Builders of the first, six-lane span of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge near Washington, D.C., are gearing up for a May 18 dedication ceremony and planning to begin opening that span to traffic, on a limited basis, as early as the second weekend of June.

First of two, six-lane spans, shown in March 2006 photo, looking west from Maryland side. (Photo courtesy of Potomac Crossing Consultants )

But on the switchover weekend, only one lane initially will be open, with two more lanes to follow soon after that. The other three lanes of the new span won't be available to motorists until after a similar weekend transfer in mid-July.

At a press briefing May 10 in Alexandria, Va., project officials outlined plans for the dedication ceremony. The project is on time and within budget, they say. A second span is due to open in 2008.

The span set to open soon is half of a pair of parallel, bascule spans across the Potomac River that will replace the adjacent, existing, six-lane Wilson Bridge. The current 45-year-old crossing, also a bascule, has been battered by much heavier traffic levels than originally forecast. It will be demolished, starting in July after the first new span is fully open to traffic.

Different contracting teams have worked on the bridge superstructure, the bascule sections and the Virginia and Maryland approaches.

The first of the pair of new crossings has six lanes replacing six old ones on the current bridge, notes project spokesman John Undeland. "But," he adds, "it has shoulders and it is higher." That new height--an additional 20 ft. of clearance over the river--will mean the new drawspan will have to open for ships only about 60 times a year, compared with about 260 now.

The new double bridge, part of the Capital Beltway on the Interstate system, is the key element in a $2.44-billion project that also includes major Beltway interchange upgrades in Maryland and Virginia.

Undeland says officials are aiming to switch traffic moving on the Beltway's northbound "outer loop" off of the existing Wilson Bridge to the new one during the second or third weekend in June. The date will depend on weather conditions and pace of the remaining construction, he says.

But on Weekend One of the switchover, only one outer loop lane initially will be open to traffic for a four-mile stretch of the Beltway at and around the bridge. That will be increased to three lanes. Officials are imploring motorists to avoid the area on the traffic shift weekends, to avert massive logjams on what is a critical traffic artery.

Inner loop traffic would be switched over during a weekend in mid-July, with similar traffic restrictions during the initial days.