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The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge (also known as the Wilson Bridge) is a bascule bridge that spans the Potomac River between the independent city of Alexandria, Virginiamarker and Oxon Hillmarker in Prince George's County, Marylandmarker, United Statesmarker. The bridge is one of only a handful of drawbridges in the U.S.marker 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.

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. The new, higher span requires fewer openings.


Original span

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. Edith Wilson, the widow of President Woodrow Wilson (for whom the bridge is named) died that very morning; she was supposed to have been the guest of honor at the bridge's dedication ceremony. The bridge's west abutment is in Virginia, 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 Columbiamarker. 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.marker

President Woodrow Wilson

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 had been a native of Staunton, Virginiamarker. While he was President, Mr. 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 is . . . to bind communities together and open their intercourse, so that it will flow with absolute freedom and facility."

Capacity and maintenance

Designed to handle 75,000 vehicles a day, by 1999 the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge was handling 200,000 vehicles a day. The bridge had serious maintenance problems, and underwent continuous patchwork maintenance beginning in the 1970s. It was completely re-decked in 1983.

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, Virginiamarker 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, Marylandmarker. 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 commuting. Because housing costs in Prince George's County, Marylandmarker are much lower than in 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; 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.)

Replacement facilities

New span, with the older span visible behind it.
Detonation of the approach span of the old Wilson Bridge
Painting application on the new span

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 of vertical navigational clearance at the draw span.

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 opening the span causes, 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 65 a year, according to the Federal Highway Administration , which must cooperate with the United States Coast Guard about bridge openings. 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 is estimated at $2.5 billion.

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.

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 p.m., on 28 August 2006, to make room for completion of the second six-lane bridge (the future permanent home of the Inner Loop) located between the original bridge and the new Outer Loop span. Local commuter Daniel Ruefly was given the honor of initiating the detonation after he won a contest where he was judged the driver to have suffered the most from the bridge's congestion. The detonation was later delayed to 12:15 a.m., and again to 12:25. Finally, the bridge was demolished at around 12:35. 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; on May 30, 2008, Inner Loop traffic was shifted onto it.

Of the 12 lanes, six are used for local traffic. Four lanes, isolated from the local lanes, are used for through traffic. The remaining two lanes are used for HOV and bus traffic. While there are no such current plans, the design of the bridge allows for rail or other mass transit to replace the HOV/bus lanes in the future.

The northern span of the bridge also includes pedestrian and bike passage, which is separated from traffic by safety barriers. The path is approximately wide and long, with "bump-out" areas in which users can stop to observe views of Washington and Old Town Alexandria.

The majority of the highway project was completed by 2009, and the upgraded Telegraph Road interchange will be complete by 2013.

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 Columbiamarker, 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.


  1. Brochure from the dedication of the eastbound span May 18, 2006
  2. Woodrow Wilson Bridge Replacement National Capital Planning Commission, August 5, 2004
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  6. Attachment V - Agreement covering the ownership, operation, inspection, maintenance, and rehabilitation of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge. (June 15, 2001). The Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project. Retrieved on August 7, 2007 (in English; Adobe Acrobat Reader required for viewing).

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