South Capitol Bridge: New Rendering, Nothing Really New as Design-Build Looms

With the District Department of Transportation’s release of a video rendering of its South Capitol Bridge concept, we’re concerned with the design’s suitability for bikes and pedestrians.

Essentially, nothing in this rendering is new. It is precisely in keeping with the Federal Environmental Impact Study, in which WABA found a laundry list of disappointments, including a lack of dedicated bicycle space and access. Despite some follow-up with DDOT, the Bicycle Advisory Committee, and Councilmember Tommy Wells, nothing has been modified, and our concerns are still prevalent.

Over 300 bicyclists wrote to express similar disappointment with the the FEIS stage. We are displeased that there has been no response to that community input.

DDOT has awarded this project—like the 11th Street Bridge and many other construction projects—as a design-build contract (in which details are developed throughout construction, as budgets and timelines become better known), rather than a traditional design-bid-build process. A design-bid-build process requires designers to take public input and produce final designs for the project before construction is underway. Those designs are used as bid documents, and the chosen contractor executes the designs with only minimal changes.

For advocates and regulators, the existence and sharing of designs prior to construction, as required by the design-bid-build project, is important: That provides the opportunity to make sure nothing has been missed (like the inclusion of any bike infrastructure at all!) and provide feedback at a stage when corrections can still be made. A design-build process can be more efficient in terms of time and money, but it makes the incorporation of public input difficult. There’s no point at which changes can no longer be made and concerned parties can look at “final” plans.

When large transportation contractors make time- and budget-based decisions without community input, they do get the obvious tasks right. No one ever forgets to put in high-speed vehicle lanes. But contractors can make changes that impact bicyclist and pedestrian facilities by redesigning them in ways that are impractical or inefficient. Sometimes, components are eliminated entirely. Community input from cyclists is critical in elucidating why changes might not make sense, but in a design-build process, outside involvement is minimal.

There’s been evidence of the problems with the design-build process just this week. In December, Greg Billing wrote about the lack of a direct connection from the 11th Street Bridge to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. He emailed DDOT over the course of several months, seeking details,  and received either noncommital or no responses at all. Greg was only told of the lack of connection at a Ward 8 Transportation Taskforce meeting when he directly raised the topic. It was not until a council staffer followed up on the the issue that DDOT explained what it was doing with regard to a bridge connection in detail: The agency reversed course and said that the connection would be built.

We don’t know if the representative at the Ward 8 Transportation Taskforce meeting was simply mistaken about the status of the connection, or if the connection was not part of the design at the point. That’s because, under the design-build model, plans for major infrastructure evolve even as construction takes place. It’s difficult for everyone—especially the public—to keep track of what’s happening. The designs are ever-changing in the hands of DDOT, its contractors, and their subcontractors.

During the formal environmental review period for the South Capitol Bridge, hundreds of comments expressed concern with its design. But WABA and other members of the D.C.-area cycling community received no meaningful feedback and have seen no changes from DDOT to their fundamental concept. The bridge is still planned to be a big circle and a big oval with wide sidewalks. With the design-build process moving forward, that DDOT hasn’t acknowledged any input from the cycling community is worrying—and frustrating.

We have resubmitted our concerns with the South Capitol Bridge to DDOT, with a few additions:

  • That the circle and oval are over-designed and will be difficult for bicyclists and pedestrians to cross
  • A restatement of our concern with the design in general, which relies on extensive mixing of bicyclist and pedestrian traffic on a bridge expected to carry large numbers of pedestrians arriving en masse for stadium events
  • Emphasis on the importance of connecting the bridge to main bicycling trails, the Anacostia Metro station, and the Anacostia neighborhood

The design-build process is not going away, nor should it. It saves money and time. But some of the efficiency of design-build comes from minimizing public comment. While time-consuming, opportunities and solicitations of public comment ensure that the project will meet the needs of the people using it. Projects like the South Capitol Bridge are a significant expenditure of city and federal funds, and should meet the needs of the people using it as effectively as possible.

This issue is broader in scope than just the South Capitol Bridge. But DDOT will soon award a contractor the authority to turn the agency’s renderings, National Environmental Policy Act documents, and guidance for the bridge into a piece of infrastructure that will be around for decades. We need to ensure that the development process for the bridge hears and acts on our needs and concerns.

We look forward to working with DDOT and its chosen contractor to ensure that appropriate consideration is given to the needs of bicyclists. And we’re excited for the the cycling community to have the opportunity to see, understand, and input on the design for the bridge—rather than having it imposed upon us.