He did so after winning a contest to detonate a section of the detested Potomac River bridge in Washington DC.

Dan Ruefly, a Maryland electrician, pushed down the ceremonial plunger at 12.34 am (05.34 GMT ) on Tuesday morning, to a crowd of cheering spectators as a cascade of flashes lit the underside of the bridge and thunderclaps rolled across the river.

"It's past due. It was past due a couple of years after it was built," said Ruefly, who crossed the bridge before 6 am on weekdays to beat traffic. His hip was crushed in an accident on the bridge in 1999.

Asked if he had thought about blowing up the bridge before, Ruefly said: "Hasn't everybody in Washington, D.C.?"

The bridge has long been one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in a region notorious for gridlock. Eight lanes of Beltway traffic funnel down to six lanes, and backups can stretch for miles when the drawbridge is raised 270 times a year to let boats through.

The Woodrow Wilson Memorial
Bridge before being detonated

Originally designed to handle 75,000 vehicles a day when it opened as a four-lane span in 1961, the six traffic lanes now carry 200,000 vehicles per day.

A 12-lane replacement, at a cost of $2.4 billion, will increase capacity to 300,000 vehicles a day, and with a higher elevation the new drawbridge will only need to be raised only 65 times per year.

Traffic is already flowing across part of the new bridge which is expected to be complete in 2011.