Woodrow Wilson Bridge

A few days ago I abandoned my riding routines, deciding to take a “tourist” ride to a placed I’d never been before on a bike: the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.  This span crosses over the Potomac River on the south side of Washington, making landfall in Virginia at Alexandria, just below Old Town, the colonial part of Alexandria and the missing chunk of what used to be a diamond-shaped DC.  (There are still some old cast iron gutter spouts in Old Town marked “District of Columbia.”)  The Bridge is part of the Beltway, I-95, that carries through traffic around the District to the east, through Maryland.  Landfall on the east end is in Oxon Hill.

The bridge was completely rebuilt and updated over a period of years ending about 2010.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge, with spiral ramp lower right.
(c) Virginia Department of Transportation

During that time there were traffic delays, endless inter-jurisdictional squabbles about funding and policy (e.g. “Right to Work” Virginia didn’t want to hire union members), cost overruns, all par for the course in these parts.  But at the end of the process we got a great bridge, and end to traffic delays, and a first-class pedestrian/bike lane across the river.  It’s almost a mile wide at this point, so row vs. wade are not viable options to get across.

I’ve gone past the old bridge a few times on the Mount Vernon Trail, since Washington’s former residence lies just a few more miles to the south.  So I went that way again, hooking up to it from the W&OD extension that intersects just at the south end of National Airport.  It’s not far to Alexandria, past the big Washington Sailing Marina and Dangerfield Island (it don’t get no respect), across some wooden sections over swampland, then taking the left fork into the City itself.  Through Alexandria the Trail tends to run a block or two away from the waterfront, sometimes along old rail right-of-way and then on South Union Street, mostly residential, punctuated by parks and marinas.  Then looms the Bridge.  For the last three or four years the rider has had to feel the way around the bridge construction, as the Trail is closed where S. Union St. ends.  Heading west and uphill toward Rte. 1, one discovers an awkward detour under the Wilson Bridge that eventually leads back into the Trail.  All this will be easier in a couple of weeks, when Jones Point Park opens at and under the Bridge and the Trail presumably will lead quite smoothly through it.

It's also a drawbridge.

It’s also a drawbridge.
(c) James Thornton, American Bridge Company

When I went, however, the immediate approach was still piecemeal, right up to where the Bridge trail begins.  There’s a long concrete ramp uphill from the Trail detour, and then a big brick plaza inlaid with a circular directional sign, including an arrow to “Maryland.”  I followed that one, and found myself on a gradual uphill trail lane on the north side of the bridge.  It was wide, smooth, and well fenced off both from the Interstate travel lanes and the river.  As I ascended it flashed across my mind that I don’t always do well with heights, but the direction I was headed kept me to the inboard side, and coming back turned out to be equally comfortable, even though then I was next to the fencing at the outer edge.  There were three or four stops along the way where one could appreciate the upriver vistas, watch the planes take off from the airport, or read informative plaques about the history of the bridge and the river.  There were a few expansion joints, a cyclist or two, and a handful of pedestrians, as well as a small service vehicle and two workmen near the Maryland end, busily cleaning the pavement with leaf blowers.  The total trail distance across the bridge is about 1.2 miles.

On the Maryland side the descent off the bridge was more elaborate.  While there’s a “bluff” in Virginia so the bridge can make landfall quickly, in Maryland it’s all flatland, so the bridge and highway have to incline downward gradually.  The trail turns right and overpasses the road immediately after landfall, and descends in a long spiral loop to a continuation of the trail into Maryland, along other highways.  I descended but did not follow the Maryland extension, leaving that for another, perhaps cooler, day.  The trail overpass and spiral descent are wide and gradual, easy to negotiate, and beautifully landscaped.  The feel is of a genuinely first-class effort to make the trail top quality and attractive.

The return trip was uneventful.  I stopped in one of the marina parks in Alexandria to rest, watch boats, rehydrate, and cool off.  I rested again in Falls Church Park, just before I cross Lee Highway, and I was bathed in sweat.  The last few miles of the trip were comfortable enough.  When I got back I discovered I’d ridden about 36 miles, somewhat farther than I’d estimated.  But now I can say that I’ve cycled all the way to Maryland.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

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