Turning 50: The Capital Beltway then and now – the good, the bad and the traffic jams

The Capital Beltway opened in 1964 to carry commuters around the region. (Washington Post file photo)

The Capital Beltway opened in 1964 to carry commuters around the region. (Washington Post file photo)

It’s been 50 years since the Capital Beltway looped its way into the heart of the Washington area. The 64-mile highway is synonymous today with traffic jams. But when it was completed in August 1964, it created a new way to get around the fast-growing Washington region.

“It has cut my travel time almost in half between my Bethesda office and my office in Laurel,” wrote one doctor in a 1964 letter to The Washington Post.

Let’s all hop in a time machine, and dust off a few historical facts about the Beltway.

 

Then-Maryland Gov. Millard Tawes at ceremony in early 1960s opening a portion of the Capital Beltway. (Washington Post file photo)

Then-Maryland Gov. Millard Tawes attends a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the early 1960s opening a portion of the Capital Beltway. (Washington Post file photo)

  • Aug. 17, 1964

The Beltway opened in 1961 and was completed on a Monday in 1964. The ribbon-cutting that day was in the middle of the highway and jammed up traffic for miles.

“I’ll never get out of here,” one driver told a reporter that day.

  • Aug. 18, 1960

You know it as the Capital Beltway or Interstate 495. It was even once called the Circumferential Highway.

In 1960, the Maryland State Roads Commission asked to consider spelling it as the Capitol Beltway, with an “o,” because they wanted pictures of the U.S. Capitol on every highway sign. In a letter, the commission’s chairman called the idea “imaginative” and said it would symbolize “democracy for free men everywhere.”

The switcheroo never happened. Officials at the time said the word capital encompassed “the whole Washington area,” according to a 1960 Washington Post article.

 

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  • 30,400

That’s how many vehicles traveled the Beltway north of Maryland’s US-50 in the Beltway’s first year, according to daily traffic estimates. The same stretch now carries 220,731 vehicles daily – a 626 percent increase in five decades.

A fiery accident (lower right) involving a tractor trailer truck, tour bus and a passenger car, blocks the inner loop of the Beltway near the Van Dorn Street exit March 2001. Traffic had been blocked on the outer loop also but is getting by in this photo. (Washington Post file photo)

A fiery accident (lower right) involving a tractor-trailer, tour bus and a car, blocks the inner loop of the Beltway near the Van Dorn Street exit in March 2001. (Washington Post file photo)

  • 19

That’s the number of fatal crashes on “the road that has no end” in its inaugural year — 13 of them in Maryland and six in Virginia.

In 2013, the Maryland State Highway Administration tallied four fatalities on the Beltway, while the Virginia Department of Transportation says there were none.

Officials hold a ribbon cutting ceremony to note the first milestone opening of the Springfield Interchange construction in November 2000. (Washington Post file photo)

Officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to note the first milestone opening of the Springfield Interchange construction in Virginia in November 2000. (Washington Post file photo)

  • 30

Maryland State Police had that many troopers regularly assigned to the Capital Beltway when it first opened. Now 100 troopers patrol the Beltway, a spokesman said.

Maryland State Police Sgt. First Class Michael Allmon aligns the laser and video equipment used to record speed of an automobile and videotape the vehicle if it is exceeding a predetermined speed limit in November 1997. The TV monitor to his right shows the video image of the beltway traffic as it approaches the back of the van. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

Maryland State Police Sgt. First Class Michael Allmon aligns the laser and video equipment used to record the speed of an automobile and videotape the vehicle if it is exceeding a predetermined speed limit in November 1997. The TV monitor to his right shows the video image of the beltway traffic as it approaches the back of the van. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

–  Denise Lu contributed to this report.

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