WAMU 88.5 : Morning Edition

Wilson Bridge Done At Last, But Miles More To Go

Advocates urge officials to keep funding transit projects

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The open lanes on Interstate-495 leading to the Wilson Bridge in all their glory.
Martin Di Caro
The open lanes on Interstate-495 leading to the Wilson Bridge in all their glory.

The completion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge — which fully opened yesterday to weekday commuter traffic — is the latest is a number of major infrastructure projects that are unfolding in the Washington metropolitan region.  

After a decade of construction, five lanes were opened in each direction Monday between the busy Telegraph Road interchange in Virginia and the Wilson Bridge to Maryland. It ended a terrible bottleneck that routinely caused traffic jams that stretched for miles.

"It's a soul-killing experience to be sitting there day after day," said John Undeland, a spokesman for VDOT who worked on the project, at  Monday's official opening of the lanes.

The Silver line rail link to Dulles Airport, the High Occupancy Toll lanes projects on Interstate-495 and Interstate-95 in Virginia, and the Intercounty Connector and Purple line transit plan in Maryland all attempt to answer the question planners have been grappling with for decades: how to connect the region's growing population with job centers.

"If you have job centers that are accessible from a wider geographic span, you are going to get the best talent to your job center," said Undeland. "But if congestion is constricting those opportunities, so you are only able to draw a talent pool from a smaller geographic area, it doesn't work as well."

More than just roads needed to ease congestion

While the Woodrow Wilson Bridge has improved for motorists, transit advocates say the project is a missed opportunity for transit. Once-promising plans to use the Wilson Bridge's center lanes for rail transit were never realized.

More than 75 percent of all jobs in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. are located in neighborhoods with transit service, according to a research paper by Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

"The reality is, in terms of sustainability, we cannot endlessly build roads forever," said Tomer. "We can't continue to take up endless amount of land space for highways."

Highway expansion can be an effective as part of a multi-faceted solution to congestion, however, he added. For instance, the I-495 HOT lanes project in Northern Virginia will charge motorists a premium toll to avoid the normally congested non-toll lanes, while also promoting carpooling and some express bus service.

"Transit can only work in certain communities," Tomer said. "In others, private automobile use or carpooling is going to be the preferred commuting mode." 

Job creators also need to be on board

As important as finding the right mix of transportation infrastructure is the location of major corporate job centers. In Tomer's view, different jurisdictions are better served thinking regionally as they compete to attract corporate headquarters. 

Wherever a company decides to locate, the offices should be near a regional transit network so people from further distances may easily commute there, Tomer said. 

But for the interconnected transportation strategies to be effective, large companies still have to make the right decisions, says smart growth advocates. An example of the wrong decision, when it comes to smart grown, they say, is Northrop Grumman, which in 2010 rejected a Metro accessible site in Ballston in favor of a suburban office park near the Capital Beltway when choosing a location for its headquarters.

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