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Revised DC Bridge Design Questioned by Panel

Thursday, November 16, 2017

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The recently released new design for Washington D.C.’s Frederick Douglass Bridge was created to answer critics of the “uninspired” first draft, but the federal agency that oversees the District’s aesthetics has more criticism for lead designer AECOM.

The new design, first made public in August and submitted to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts for its review in October, is a through-arch bridge featuring three steel arches on concrete v-piers. At an estimated $441 million, it represents the largest construction project in the history of the D.C. Department of Transportation.

Frederick Douglass Bridge rendering
Renderings courtesy of DDOT

The new design for the Frederick Douglass Bridge replacement was revealed to the public in August; this month, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts questioned the prominence of the steel arches in the context of the historic District of Columbia.

While the new design comes as the result of an effort to create a “bolder” and “more contemporary” look in comparison with the first Frederick Douglass design, released in 2013 and criticized by the CFA as being “little advanced from the nearby uninspired highway bridges built in the last six decades.”

But a letter from CFA Secretary Thomas E. Luebke, sent Oct. 27 and addressed to DDOT’s Jeff Marootian and representatives of AECOM and bridge architects Brownlie, Ernst and Marks, says that the commission questions the “appropriateness” of the arch design “within the context of this city, whose bridges are typically supported from below, allowing expansive views of the urban context from the roadway above.”

The previous design had no structural elements extending above the deck.

CFA Recommendations

The Commission noted in the letter, which is on the agenda to be discussed at its meeting today (Nov. 16), that it thought some elements of previous design studies, including the use of five smaller arches instead of the three large arches in the new design, could be preferable. It commended the designers for their efforts to reach beyond the “utilitarian” nature of the 2013 design to contribute to the “monumental character of the national capital.”

CFA did not take any official action on the design, but requested additional documentation, including renderings from different perspectives. The Frederick Douglass Bridge connects with I-295 and Suitland Parkway on its south end; the north side of the bridge abuts Nationals Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals.

Douglass Bridge rendering

The Frederick Douglass Bridge connects with I-295 and Suitland Parkway on its south end; the north side of the bridge abuts Nationals Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals.

The CFA is a seven-member federal panel that reviews plans for new construction and changes in the District, including national memorials, military cemeteries, public buildings and, in some parts of the city, private development. It cannot reject the bridge design outright, but its approval or disapproval could have implications for potential federal funding; the Federal Highway Administration is to supply $200 million for the project.

The job is part of a contract with South Capitol Bridgebuilders, a joint venture of Archer West Construction and Granite Construction. AECOM is the lead designer, and HNTB is working with DDOT to manage the project.

About the Bridge

The current Frederick Douglass Bridge, which opened to traffic in 1950, is a steel swing bridge that has suffered considerable corrosion over the years, and rarely opens for oversize river traffic. It underwent a $27 million rehab in 2007 in order to extend its life until a replacement bridge could be designed and built.

The bridge is named for the 19th century African-American orator and writer, who lived his last 17 years at Cedar Hill, his home in Anacostia, just south of the bridge crossing.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Design; Design build; Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Government; Government contracts; NA; North America; Program/Project Management

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (11/16/2017, 11:28 AM)

Man, that design looked familiar in profile. From the side, the proposed bridge looks a lot like a 3-span version of the new Walterdale Bridge that was just completed in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It's not (the Edmonton bridge has slightly canted arches with joining members), but where truss bridges were "the thing" back in the early 1900's, I guess arches are "in" now.

Comment from William Feliciano, (11/17/2017, 9:22 AM)

I understand the CFA's concerns with the new design, but I like it. I can't see how the arches could really be that obtrusive to the visuals around it...after all, drivers need to keep their eyes on the road! Were the arches or support structure to be below the deck, that would mean a taller bridge, which in turn would require a higher road profile on both ends. This would likely result in more right of way impact on either side of such roads and other connecting streets. The artist depiction in this article shows the approach roads relatively flat as they approach the bridge.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (11/17/2017, 9:32 AM)

To be fair, most longitudinal arch bridges will have a pretty similar profile other than the number of arches. Here's one local to me from 1982 - you can get a significantly different look with a transverse arch (ie, you drive under the arch)

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (11/20/2017, 11:38 AM)

Tom, you are quite right. Having ours recently opened and the former bridge removed meant it was in the local news a lot. Just made it stand out.

Comment from Larry Zacharias, (11/21/2017, 11:52 AM)

Wait, the Commission of Fine Arts approves the bridge design and not engineers??. Better grab your wallet. Remember what happened with the Oakland Bay bridge rebuild in California. The politicians (including Oakland mayor and current governor) didn’t think the design was sophisticated enough. The result was a significantly delayed, over budget bridge, with design flaws, construction defects, and higher tolls. O I forgot, this is Washington DC, the locals (politicians) don.t pay tolls, the country will buy it for them.

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