The New Frederick Douglass Bridge – What It is Bringing Us

Our River: The Anacostia

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Old and New Frederick Douglas Bridges. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

We have all for the past year or so watched as those impressive arches were built and extended to carry South Capitol Street over the Anacostia on a new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge.  Each time we have taken the old bridge and looked over something more has appeared – cables, struts, what-have-you.  But now the effort is reaching a new point where the the deck will be opening to the public –in both directions –this fall.

What had to be done?  The basic deck elements – girders, floor beams, deck panels, etc. –  delivered, installed and checked.  The final phase involves lighting, painting and signage for navigation along six lanes of roadways, three in each direction; active information systems for wireless communication and notification of emergencies; and markers and safety railings and overlooks for the two eighteen-foot-wide separated hiking and biking paths (eight and ten feet widths respectively on each side of the bridge).

Also necessary are drainage and standpipe systems to handle precipitation, coatings and other repair to visual scars, final cable adjustments, concrete overlays, pavement markings, and bike and pedestrian lane lines.

There is considerable work remaining related to access to the bridge, some of which will probably take until winter to complete.  This includes the traffic ovals at each end of the bridge, pedestrian access through connections to river walks and trails and the riverfront esplanade, and access lane layout approaching the ovals at each end of the bridge.  Finally, there will need to be a plan and schedule for the removal of the existing bridge once the new one is in operation.

Improvements Along the Lower Anacostia
Perhaps most surprising is how this project is essentially the kick-off of a nearly billion-dollar investment in improvements by the DC Department of Transportation along the lower Anacostia. The near-term plan has two phases with a total of five segments.

Phase 1 is comprised of Segment 1, the Bridge replacement and the construction of connecting roads and the two traffic ovals, one at each end; Segment 2 is a new Suitland Parkway interchange with I-295.  Total estimated cost is $600 million.  Phase 2 is made up of Segment 3, a new Suitland Parkway interchange with MLK Avenue; Segment 4, a rebuild of South Capitol Street from Independence Avenue to the Bridge; and Segment 5, a new streetscape for New Jersey Avenue. Total Phase 2 estimated cost is $300 million. For helping to restore the Anacostia River, the new Bridge is the key effort among all this.

So where we need to put our attention now is on the emergence of this remarkable and stunningly beautiful new Douglass Bridge over Our River, and how to maximize its contribution to the Anacostia restoration and beyond. This has been part of the thinking behind the new bridge and associated projects from the very beginning. As noted by Everett Lott, Interim Director of the District Department of Transportation in this spring’s issue of the quarterly Progress Report on the bridge project, “We recognize stories of success, partnership and persistence that brings to life our District’s commitment to building the bridge between cultures, communities and people – through it all, in every season.”

A key part of this is the accommodation of the range of hikers and bikers who will want to use the new bridge to facilitate their routes to and from and along the riverfront.  It will also provide impetus for the extension of trials along the River as redevelopment continues on Buzzard Point in Southwest. The Bridge itself will provide the first split-use pathway for hikers and bikers in DC, both safely protected from motor vehicles and each other.  And there will be four scenic overlooks for shared use. Start making plans now for some trips along the River that take advantage of all this!

One of the most interesting and challenging elements of the plan is construction and public access to large ovals at each end of the bridge that will slow and split the traffic going on and off.  A key part is access to the two areas by hikers and bikers, who will reach the ovals by signal crossings that will stop traffic subject to a 20 miles per hour speed limit.  The oval at the east end is designed with paths and benches and an amphitheater for performances.  It will have bike racks and three access crosswalks. The one on the west side near the baseball stadium will have an open center plaza for events and gatherings, with up to five access crossings and a path to the Riverwalk and a three-tiered boardwalk by the River. How much of all this will survive the challenges of design and location will be interesting to see.

We should all be proud of DDOT and the teams of contractors and volunteer groups they have put together to make the new Frederick Douglass Bridge a remarkable addition to our Riverscape.  It is beautiful, highly functional for hikers and bikers enjoying the Anacostia, and provide many improvements for motorists.  It brings many benefits for all – especially those along the River who want to make it a part of their lives.

Bill Matuszeski is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, and the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.  He also serves on the board of Friends of the National Arboretum and on Citizen Advisory Committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.