Today’s issue of The Washington Post has stories and graphics in three places about rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

The heroic quotes, striking photos and detailed graphics are very 21st century. A reading of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond calls to mind a different perspective. One wonders if the same exhilaration and sense of purpose was not felt by those carving the moai on Easter Island, building the Mayan temples at Tikal or erecting the statue of Ozymandias memorialized by Percy Bysshe Shelly.

After all, few believe that rebuilding the Wilson Bridge or any other transport facility without Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns will make regional traffic congestion any less onerous in 2011, 2015 or 2050. See “Self Delusion and Fraud,” 7 June 2005 at


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  1. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ed, I know I’m missing your main point when I go off in this digression, but maybe it’s related…. One of the things that’s intrigued me about the WW Bridge is its stupendous cost. One factor (among many) that drove up the cost was the necessity of raising the elevation of the bridge so that vessels could pass beneath. Here’s my question. What kind of vessels are we talking about?

    There isn’t any substantial commercial freighter traffic passing that far up the Potomac River, and there aren’t any naval vessels of any size. Are we talking coast guard cutters? Or are we talking private yachts with tall masts? If we’re talking coas guard cutters, I guess you can make an argument related to safety and security for allowing them to pass underneath the bridge.

    But if we’re talking private yachts with tall masts, why hasn’t this been publicized? The taxpayers of Virginia and Maryland are being asked to spent several hundred million dollars elevating a bridge so a bunch of wealth yachtsmen can park their boats at marinas closer to where they live? If this is the case, where is the outrage?

    Back to your main point about Ozymandias… It seems that the growing interconnectedness and complexity of our society is one of the factors driving up the cost of mega-projects like the WW Bridge. Our alternatives are to simply pony up more in taxes to build these monuments… or change our land use patterns — assuming the growing interconnectedness and complexity of society doesn’t make that impossible, too.

  2. You know, I think the Post was just trying to celebrate the sheer engineering wonder of the thing. We are a species that likes to build, to leave things behind to prove we were around. Like Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, boys.

  3. Jim:

    Sadly, arguments like yours can’t be heard anymore. They’re drowned out by Republicans screaming of “you’re starting class warfare! You hate rich people! Socialist!”

    I find much of Democratic rhetoric against rich people in the annoying. For example, I often hear about how corporations make too much profit. Right…

    But occasionally they have a point that policies pursued by the government benefit the rich disproportionately.

    It’s interesting though – I’ve been hearing anti-taxers decrying “corporate welfare” lately.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Last I knew, there were two fixed bridges on the east coast with clearances of 60′. It has been cusomary for many years to set bridges with lower heights than that with opening drawspans. A secondary standard is set at 35 feet, which most normal yachts will clear. This standard is used in places far up the inlet or river where mostly smaller boats travel. The clearance on the old bridge was set at that height with the drawbridge closed, and this arrangement is common for places like Washington that have the capability of carrying traffic, but where traffic is light. It is sufficient to handle barge traffic that can deliver things like heavy transformers that don’t travel well by truck.

    The history goes back to the days of competition between railroads and barges. The railroads would have liked to be allowed to build lower cost low-level bridges, especially since it woule restrict competition. Accordingly bridge height and span restristions wer set to alow river boats with high stacks and barge strings which need wide spans to clear safely.

    Boats with masts higher than 35 feet are likely to have draft requirements that severely restrict their movements above the bridge on account of siltation in the river bed. For this reason, most serious yachts do not use the river and the sailboats seen there are mainly shallow draft, light weight boats used mainly for local pleasure sailing.

    Keeping the boat close to home can’t play into the equation very much, especially if the cost is a 100+ mile trip down the river to get to open water. Jet traffic is a serious impediment from keeping a boat on the river, because of noising and raining kerosene.

    Last I new, there were still some scheduled freight deliveries upstream of the bridge, I believe that newsprint was one, and prbably coal for the Alexandria power plant, but I don’t think either of those occur now. I don’t know what the status of the Navy yard is, but it still has the capability of handling fairly large vessels.

    Alexandria has the occasional tall ship visit, and at one time there were cruis ships that departed Alexandria.

    None of this, of course justifies the mega cost of the structure. Somehow you would have to figure what the cost would be absent the height requirement and drawspan and compare that with the potential need for security in the nations capital.

    I have said before that I thought we would be better off with four smaller spans, a couple of which would go a long way towards revitalizing Anacostia. It would not be,of course, anywhere near as sexy. Diverting local traffic from far south and well north of the bridge and mixing it with traffic on a main north/south route seems to me, well, unbalanced.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Paul, You’ve probably guessed that I’m not a class warfare kind of guy. I have absolutely no problem with people getting rich — as long as they’re not getting rich by exploiting the political system to gain special privileges for themselves. That’s what I suspected might have been the case with the high WW bridge. But, if you read Ray’s post, my suspicion is probably baseless.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    The Wilson Bridge currently opens about 260 times per year.

    With the new construction it is estimated that it will open about 50 times per year.

    Current bridge height is 50 feet. New bridge height will be 70 feet.

    The channel is 25 feet deep.

    From the Woodrow Wilson project website:
    The majority of the boat/ships are high mast recreation sail boats (mast height ranging from 52 to 65 feet). (67% are high mast sailboats, CY 2003).

    The types of ships that are 70 feet and over vary: very tall mast ships, 112 feet; 67 foot and 100 foot cruise ships; Navy tug, 95 feet; Merchant Marine training vessel, 72 feet.

    Robinson terminal still handles ship cargo.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ah, hah! Thank you, Anonymous. Excellent info. We shall run it down.

  8. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    The Wilson Bridge Project and the Springfield Interchange probably won’t reduce congestion any more than VRE and Metro. All of these have in common the fact that they relocate congestion to a place where there (presently) is more room for it. The Wilson Bridge for example was near failure, so not replacing it would re-route a lot of traffic to either the American legion Bridge or the Rout 50 bridge, neither of which could handle the traffic.

    Since traffic is directly related to commerce, eliminating the traffic means eliminating the commerce that makes taxes available. EMR apparently believes we should live at densities greater than 5 units per acre, and that this will somehow reduce our reliance on autos. This means that we have to shift the commerce on which taxes rely to some other mode, so we need to understand whether shifting to another mode will adversely affect commerce.

    As I understand it, access refers to the number of places available to reach and conduct commerce. Mobility is your ability to actually get there. Regardless of the density or pattern you choose, you will always have more access if an auto is an option. You will have more access if a bicycle is an option, too, just not as much more, same for VRE, Metro and these megaprojects.

    The usefulness of these options is another matter. The usefulness of a car is diminished if you are stuck in gridlock, but that gridlock has to be very, very bad indeed before the usefulness of the car is lowered below that of walking. If, then, one of these projects moves the congestion to some other place than the one(s) we wish to use, it is a good thing, provided it is not commerce and tax negative.

    Jim is on to something when he says “Our alternatives are to simply pony up more in taxes to build these monuments… or change our land use patterns — assuming the growing interconnectedness and complexity of society doesn’t make that impossible, too.” Despite EMR’s belief that his idea of preferred building densities will somehow reduce our reliance on the auto, there is no evidence anywhere that this is true, and I believe one reason is that we tend to grossly oversimplifiy the the interconnectedness and complexity: it is too hard to think about.

    If you are a current resident near one of these mega-projects, the Vienna Metro station, Tysons, an apartment near the bridge, then your immediate mobility is going to be reduced in order to enhance the long distance mobility of others, apparently because we belive it will expand the overall radius of access and opportunity.

    Every trip begins and ends with walking, so there is probably some mix of transport modes and density that maximises both mobility and (potential) access. But the problem is so complex and interconnected in time and space that there is no steady state solution, so EMR’s insistence that there is only one answer (balnced communitries), cannot be true.

    The fact of walking severely limits our radius of immediate access. There are so many of us that any solution beyond walking means that other modes must have many endpoints that put us within walking distance of our goal. The more modes you have, (bicycle, segway, flexcars, Metro, or Something Not Yet Invented) the more space you have to devote to guideways and terminals, which reduces access of itself.

    If we cannot afford to have auto access within walking distance of all our endpoints, then clearly we cannot afford to have multiple modes within walking distance of all our endpoints, and we don’t have any way of knowing which mode an individual will select in order to reach his preferred access point, today, let alone tomorrow or next year. If we can’t have multiple modes then we have to select one, and it needs to be the best one, overall. Every time someone opens a new residence or business, the (potential) access changes and the overall answer changes.

    Accordingly, any real world choice we make will be disadvantageous for some, who will raise the cry NIMBY. What this means is that EMR’s complaints about what we are doing wrong carry no more weight than anyone else’s, because everyone has their own idea about what is disadvantageous, even yachtsmen on the Potomac.

    Every time we make one choice, we have less money available to make some other choice, unless the project eventually generates more revenue through increased commerce than it costs. Making the argument that The new mixing bowl will save ten seconds in travel simply misses the point. The question is, considering all the changes that will ripple across the area, will the combined changes result in more commerce AND a better life overall for all concerned?

    We don’t have any way to answer that, so we make guesses based on politics and public input, and again this means the answer will change over time.

    EMR’s plan comes down to solving his NIMBY problem by cramming almost everything into everyone’s back yard, and eliminating back yards as well. Since there is no evidence that his plan will produce a steady state solution he has to call for Fundamental Change in governance as well, in order to insure that market forces or what people want doesn’t interfere with The Desired Result.

  9. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    As a generzl rule mast height is not much more than boat length, extreme racing yachts excepted. It is very rare to see masts over 60 feet because the two fixed bridges mentioned above would make long offshore passages necessary.

    Increased affluence has made larger boats more the norm than previously.

    The marinas aand maria industry value is fairly high, so you have to balance that plus the ripple effect of reducing congestion for a few thousnd vehicles two hundred times a year is worth the cost.

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