Construction can begin as soon as October on a new 12-lane Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a federal court of appeals panel ruled yesterday.
The unanimous decision by the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is a major victory for proponents of the bridge replacement. The replacement bridge has been bogged down since April by District Judge Stanley Sporkin's ruling that more environmental studies were needed on a narrower, 10-lane alternative before construction could begin.
"This is a win for the commuters of the Washington Metropolitan area," U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater said at a news conference.
Yesterday's decision eliminates one of the two remaining hurdles toward beginning work on the new bridge. Actual digging cannot start until the government finds an additional $600 million to complete the funding package for the $1.9 billion project.
Top transportation officials, as well as business groups and the area's congressional delegation, hailed yesterday's decision.
"It was a dramatic rejection of the idea that a group of people can take environmental laws and essentially hold the entire region hostage," said Barry M. Hartman, an attorney from Kirkpatrick and Lockhart, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
The co-leader for the Coalition for a Sensible Bridge, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said the group is very disappointed in the decision but it will continue to fight for a 10-lane bridge. It will decide next year whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or ask the same appeals court to reconsider.
"We lost a battle. I don't think we've lost the war. We haven't ruled out anything right now," said Judy McVay, co-chairman of the coalition.
The appeals court judges reversed all three aspects of the lower court's ruling, finding that the Federal Highway Administration did not violate:
* The National Environmental Protection Act by ruling out a 10-lane bridge as a reasonable alternative and thereby not conducting the most extensive environmental studies;
* The National Historic Preservation Act by deferring evaluation of unknown historic sites within the construction area before design work was begun;
* The Department of Transportation Act when deciding on a larger bridge that will require use of protected land such as parklands and wetlands, because a smaller bridge would not satisfy the transportation needs of the project - established by the Highway Administration.
Yesterday's ruling acknowledged the political wrangling over the bridge by stating the courts cannot rule on politics or preferences but only on process.
"Our obligation is not to further our beau ideal of a bridge design, but merely to ensure that the procedures mandated by these statutes have been complied with. We hold that the Administration has satisfied the requirements . . ." read the decision written by Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman, on behalf of Circuit Judges A. Raymond Randolph and Stephen F. Williams.
As for the environmental law decision, Judge Silberman wrote that the courts must determine whether the administration was reasonable when it stated the objectives of the project. …