Roads are built, Metro lines open — eventually

September 2, 2011

Fewer people in the Washington area will be traveling over the Labor Day weekend than last year, according to a survey by AAA. For those staying in town, we thought we’d take a stroll down memory lane to look at how we covered some major transportation stories over the past few decades.

The Green Line opens (May 1991)

Deep down, we know you worry that the Metro trains will never reach Dulles International Airport. Have faith — people felt the same way about the Green Line before it opened two decades ago.

Then-Washington Post staff writer Stephen C. Fehr wrote: “Many people doubted whether the trains would ever come to U Street-Cardozo, Shaw-Howard University and Mount Vernon Square-UDC. The Green Line is the last of Metro’s five lines to open; it was held up by disputes over where the stations should be built in the District and Prince George’s County. Once construction began, Metro ran into problems with the contractor that led to delays, torn-up streets and lost business in the Shaw and U Street areas.”

The construction delays also “prolonged the misery of residents living amid ripped-up streets, isolated small businesses and gaping gashes in the earth,” staff writer Nell Henderson wrote in August 1990.

When the Green Line finally opened in May 1991, William Smith of Falls Church told The Post: “It’s the last chance to see a brand new line opening.

It may not have been the last, but more than two decades will have passed before a new line opens in 2013.

I-270 is widened (October 1990)

I-270 made its debut “as a 12-lane superhighway of the future” after more than two decades of notorious congestion, Fehr wrote. He continued: “I-270 should be able to handle the growth in traffic through the year 2010, when about 185,000 vehicles are expected to use it daily.”

And this is where we cut to January 1999. Alan Sipress, a staff writer and now an editor at The Post, wrote about the widening of the roadway as a way to combat congestion: “But now, less than eight years after the project was finished, the highway has again been reduced to what one official called “a rolling parking lot. Traffic on some segments already has exceeded the levels projected for 2010.”

Why did this happen? Analysts at the time blamed it on “induced travel,” where widened highways generate their own traffic. Wrote Sipress: “Motorists may decide to make more trips than before, convinced that the wider road will reduce congestion and make each trip quicker. They also may switch from other routes, expecting to save time. And they may abandon mass transit and climb into their cars — all of which put more vehicles on the widened highway.”

Last year, as many as 266,000 travelers per day used the 12-lane portion of the roadway near Tuckerman Lane and just north of the split. Of course, traffic isn’t that heavy everywhere on I-270, so that’s not really representative of the entire roadway, said David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration. But it helps illustrate just how busy it can be at its most congested point.

The “new” National Airport (August 1997)

The primary building at Reagan National Airport — the one right next to the Metro platform — opened in July 1997. “Just over a week after its opening, officials at National’s $450 million glass-and-steel showplace are working out kinks in the facility, and travelers and visitors alike are crowding the terminal’s stores and restaurants,” wrote staff writer Alice Reid. The airport originally opened in 1941, but the airport as travelers currently recognize it didn’t open until more than five decades after. The building segued into its teen years with remarkable aplomb. Not much has changed at the airport (well, except for the name, which was amended in 1998 to honor the 40th president.) It’s still clean and sunny.

Dulles Toll Road opens (October 1984)

The $56.7 million road opened at 7 p.m. on a Monday, waiting until the evening rush hour had cleared out before welcoming commuters. It followed an I-66 extension inside the Beltway. The promise was clear: “Together the highways, although complicated with rush-hour restrictions and now toll booths, offer commuting motorists a smooth, traffic-light-free route into the nation’s capital from Loudoun County,” wrote staff writers Paul Hodge and Barbara Carton. I’m sure people who commute between Loudoun County and the District are nodding right now, thinking about their “smooth” route, unless they’re still stuck in traffic from Friday’s commute.

Virginia’s then-governor, Charles S. Robb (D), paid the first toll (a quarter). “If it’s like other toll roads, it will not be fully appreciated by travelers,” he remarked. In related news, drivers complained over the summer about delays caused by a work zone on the eastbound toll road entering the Beltway. It’s true: Toll roads are never fully appreciated.

Enjoying your Potomac Yard Metro station? (October 1993)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Potomac Yard in Alexandria might get a Metro stop.

I know! Same song, different verse: Fehr and staff writer Steve Bates reported on a company’s pitch to build a Metro stop at Potomac Yard. “A Metro, commuter rail, Amtrak and bus station would be built at Potomac Yard in Alexandria by 2001 and its $35 million cost would be financed by a developer instead of taxpayers under a plan being discussed by the developer and Metro officials,” they wrote.

If you’ve ridden the Metro from Reagan National Airport to Braddock Road recently, you’ve probably noticed that there’s no Metro station celebrating its 10-year anniversary.

But the Alexandria City Council approved a plan last year to redevelop the spot around Potomac Yard.

A work group providing input on the process is meeting at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 26, and that’s open to the public. (Editor’s note: The Potomac Yard Metro work group meeting has been rescheduled to Oct. 13 at 6:30 p.m.)

Head here for more information.

If you’d like to see how we covered a particular transportation story in the past, send an e-mail to bermanm@washpost.com, and we’ll try to include it down the line.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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