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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Autumn 2021

Autumn 2021
Issue No:
Vol. 85 No. 3
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Rehabilitating the Historic Arlington Memorial Bridge

by Sandy Sinclair


"The Arlington Memorial Bridge lit at night, after completion of the rehabilitation project. Overlayed on the photo is a technical line drawing of some of the bridge spans. Image source: FHWA. Overlay courtesy of Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, delineated by Brianna Kraft and Ashley T. Walker, 2013-2014."
The Arlington Memorial Bridge underwent a huge rehabilitation project, completed in December 2020. Line drawing courtesy of Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, delineated by Brianna Kraft and Ashley T. Walker, 2013-2014.

Since 1932, the Arlington Memorial Bridge has been a lasting symbol of national unity after the Civil War. Spanning the Potomac River, the neoclassical bridge links the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC; Arlington House (also known as the Robert E. Lee Memorial) in Arlington, VA; and Arlington National Cemetery—the final resting place for more than 400,000 service members who died on active duty, veterans, and their family members.

“Arches of Ever-Enduring Granite”

The Arlington Memorial Bridge is the realization of nearly a century of imagination, speculation, and planning. President Andrew Jackson envisioned a bridge over the Potomac River during his term in office from 1829 to 1837, and in 1851, Secretary of State Daniel Webster credited the former president for championing a bridge “with arches of ever-enduring granite, symbolical of the firmly established union of the North and South.”

Decades of periodic studies into the feasibility of a bridge, and even a design competition in 1899, generated little more than paperwork. On his final day in office in 1913, President William Howard Taft authorized $25,000 for a commission to investigate how to link Arlington National Cemetery to the District of Columbia across the Potomac River. Funding shortfalls and other delays prevented the bridge from becoming a reality until President Calvin Coolidge approved construction. The bridge cost about $7 million and was dedicated on January 16, 1932.

Today, Arlington Memorial Bridge is one of the five vehicular bridges connecting the District of Columbia and Virginia and serves as an iconic element of the entrance to the Nation’s Capital. Decades of gradually increasing vehicle traffic, vehicle tonnage, weather, and the natural freeze-thaw cycle aged the bridge severely. By the early 21st century, it was in serious need of repair.

The bridge is a key component of the greater Washington, DC, area transportation network, with an estimated 68,000 vehicles crossing the bridge daily. The bridge is also designated as an emergency evacuation route for the Nation’s Capital.

Since it first opened to traffic, the bridge structure had never been rehabilitated at this magnitude. Following guidelines from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inspection program, bridge inspectors noted that components of the bridge had deteriorated to a critical level. The National Park Service (NPS), which has jurisdiction over the bridge because of its status as a national monument, conducted a series of temporary emergency repair projects on the bridge between 2010 and 2017. Despite these efforts, Federal officials determined that—without substantial renovation—the bridge would be forced to close by 2021.

NPS and FHWA Partnership

With the Arlington Memorial Bridge serving as both a monument and a connector, NPS and FHWA shared a mutual interest in preserving the bridge and keeping the public safe. The two agencies worked together to restore the historic bridge to its original grandeur and in 2018 began a 3-year, $227 million program to make the most comprehensive set of repairs to the bridge since its original construction.

The design-build project repaired or replaced the bridge deck, sidewalk, and bascule (drawbridge) span, and restored the remainder of the structure. The work extended the bridge’s useful life for 75 years. In December 2020, NPS completely reopened the rehabilitated bridge.

“I am very honored to have been part of this large historic rehabilitation project,” says FHWA construction engineer Joe Fabis. “The coordination with Federal agencies, local agencies, contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers that led this project to be completed on time kept this bridge in service for the local community and for visitors from all over the world.”

Replacing the Historic Bascule Span

By many accounts, at 94 feet (29 meters) wide and 2,162 feet (659 meters) long, the Arlington Memorial Bridge is a structural masterpiece. The bridge consists of 10 reinforced concrete arch approach spans and features a 216-foot (66-meter) double-leaf bascule span at its center. The bascule span was the longest, heaviest, and fastest opening in the world when it was built, but it has not functioned since 1961 because the closed position provided sufficient clearance for the navigational traffic below after that time. The steel experienced significant rust and section loss during this time of disuse.

Between the bridge’s completed construction in 1932 and the drawbridge closure in 1961, the bascule span would periodically open and close to provide access for large ships to the Georgetown waterfront. Over time, as shipping traffic on the Potomac River decreased and the construction of a fixed, low-clearance bridge nearby ended access for large ships, the bascule span was permanently closed in 1965. With no ship traffic, there was no expectation it would ever need to open again.

The rehabilitation of the Arlington Memorial Bridge was one of the largest and most important infrastructure projects in NPS history. In 2016, the project team completed the required environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The assessment’s preferred alternative for the project prioritized historic preservation by combining a mixture of replacement and rehabilitation practices to preserve the structure’s original character. During the NEPA review process, the project team considered multiple proposals for the bascule span replacement in coordination with the historic preservation offices of Virginia and the District of Columbia, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission. The final plan called for the bridge’s bascule span to be replaced with a new fixed span comprised of variable-depth steel girders.

"Construction of a replacement bridge span. Image source: FHWA."

The construction crew works on the wall of a replacement bridge span.

"An architectural fascia is lifted from the bridge with a crane during the rehabilitation project. Image source: FHWA."
The rehabilitation project considered historic architectural details, like the decorative fascia shown being removed here, to be important features to preserve and restore.

Designing to Reduce Future Maintenance

The deterioration of the bridge prior to construction occurred in part because of the intrusion of water and winter salting for snow. The design of the new structure prevents water and chlorides from entering the bridge. The new center span design also supports the roadway above using multiple simple plate girders, adding redundancy compared to the original complex two truss-floor beam system with lattice steel members. The new design reduces the amount of future maintenance needed compared to the original. The renovation integrated several FHWA initiatives to preserve the bridge and minimize construction time, including accelerated bridge construction techniques, prefabricated bridge element systems, and the use of ultra-high performance concrete, which will also help future maintenance. In addition, passive corrosion anodes help reduce chloride corrosion. These initiatives, along with a concrete overlay, delivered a final watertight bridge and reduced construction duration and long-term maintenance.

“The FHWA initiatives we used promoted durability and minimized impact to the public,” says FHWA structural engineer Hratch (Rich) Pakhchanian, who helped lead the restoration project. “These methods, with cutting-edge construction and materials technology, accelerated our construction schedule.”

The design team also faced challenges related to the bridge’s sidewalks, which enabled water to enter the bridge at the interface between the deck and the sidewalk. Though mainly at the center span, water and road salts could reach the steel members and turned out to be one of the primary contributing factors to the steel’s corrosion issues. The new deck extends below the sidewalk to prevent water from entering the bridge.

"The underside of the replacement span for the bascule. Image source: FHWA."
The project team used floating barges to help with the rehabilitation. Here, the underside of the replaced bascule span is visible.

The existing bascule span had exterior fascia girders with floor beams holding up the structure. To replace it while minimizing impacts to bridge traffic, the project team created a working platform atop the water using a specially designed “jack-up barge” of 22 “flexi-floats” with shoring towers supported by pipe pile. The barge and shoring towers supported the floor beams on the bascule span, enabling workers to cut the bascule span in half while live traffic drove overhead.

The construction replaced the existing concrete deck using accelerated bridge construction techniques with more than 450 full-depth precast concrete deck panels. The use of precast concrete enabled the deck to be assembled in a controlled environment, rather than cast in place at the project site, where additional variables—from air temperature, humidity, precipitation, and evaporation to materials delayed by periodic traffic congestion—could have resulted in considerable delays and increased costs. The offsite production meant that the precast deck panels could be constructed and stored until needed onsite. This led to more control of the schedule, reducing weather and supplier impacts and unanticipated cold joints. The project used stainless steel reinforcing in the precast deck panels to further improve quality, which significantly reduced concerns of possible corrosion in steel reinforcements.

Preserving Historic Elements  

NPS and FHWA committed to preserving as much of the structure’s unique design elements as possible while incorporating engineering and construction materials and methods that would extend the life of the bridge. To maintain the original look of the bascule span/drawbridge, the project used a fixed span bridge with 216-foot-long (65.8-meter-long), 170,000-pound (77,000-kilogram) high-performance steel plate girders, along with 70 kilopound per square inch (ksi) (480 megapascal) bottom flanges and 50 ksi (340 megapascal) top flanges.

“The Arlington Memorial Bridge project highlights the exceptional work National Park Service and Federal Highway Administration staff accomplished together,” says Charles Cuvelier, superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which connects to the bridge. “Our collaboration helped protect this iconic memorial and ensure it will continue to serve as a reminder of the sacrifices of our Nation’s veterans and as a symbolic link between the north and the south for decades to come.”

Once installed, the fitted trusses underneath the girders recreated the original shape of the historic bascule span/drawbridge. Additionally, NPS considered the original pop-up protective bollards on the bascule span/drawbridge to be a historic element of the bridge and developed a design to preserve the posts in place.

Throughout construction, NPS and FHWA took special care to protect the bridge’s historic architecture and enhance its iconic appearance. Since work began in 2018, workers methodically removed, cleaned, repaired, and reinstalled more than 4,500 pieces of granite and rehabilitated the bridge’s historic structure.

"A crane places a precast concrete bridge deck panel. Image source: FHWA."

The project used precast concrete bridge deck panels to shorten construction time and minimize future maintenance needs.

“The partnership between FHWA and NPS was key to the success of this project,” says FHWA’s lead structural engineer George Choubah. “Everyone on the team worked very hard to make sure that the fast-paced design and construction schedules were met without jeopardizing the quality of the final product.”

In addition to upgrading this historic bridge to contemporary standards, and restoring its role as an integral part of the efficient flow of traffic in the Nation’s Capital for decades to come, the rehabilitation of the Arlington Memorial Bridge has given new life to the most prominent of entrances to the District of Columbia.

Working with NPS, FHWA tackled an urgent and complicated infrastructure challenge head-on. The project succeeded in rehabilitating the national Capital's ceremonial entrance and preserving its historic character for future generations.

Alexander (Sandy) Sinclair is a public affairs specialist in FHWA’s Office of Public Affairs, where he helps promote the agency’s multifaceted agenda to the media, stakeholders, and FHWA employees. With the Department since 1999, Sinclair graduated from the University of California-Los Angeles with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

For more information, see

"The completed replacement span for the bascule. Image source: FHWA."

The rehabilitation project replaced the bascule span, which had not been used since 1961, while maintaining the bridge’s historic look.