Sherwood’s Notebook: Caution…Crumbling Ahead!


Really? Really?

Are we really discussing how the iconic Memorial Bridge may have to be shut down by 2021 because it’s crumbling before our eyes? Yes, we are.

It needs a $250 million makeover. That’s almost the entirety of the National Park Service capital improvement budget for all of its properties nationwide. And the Park Service, as we noted in our recent column on Beach Drive, has almost $12 billion in unfunded infrastructure needs.

Now, let’s pause while we review the recent presidential debates.

The Republicans last week got into an awkward show of hands. If you missed it, the Notebook is not going to explain it. But it wasn’t about the size of our national infrastructure problems. That wasn’t a topic.

On Sunday night, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders met in Flint, Mich., and talked about its water crisis. Flint is a stain on America’s conscience, but it’s just one drop in the corroded public policy that has left our country’s infrastructure in near ruins.

“It’s raining lead in Flint,” Clinton said.

When Sanders described the infrastructure needs for water, highways, bridges and other foundations nationwide, Clinton readily agreed, saying, “Amen to that.”

In its most recent report card in 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers said there have been some efforts at tackling infrastructure at city, state and federal levels, but overall there’s been modest investment compared with need.

“It is clear that we have a significant backlog of overdue maintenance across our infrastructure systems,” the report said, citing “a pressing need for modernization, and an immense opportunity to create reliable, long-term funding sources to avoid wiping out our recent gains.”

The group’s next report card isn’t due until 2017. But we don’t need to wait on more depressing reports. Given the nature of our national politics, it not clear any real action will occur.

And that brings us back to the Memorial Bridge. Opened in 1941, it happens to be your Notebook’s favorite in the Washington region. We point it out to visiting interns. Its nine arches gracefully span the river, with elegant North Carolina marble flanking its sides. We never tire of driving along the Potomac River looking at it.

Outwardly beautiful, yes, but it is rotting on the inside. Concrete decks don’t need resurfacing; they need to be replaced completely. Iron supports are rusting and endanger the middle of the structure, a draw span that has not opened since 1961.

In our NBC4 interview with the National Park Service, spokesperson Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles was direct. “When you talk about the bridge being so bad it has to close,” we said to her, “that’s a heck of a decision to make.”

She responded, “It is [a big decision] and it’s not one we take lightly. But what’s most important is for drivers and pedestrians to be safe.”

It’s hard to imagine the bridge being allowed to crumble into disuse. But would a new Memorial Bridge look anything similar?

“That’s one of the things that are going to be really important, maintaining the historic character of the bridge,” Anzelmo-Sarles said. “Our intent is to make sure that it still looks and is just as iconic as it always has been.”

■ Pepco-Exelon, continued. At the start of the week, Pepco and Exelon formally filed a new request before the D.C. Public Service Commission. The two parties are trying to salvage their $7 billion merger. The commission approved the merger but set several conditions that have caused support for the plan to unravel. Now the power companies are asking the commission to reconsider those conditions. It’s unclear when — or if — the commission will act, leaving the merger as uncertain as ever.

■ Joslyn Williams stepping down. Longtime labor leader Joslyn Williams will be praised and roasted Saturday night. Williams — the first African-American president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO — has led the regional group since 1982, re-elected every three years since.

Williams has participated as chairman in city, county, state, national and international union activities. He’s been a voice of reason and activism for labor unions across the spectrum. And he has served on various boards and commissions for a variety of mayors. Of course, everything good done in his name actually has been done by longtime executive director Kathleen McKirchy. (See, the roast already has begun.)

A tip of the hat — union label included — for Williams. Your Notebook, who emceed the DC Chamber of Commerce dinner a year ago, is happy to be ecumenical and emcee of Saturday’s Evening With Labor event at the Washington Hilton.

■ Cuba, sí! The Washington Post reported on Monday that Cuba’s national baseball team and the Washington Nationals could play games here and in Cuba next year. If there is any common cord between the U.S. and Cuba, it is baseball.

The discussion comes as United Airlines has reported it wants to fly from Dulles to Havana.
Our trip to Cuba last year showed us that commerce and culture could soon find many outlets in this new world. Watch for more.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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