Replacing the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge across the Potomac River

The six-lane drawbridge across the Potomac was built in 1961 to carry 75,000 vehicles a day. A quarter of a century later, the load was 200,000 and the bridge was raised five times a week for ships to pass through. No wonder there was intense congestion and frequent delays. The Federal Highway Administration began constructing a replacement in 1999 and had to address a host of legal, technical, social, economic and environmental issues to make it happen.

The challenge

The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge was constructed in 1961. It is a drawbridge that spans the Potomac River between Alexandria, Virginia, and Oxon Hill in Prince George's County, Maryland. It is part of the Interstate 95 system, the main north-south route down the east coast of the US.

It was initially designed to carry 75,000 vehicles a day, but by 2004 the daily volume of traffic had risen to nearly 200,000 vehicles. As a drawbridge, it was occasionally required to be raised to allow tall ships to pass through, and this happened about 260 times a year. The combination of this and the increasingly heavy traffic made congestion and major delays a regular and frequent occurrence.

The initiative

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) wanted to renew the bridge and redesign it in such a way that the traffic flow over it was much improved. Its objectives were to:

  • Fix the bottleneck caused by eight lanes merging into six on the bridge.
  • Introduce public transport lanes, cycling, and better maritime access up the Potomac River.
  • Reduce the number of accidents and improve access for emergency response vehicles.
  • “Protect and improve the character and nature of the surrounding environment.” [1]

The FHWA applied to Congress for funds to replace the bridge in 1987. After protracted litigation, construction of the replacement bridge began 12 years later in 1999. The bridge was completed in its entirety in 2013.

The public impact

By April 2010, the effects of 10 years’ construction work were already evident. “The first span of the project was opened to traffic in 2006, and the second in 2008. Construction was completed on time and on budget.

Unclogging the Woodrow Wilson Bridge:

  • Saves drivers and truckers 40 minutes a day.
  • Saves regular bridge commuters $4,600 in time savings each year.” [2]

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Public Confidence Fair

Public confidence in the project was initially shown by only about half of respondents to the opinion surveys. However, this rose gradually as the project progressed through the various phases of implementation. “There was a change in public perception as the team met its projected and expected timeline. Public confidence and trust rose. In 1996, 51 percent surveyed were ‘confident that the project will come in on schedule’, and by 2000 this figure rose to 91 percent. In 2000, 90 percent also said the project was ‘worth the investment’.” [3]

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The main stakeholder was the FHWA, which played the key role in the implementation and planning of the project’s design. The FHWA facilitated public involvement by establishing panel groups to encourage them to raise their opinions and recommendations during the plans. It conducted a survey to discover to what extent stakeholders felt involved in the plan. The result of the survey – 60% felt that they have influenced the design – indicates the strength of citizen engagement. The other stakeholders included:

  • Federal agencies such as the United States Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Coast Guard, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, focusing principally on the environmental impact of construction.
  • State agencies such as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Maryland Departments of the Environment and of Natural Resources, and the District of Columbia Health Department.
  • Local administrative bodies, such as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the city of Alexandria, Fairfax County, Virginia, and Prince George's County, Maryland.
  • The sponsoring agencies, which included the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the Maryland State Highway Administration (MSHA) and the District of Columbia Department of Public Works (DCDPW), focusing on the actual construction.

Political Commitment Strong

The project was fully funded by the federal government, and several federal agencies played significant role in the implementation of the plan, principally the FHWA, which led the project. Other federal agencies with major decision-making roles, apart from those listed above, included the National Park Service and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.


Clear Objectives Good

The aim of the project was to curtail the heavy traffic congestion and major delays, as indicated in the report of the FHWA.

Evidence Good

The legal issues took many years to resolve and had to be tested through the courts. The FHWA established evidence of social, technical and environmental issues in the following ways:

  • Stakeholder participation panels identified the community’s needs and goals.
  • In 1989, FHWA, along with agencies in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, began examining alternative approaches to solving the bridge’s capacity and structural problems. A Design Review Working Group was established to provide feedback on the bridge’s design. [4]
  • “In 1989, the FHWA, along with agencies in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, began examining alternative approaches to solving the bridge’s capacity and structural problems.
  • “The FHWA also studied the potential effects on the adjacent communities of rebuilding the bridge, including potential impacts to well-known archaeological and historic resources located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.”

Feasibility Fair

An environmental assessment was undertaken to measure the potential impact, so that resources could be judiciously used without having any adverse effects on other resources.

The FHWA’s approach to evidence-gathering (see Strength of evidence above) also indicated that the construction of the replacement bridge was likely to meet with community approval and was technically feasible. The involvement of the United States Army Corps of Engineers indicated a level of input from experienced engineering experts.


Management Good

The FWHA assembled an experienced team of managers and consultants to address complex design and implementation issues. The management structure included the following:

  • The Project Leadership Team, which comprised high-level officials from the FHWA, MSHA, VDOT, and DCDPW. The team's role was to provide strategic decision-making, policy direction, and performance review.
  • The Sponsoring Agencies’ Project Management Team.
  • The Environmental Management Group (EMG). A General Engineering Consultant Team (GEC) was established to support the EMG.
  • The Virginia Technical Coordination Team
  • The Interagency Coordination Group, which was composed of more than 20 natural resource agencies.
  • The Design Review Working Group.
  • Four stakeholder participation panels

To provide the public with easy access to project documents, the FHWA opened project offices on both sides of the bridge, in Alexandria, Virginia, and in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

Measurement Strong

A monitoring programme was established to review the environmental impact and to report on progress towards completion. These reports were submitted after the environmental commitments had been tracked. The database of these reports was maintained with the help of GEC, and it was monitored by GEC to ensure that the status of progress was properly conveyed to interested parties.

The FHWA complemented this monitoring approach by developing a comprehensive database, tracking and reporting system, and made that system accessible to the regulatory agencies involved.

Alignment Strong

Project teams were formed to collaborate issues such as decision-making, policy direction and performance review. The Project Leadership Team was formed of staff from the four principal highways agencies the federal agency (the FHWA) and the agencies representing the states of Maryland and Virginia and the District of Columbia. This encouraged cooperation between federal and state bodies. Other teams maintained collaboration with environmental agencies and with technical experts.

Project offices were also opened on either side of the bridge, so that citizens and other interested parties had easy access to the project documents, in the form of newsletters, resource papers, etc. Community briefings and workshops were frequently and regularly scheduled, and supplements were prepared to address complaints from the public so that there was a participatory relationship between the agencies and civil society.