburb Northern Virginia – which has boomed with enormous job growth in recent decades – tens of thousands of workers commute daily over the bridge, a situation not anticipated when it was constructed. After the highway on both sides of the bridge was widened to eight lanes, the six-lane bridge became a daily bottleneck as heavy traffic slowed in order to funnel into fewer lanes. Two incidents demonstrated this. On November 11, 1987, a snowstorm snarled traffic;[6] many commuters ran out of gas and spent the night in their vehicles on the bridge. In November 1998, the bridge was closed for several hours during the afternoon rush hour when Ivin L. Pointer engaged police in a seven-hour standoff. (Pointer jumped off the bridge, but survived the fall.)[7]

2008 bridge

Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge at night
The underside of the bridge as it travels over Jones Point Park in Alexandria, Virginia.


Maryland, Virginia, and federal highway officials had been confronting the problems and exploring alternatives for many years. After considerable study and public debate, it was determined that a plan doubling the capacity and increasing the height of the draw portion to reduce the frequencies of openings at the same location offered the best solutions. Construction began on the replacement facilities and approaches in 1999. The old Wilson Bridge was replaced by two new side-by-side drawbridges with a total of 12 lanes and 70 feet (21 m) of vertical navigational clearance at the draw span.[4]

Bridge construction began in October 2000 with the commencement of a dredging contract. On May 17, 2001, MSHA issued notice to proceed for the foundations contract. The preconstruction conference for the Bridge superstructure contract was held on September 11, 2001. The events of the day, including the attack on the nearby Pentagon, caused the evacuation of the bridge foundation construction crews and disrupted the preconstruction meeting. On December 16, 2001, MSHA received only one bid that was more than 70% above the engineer's estimate and the bid was ultimately rejected. In total, the work was executed by 26 prime contractors and 260 subcontractors.

The majority of the highway project was completed by 2009,[8] and the upgraded Telegraph Road interchange was completed in early 2013.[4] The Woodrow Wilson Bridge project was the recipient of numerous, prestigious awards, including four ARTBA national awards for environmental excellence, the ASCE OPAL award, the Gustav Lindenthal Award, the Marvin M. Black Excellence in Partnering award and the ACEC Grand Award. Starting in 2001 with an FHWA approved Financial Plan budget of $2.443 billion, the project completed its financial close in early 2015 at $2.357 billion—$86 million below its original budget after more than 10 years of construction.

Detonation of the approach span of the old Wilson Bridge

The first new, six-lane Potomac River bridge opened for northbound Outer Loop traffic on June 10, 2006, with only minor delays (the lane striping of the bridge and approach did not match up initially). The first car to cross was a Toyota Corolla.[9][10] Traffic from the Inner Loop of the Beltway was rerouted to the future Outer Loop express lanes for a two-year interim basis on July 16, 2006 at midnight. The original 1961 bridge was originally to be demolished at 11:59 pm, on August 28, 2006, to make room for completion of the six-lane Inner Loop bridge, located between the original bridge and the new Outer Loop span. Local commuter Daniel Ruefly was given the honor of initiating the detonation[11] after he won a contest where he was judged the driver to have suffered the most from the bridge's congestion, with an estimated combined total of two and a half years spent in traffic caused by the bottleneck at the bridge.[12] The detonation was delayed for 36 minutes. The air space above the bridge, and the Beltway in both directions, were both closed during the detonation. The second bridge span was dedicated on May 15, 2008, and on May 30, 2008, Inner Loop traffic was shifted onto it.

After the completion of the Wilson Bridge project, the State of Maryland and the Commonwealth of Virginia became the joint owners of the completed bridge, and both states exercise joint responsibility and oversight of bridge activities, maintenance, and operations. The District of Columbia, a jurisdiction that once had ownership rights to the 1961 Wilson Bridge span, relinquished future ownership rights and responsibility for the new bridge. Additionally, the District granted a permanent easement to Maryland and Virginia for the portion of the bridge located within its boundaries.[4]

Use and features

Of the 12 lanes, six are used for local traffic. Four lanes, isolated from the local lanes, are used for through traffic. While there are no such current plans, the design of the bridge allows for rail or other mass transit to use the remaining two lanes in the future.[4] The consultant team for the main bridge over the Potomac River included engineers of record Parsons Transportation Group; bridge architect Miguel Rosales of Rosales + Partners; Consulting engineers were A. Morton Thomas & Associates, Inc.; Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers provided Geotechnical engineering; Subconsultants Finley McNary Engineers (piers) and Hardesty & Hanover, LLP (bascule span). Project management was provided by Parsons Brinckerhoff, Rummel, Klepper & Kahl LLP, and URS Corporation.

The northern span of the bridge also includes pedestrian and bike passage, separated from traffic by safety barriers. The path, which opened on June 6, 2009, is approximately 12 feet (3.7 m) wide and 1.1 miles (1.8 km) long, with "bump-out" areas where users can stop to observe views of Washington and Old Town Alexandria.[8]

The new spans are 20 feet (6 m) higher, which is high enough to allow most boats and small ships to pass underneath without having to raise the bridge, thus eliminating the large traffic tie-ups that are caused by opening the span, though tall ships will still require the opening of the bridge. It is hoped that the number of openings will be reduced from about 260 a year to about 60 a year, according to transportation officials.[13] The enormous bridge replacement project also includes an extensive redesign and reconstruction of the Capital Beltway as it approaches the new bridge from both the Maryland and Virginia sides. The entire cost of the project was originally estimated at $2.5 billion.[4][13]

Woodrow Wilson Bridge aerial view, 2012. Virginia is to the left and Maryland is to the right.



  1. ^ "Statement of Jane Garvey, Woodrow Wilson Bridge, June 6, 1997". June 6, 1997. Retrieved July 18, 2009. 
  2. ^ Preer, Robert (August 3, 2006). "New road could take the strain off D.C. Beltway". The Boston Globe. Retrieved August 5, 2006. 
  3. ^ "Miscellaneous Interstate System Facts". Federal Highway Administration. April 6, 2011. Retrieved 27 August 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Scott M. Kozel (February 25, 2009). "Woodrow Wilson Bridge". Roads to the Future. Retrieved January 5, 2010. 
  5. ^ Ginsberg, Stephen (July 15, 2006). "From Its Hapless Beginning, Span's Reputation Only Fell". Washington Post. p. A01. Retrieved July 16, 2006. 
  6. ^ Karlyn Barker and John Lancaster (November 12, 1987). "Record Snowfall Dumbfounds Drivers, Forecasters; Surprise Storm Snarls Traffic, Shuts Schools and Leaves 4 Dead". The Washington Post. 
  7. ^ Alice Reid and Patricia Davis (November 5, 1998). "Jumper on Bridge Causes Gridlock". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 24, 2006. 
  8. ^ a b Tara Bahrampour (June 7, 2009). "Wilson Bridge Bike Path Gets Rolling". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 6, 2010. 
  9. ^ McCrummen, Stephanie (June 12, 2006). "Wilson Bridge Span Open Early; Now to Do It All Over Again". Washington Post. p. B01. Retrieved July 16, 2006. 
  10. ^ Karin Brulliard and Sandhya Somashekhar (June 11, 2006). "A Cry of 'This Is Awesome!' As Cars Cruise New Span". Washington Post. p. C01. Retrieved July 16, 2006. 
  11. ^ Morris, Sarah (August 29, 2006). "US Commuter Blows Up Bottleneck". BBC News. 
  12. ^ Gowen, Annie (2006-08-24). "A Tough Trip to a Blast on the Bridge". Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-09-30. 
  13. ^ a b Steven Ginsberg (May 19, 2006). "Fanfare Above the Potomac". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 6, 2010. 

External links

  • Official website for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project
  • Woodrow Wilson Bridge (I-495 and I-95), by Roads to the Future
  • President Wilson: Motorist Extraordinaire, 1916 article from Northwest Motorist
  • Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River
  • Woodrow Wilson Bridge (1961) at Structurae
  • Woodrow Wilson Bridge (2006) at Structurae
  • WAN Awards 2009 - Urban Design (Honourable Mention)
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