Testimony of Jonas Neihardt
Woodrow Wilson Bridge
June 6, 1997

Mr. Chairman, I am Jonas Neihardt, President of the Old Town Civic Association in Alexandria, Virginia. I want to thank you for calling for this hearing, as the process to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge has veered wildly off course and now requires serious and sustained Congressional oversight to ensure that our highway dollars are not wasted on a bridge that is poorly conceived, too far too big, and disastrous for the community it bisects.

The Old Town Civic Association, as you know, has worked since 1951 to preserve and nurture the Old and Historic District in Alexandria as a living museum for future generations to learn from and enjoy. Unfortunately, Mr. Chairman, this living museum is threatened by the prospect of a replacement for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that is 244 feet wide (the current bridge is 96 feet wide) served by massive new interchanges. This plan is fiscally, environmentally, and historically irresponsible.

As you know, Old Town is not a theme park with a paid maintenance crew -- all of the work necessary to preserve the Historic District is done by us residents. Therefore, for Alexandria to continue as a living museum it must be suitable to live in, and I am here to testify that the 244-foot wide bridge that has been relentlessly pursued by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and its contractors will make the majority of Alexandria's Old and Historic District unlivable.

While we residents have tolerated the 96-foot wide existing Woodrow Wilson Bridge for over three decades, a 244-foot wide replacement will create additional noise and air pollution and physically overwhelm the Historic District to such an extent that my neighbors and I, those of us who live in, and are dedicated to, carefully preserving the Historic District, will leave.

It is a lot of work to maintain a 200-year old house. It takes a lot of time and money. Neither we, or anyone else, will be willing to spend the time and money necessary to maintain our homes if the roar of traffic from a 244-foot wide bridge through the Historic District penetrates our homes and if our families are sickened by pollution in excess of the EPA's clean air standards. No one in their right mind would want to live near the bridge that the FHWA wants to build. And when we, the residents who are committed to historic preservation, sell our houses at a loss and leave, the commitment to historic preservation will leave with us, and the Historic District will decay and ultimately be lost.

I only ask you to look around the country at the blighted neighborhoods that stand at the feet of our large urban bridges. Nobody wants to live there.

It is simply not possible to maintain a habitable community that is bisected by a 244-foot wide swath of concrete and its attendant traffic.

The irony is that a 244-foot wide bridge is not needed. First of all, the beltway will remain at eight lanes for the foreseeable future. Therefore, eight through lanes and two acceleration/merge lanes are all that is needed on the Wilson Bridge replacement. Similarly, costs in the billions of dollars will prevent the addition of HOV lanes to the beltway for the foreseeable future, eliminating the need for HOV lanes on the new crossing.

Looking back, our problems began when the FHWA decided to limit the Woodrow Wilson Bridge study area to the immediate vicinity of the bridge, instead of including the area ten to fifteen miles south of the bridge. As you know, it is the area to the south of the bridge on both the Virginia and Maryland sides that is currently experiencing rapid development, and that growth will be sustained for decades. Yet, to the south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge there is not another bridge for 45 miles. Because the study area for the bridge replacement was so limited, FHWA came to the conclusion that all of the region's new traffic should be carried through the Wilson corridor.

The size of the replacement bridge as recommended by FHWA was driven by outdated growth and traffic projections. Those growth and traffic projections, based on data from the boom-time 1980s, are no longer realistic in an era of reducing the size of Washington, D.C., area based federal headquarters staff

The bridge recommended by the FHWA would consume huge amounts of limited national infrastructure dollars for a massive new facility on the Wilson corridor when we have pressing needs all around the country for infrastructure repair and improvement.

On the issue of cost, because an unwise decision was made to tell the design team to develop the best possible crossing without concern for cost, the team designed a bridge that is excessive in all dimensions.

As a result, the recommended solution is a 244-foot wide monster bridge that has the effect on concentrating traffic in one corridor. This is no solution. I only asked you to look to the expansion of 1-270. The old 1-270 was congested, so FHWA widened the road substantially. Well, it is filled up again. The same thing will happen at the Wilson Bridge if we simply widen the Wilson crossing and fail to build a second crossing to the south.

Tales of the Wilson Bridge's imminent demise are exaggerated. We have time to reduce the size of the Wilson Bridge replacement design while at the same time analyzing the potential for a second crossing to the south. I understand that heavy trucks inflict such damage to the current bridge that limiting the use of the bridge by the very heaviest trucks would extend the life of the bridge by decades. It is far wiser to place weight limits on the Wilson Bridge and take the time we need to design and build a cost-effective and environmentally responsible replacement than to spend $ 1.6 billion on a bridge that concentrates traffic in one corridor and is far bigger than necessary.

Earlier I said that the Wilson Bridge Design project has run amuck. You should know, Mr. Chairman, that it is not yet under control. For example, despite the fact that you wrote the heads of the Transportation Departments on May 13th and told them to begin to scale back their aspirations for this bridge because of budgetary limitations, on May 27th, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge design center sent a "Summary" of the project to the whole world that continues to trumpet the need for and benefits of the 244-foot wide monster bridge. This report mentions the need for tolls also, and I recall that your letter specifically rules tolls out.

The staff of the Design Center have been ignoring us Alexandrians for years now, so I am used to it, but I am surprised, to say the least, that they feel sufficiently empowered to ignore the specific written direction of the Chairman of their Senate authorizing committee. I guess that they figure that even though you are the Chairman, you are also an Alexandrian so they can ignore you too.

The consultants to the FHWA have spent three years and at least $14 million in taxpayer dollars to gin up unrealistic traffic forecasts, then to scare the region into thinking that the Wilson Bridge is about to fall down, and then to execute a public relations campaign to promote the 244-foot wide bridge. All this public relations activity has obviously distracted the team from their substantive work, as their air quality study was recently deemed "inadequate" by the EPA, and the existence of the graves of nearly 2,000 freed slaves from the civil war era in an area to be impacted by the 244-foot wide bridge was not brought to the attention of decisionmakers until after the Coordination Committee took its final vote.

Needless to say, there does not exist a high level of trust between the design team and the residents of Alexandria. If the process is going to move forward with the current team, Mr. Chairman, they will need to understand clear and specific limitations as to what can be built at the Wilson corridor.

If the 244-foot wide monster bridge is built, the real tragedy is that long after we are gone from this earth, the legacy of those of us in this room right now will be a huge, horrible slab of concrete that will deface the river that George Washington loved and will cause his hometown to fall to ruin after a prosperous existence of 250 years. President Washington called the stretch of the Potomac from Mt. Vernon to the mouth of the Anacostia the most beautiful place in America, which is why is lived here and chose this place for our Nation's capital. We will have failed miserably in our responsibility as stewards of these places held dear by resident Washington if we build the 244 foot wide monster bridge.

I will conclude with three recommendations:

1. The current Woodrow Wilson Bridge should be removed and its replacement should carry no more than ten total lanes and a maximum total width of 150 feet which should connect to the existing interchanges.

2. Congress should direct the FHWA to commence with serious study of the potential for a new crossing ten to fifteen miles to the south that will contribute to the resolution of current and future regional traffic problems.

3. Congress should maintain sustained oversight of the work of the Transportation Department in its execution of the two above recommendations in order to protect taxpayers and nearby residents from thee expansive ambitions of the FHWA and their contractors.