Remove Whitehurst, and Behold the Potential -- and Pitfalls

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, April 14, 2007

In 2005, only seven years after Whitehurst Freeway renovations were completed, the District began exploring the implications of someday tearing the freeway down -- or not. For many residents of Northwest Washington and commuters from Maryland and Virginia, eliminating this fragment of four-lane elevated highway, stretching across Georgetown's southern edge between the Key Bridge and 27th Street NW, is at best a bad idea and, at worst, tantamount to a criminal act.

Public opposition to demolishing the Whitehurst is based almost entirely on one issue: traffic impact. Residents and political leaders, including the mayor, are understandably fearful that without the Whitehurst, today's nightmarish congestion around, through and within Georgetown would become even worse.

They don't believe that an on-grade boulevard along Georgetown's waterfront could efficiently carry the traffic now carried by the Whitehurst, reportedly used by 45,000 cars daily for access to and from downtown, the Kennedy Center, the Mall and destinations farther east and south. People also foresee M Street through Georgetown becoming completely impassable, with rush-hour commuting times unacceptably prolonged.

Some people also worry about the cost of demolition -- tens of millions of dollars -- and the level of public investment likely to be required. They wonder whether this money wouldn't be better spent on more pressing transportation improvements elsewhere in the District.

A longtime resident of the Palisades, I use the Whitehurst. Sometimes, admittedly exceeding the speed limit, I negotiate its 4,000 feet in a few dozen seconds. Other times, I sit idling for countless minutes near the freeway's two ends, waiting to get on or off. But unlike almost all my neighbors, I have long been in favor of making the Whitehurst disappear.

Apparently, I am among the very few who believe that the perceived disadvantages of demolishing the Whitehurst can be mitigated; that the east-west traffic demand could be met by a properly designed, on-grade roadway; and that, in the long term, the benefits justify the costs.

The presumed benefits of demolition are clear: aesthetic enhancement of the city and the Georgetown waterfront; creation of an attractive, sunlit, waterfront avenue comfortably accommodating vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists; increased economic value accruing to Georgetown real estate, residents and businesses facing the river; and, with sound transportation planning and engineering, potentially improved mobility.

The D.C. Department of Transportation's exploration, "Whitehurst Freeway Deconstruction Feasibility Study," is intended to evaluate the impact of demolishing, modifying or leaving untouched this piece of infrastructure. In addition to traffic, economic and visual impacts, the study considers effects on pedestrian and bicycle movement, waterfront access, historic structures, tourism and local ecology.

The study entailed data collection and mapping, public meetings, design workshops, environmental analyses, and the generation of multiple alternatives. Among the many contemplated, the most feasible ones appear to be an at-grade avenue extending K Street westward and connecting to Canal Road, either with or without a connection from the Key Bridge, and an at-grade avenue plus tunnels under K Street for through traffic.

Not surprisingly, preliminary findings reported this past fall show that, with every alternative, there is good news and bad news. Service at various intersections would sometimes improve and sometimes worsen during morning and afternoon peak traffic periods. On a scale ranging from A to F, with F being "most unfavorable," the Canal-Whitehurst, M Street-Key Bridge and K Street-27th Street intersections fared the worst.

But you don't need a traffic study to understand why these intersections, already at level F, are doomed to fail. Virtually all traffic congestion associated with the Whitehurst Freeway is attributable not to 4,000 feet of elevated steel and concrete, but rather to the awkward interchanges at its ends.

Thus, while I advocate demolishing the Whitehurst, I concede that demolition would be problematic, no matter which alternative is pursued, unless the nodes at each end are fixed. Further, it's clear that those fixes would be difficult and costly.

At the west end, where the Key Bridge, M Street and Canal Road converge, resolving today's existing circulation mess and smoothing out conflicting movements would require new lanes and new ramps flying over and spiraling vertically to provide the necessary access, traffic capacity and safety.

At the east end is a miniature mixing bowl near Rock Creek Park where the freeway merges with K Street and intersects 27th Street, often a major choke point for both eastbound and westbound traffic. Transforming the geometry of this bundle of converging roadways likewise is crucial.

These necessarily bold remedies would greatly enhance traffic flow. They also would enable much better public transit service for D.C., Maryland and Virginia neighborhoods along the Potomac River whose residents rarely use transit. With frequent, reliable and reasonably fast bus service, many of these residents would not have to drive every time they head to Georgetown or downtown, which would further reduce congestion.

Unfortunately, the DDOT study places too little emphasis on how to fix this pair of dysfunctional traffic nodes. Rather than focusing most of the attention on whether to get rid of the Whitehurst Freeway, something unlikely to happen in any event for many years, DDOT should be looking primarily at solutions for the end points, regardless of the freeway's ultimate fate.

If feasible solutions can be found, convincing skeptics that the Whitehurst should be replaced by a beautiful waterfront avenue would be much easier.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company