Archive of Prominent Section 106 Cases:
Virginia/Maryland: Replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge
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Early this year, the City of Alexandria settled its lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regarding environmental compliance for replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. A compromise was reached whereby the replacement structure would be built to accommodate 12 lanes of traffic, but initially would be marked for only ten. However, the intervenors in the lawsuit, including several local organizations and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, elected to continue the case.
The preferred design for a new Wilson Bridge is a pair of side-by-side drawbridges on an alignment immediately to the south of the existing bridge. Further agency action has been mandated by Federal court on this project.
Drawing courtesy of Potomac Crossing Consultants and the Wilson Bridge Project
On April 13, 1999, the judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff-intervenors. The opinion finds that FHWA failed to complete its identification of historic properties under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), including those that may be affected by construction staging, dredge disposal, or wetland mitigation.
The judge also ruled that by failing to identify all properties prior to issuing a Record of Decision (ROD) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), FHWA could not have undertaken “all possible planning to minimize harm” to historic properties as is required by Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act. The opinion concluded that the agency abused its discretion in issuing the ROD and remanded the matter for further agency action. Finally, the judge took the extraordinary step of suggesting that direct intervention by Congress might be necessary to bypass what he characterized as “regulatory gridlock.”
FHWA, in cooperation with the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation, is considering means to replace the Wilson Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River between Alexandria, Virginia, and Prince George’s County, Maryland. The bridge carries Interstate 95 over the Potomac and, as one of two river crossings for the Washington Beltway, is one of the most critical transportation links in the metropolitan area. It is also a drawbridge that must open approximately 200 times per year and is the only property owned outright by FHWA. The bridge currently carries more than twice the volume for which it was designed in the 1960s, a situation further aggravated by the high volume of heavy truck traffic on the I-95 corridor.
The bridge is in deteriorating condition and must be replaced within the coming decade. FHWA has looked at a number of alternatives since 1989 and produced a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in 1991, followed by two Supplemental DEISs in 1996. The preferred alternative is a pair of side-by-side drawbridges on an alignment immediately to the south of the existing bridge. Given the scale of the undertaking and its proximity to the Alexandria Historic District, a National Historic Landmark, as well as other National Register-listed or eligible properties, the project has been viewed as having an adverse effect under Section 106.
After several years of coordination with all the consulting parties, the Council executed a Programmatic Agreement for the project in November 1997. The agreement was signed by the State Historic Preservation Officers and transportation agencies from Maryland and Virginia; the National Park Service; the City of Alexandria; Prince George’s County; and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Although a signatory to the agreement, the City of Alexandria brought suit against FHWA for failure to comply with the Clean Air Act, NEPA, NHPA, and Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act.
The court’s decision is still under review by the Council’s legal staff. It appears, however, that the judge’s finding that all reasonably foreseeable properties and impacts must be identified prior to a final decision by the agency has troubling implications for programmatic and process-oriented agreements that have been routinely executed by the Council. Many are now in place that allow phased survey and identification, particularly in the case of large corridor projects that potentially involve many archeological sites.
Staff contact: MaryAnn Naber
January 1999 report on this case
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