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    Washington's Main Drag

    By Douglas B. Feaver
    Special to The Washington Post
    Monday, August 30, 1999; Page A1

    The Washington Post Century

    Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes performs the ribbon-cutting duties marking the official opening of the Capitol Beltway betweeen Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard in Montgomery County. (File Photo)

    For some months, the earthmovers and paving machines had been hard at work in Maryland between Wisconsin Avenue and U.S. Route 1, racing to complete the last stretch of the Capital Beltway. The morning of Aug. 17, 1964, the barricades came down and hundreds of motorists, free at last, accelerated onto the new asphalt -- and into the Beltway's first magnificent traffic jam.

    As these pioneers sped along, they suddenly encountered, without warning or any possibility of escape, another set of barriers on top of the Cherry Hill Road overpass near College Park. There, politicians and officials had gathered to cut the Beltway-opening ribbon and congratulate themselves on the marvelous public work they and the federal gasoline tax had wrought.

    Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes and federal highway administrator Rex M. Whitton were there, along with honored guests from the District and Virginia, all of whom were introduced. There was the Air Force Band. There were speeches. Finally the barricades were removed, and the motorists who had stumbled into the ceremony and others who had actually come to witness it rushed to their cars, only to get stuck again when an ancient Ford pickup broke down.

    An appropriate harbinger.

    The Maryland State Roads Commission handed out a news release that day proclaiming that the Beltway would carry an average of 55,000 vehicles a day, a figure that was exceeded in the first year.

    Thirty-five years later, about 1 million vehicles use the Beltway every day. It's twice as wide as it was then and serves a much different purpose from the one originally intended. It was supposed to be the bypass, the hub road that would keep the long-haul traffic out of the city while freeway spokes served local needs.

    Problem is, many of the spokes were never completed, the region's population grew far beyond planners' projections and the Beltway became Greater Washington's Main Street.

    People use it despite the Woodrow Wilson Bridge backups, despite the overturned dynamite truck at the Springfield interchange, despite the roller coaster alignment through Rock Creek Park in Montgomery County, despite the idiot high-speed lane changers, despite the average of 18 deaths a year. For many, it is the only way to get there.

    Scoping the Swamp

    Flash back to a pleasant late spring morning in 1957. Daniel J. Appel, a young engineer on contract to the Virginia Department of Highways, set out on a five-day, 22-mile trek along the proposed route of the Beltway in Virginia. His job was to figure out how many bridges would be needed to carry the four-lane road.

    He and his team hiked inland from the Potomac River in Alexandria, traversed a marshy, near swamp, then climbed west and north through Fairfax County's woods and gently rolling farmland to the site of what is now the American Legion Bridge.

    "There were small homes scattered here and there, some without indoor plumbing," Appel recalled. "We were truly in farmland." The Beltway's proposed route fell about two miles east of Tysons Corner, which was then a junction of two country lanes. There was "nothing there," said Appel, nothing to suggest that it would become Northern Virginia's downtown.

    About the same time, the Maryland State Roads Commission began buying land for its 43-mile section of the Beltway. Maryland's Montgomery County communities had pushed farther out than those in Virginia, but Maryland was able to avoid razing a large number of residences and other structures by sending the road on a circuitous detour through Rock Creek Park instead of through subdivisions in Wheaton and Kensington. But the Rock Creek Park route had its opponents, including Esther Coopersmith, whose residence on Park View Road overlooked what would become the Beltway. "We lived only 90 feet away," she recalled.

    Coopersmith, a Democratic party activist, knew Tawes and was able to arrange a meeting between a citizens group and Maryland highway officials. But the perilous S-curve Rock Creek route survived, called by some to this day the Coopersmith Curve.

    Coopersmith moved after the Beltway opened. "We lost money on our house," she said, but her family's ringside view of the Beltway "was great while my children were growing up because they loved ambulances and firetrucks," she said. Thirty-five years later, the state has committed to building a sound barrier for the houses on Park View Road.

    After Congress passed legislation in 1956 making the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways" possible, it took eight years to complete the Beltway -- mostly four lanes at a radius of about 10 miles from the Ellipse. The legislation created a federal money trough that provided $9 of every $10 the states spent to build interstates.

    "The concept was that every major city had to have not only a route that penetrated the city but routes around the city," Francis C. Turner explained in a 1986 interview. "So in case a bomb dropped, like in Hiroshima, the military needed a route to go around the city, to bypass it." Turner was staff director for the commission that wrote the report that led to legislation creating the system. He retired as federal highway administrator in 1972.

    "I think everybody knew the impact [of the Beltway] would be rather dramatic," said M. Slade Caltrider, a construction engineer for the Maryland State Roads Commission when the Beltway opened and a man who later became the state's chief road builder. But no one had predicted just how dramatic. "We were more interested in engineering and building," Caltrider said, adding that the impact of the Beltway on regional development "was for planners."

    But today, Caltrider calls the Beltway a "social and political barrier. All you have to do is look at television, and they're talking about 'inside the Beltway,' " he noted.

    That term, spoken with derision by those outside, was coined by Federal Diary columnist Mike Causey, who covered the opening of the Beltway for this newspaper.

    The late W. Lee Mertz was the federal official who developed the traffic forecasts for the interstate highway system. In 1988, Mertz told an oral-history interviewer for the Public Works Historical Society, "I had the pleasure of -- I will say to give vent to my ego -- of laying out the Beltway.

    "I really hate to admit to this," he said, "because I was the one that furnished all of the traffic estimates for the Beltway, but we just could not find any prospect of all the development that took place outside the Beltway. We just couldn't foresee it."

    Others did, however. Developer John T. "Til" Hazel, fresh out of Harvard law and the Army, went to work for a Northern Virginia law firm that brought about the condemning of the land for the Beltway and Interstate 66 in Virginia. Hazel is known today as the force of nature who invented Fairfax County.

    Did he foresee the changes the Beltway would bring to the region?

    "Sure," he said. "I knew that Fairfax was going to be the significant development county in the second half of the century. And obviously the city of Washington was going to expand. Maryland had already begun to develop no-growth tendencies. Northern Virginia was clearly the place where the action was going to be."

    Construction of the Beltway itself presented few major engineering challenges. Caltrider says the biggest issue was the "magnitude" of the undertaking. In Virginia, that near swamp south of Alexandria at what is now the Telegraph Road interchange had to be pumped out and stabilized. Aside from that, building the road was a piece of cake.

    The Bypass Concept

    The "Washington Circumferential Highway" had been part of a national high-speed road network that existed in the minds of the planners since the mid-1930s. The economic advantages of a strong national road network seemed obvious, and when planners discovered that almost half the traffic that penetrated the nation's downtowns was there only on its way to somewhere else, the concept of bypassing cities was born.

    World War II stopped the planning but not the dreaming, and also added impetus to the network. The supreme allied commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, saw the German autobahns and was envious. When he became president in 1953, he started the machinery that produced the study that led to the legislation that paid for the house that Ike built.

    Four highway engineers who had major roles in building the Beltway were interviewed for this article. All are retired, and one is in his seventies. They volunteered how exciting it was to be associated with the interstate project, ultimately a 44,000-mile network.

    "We were plowing new ground," said Hal King, who started his engineering career with the federal government and later became Virginia's highway commissioner. The interstate program "had every engineer's attention. We didn't know how many hours there were in a day."

    But in the process of constructing the Interstate system: farms were sliced in two; bypassed small towns dried up; businesses abandoned cities for the closest suburban interchange; commuters by the millions bought homes in sprawling exurban subdivisions and began clogging the freeways that let them get out there in the first place; transit systems died or were taken over and subsidized by cities and states; and interstate trucking became a huge economic force that threatened the railroads.

    By the late 1960s and early 1970s, those concerned about the resulting environmental and social costs began to be heard. The District of Columbia -- with at least the acquiescence and sometimes the support of Maryland -- pulled the spokes from its freeway plan and ultimately reprogrammed the money for the regional Metro system. That's why the Eisenhower Freeway (Interstate 395) ends unceremoniously in a tunnel just northwest of the Capitol; it was to have been Interstate 95 straight through town.

    A new Potomac crossing -- the Three Sisters Bridge that was to carry I-66 into town just north of Key Bridge -- was halted after dramatic protests built on the theme, "No white man's roads through black man's neighborhoods." Two major freeways -- one through Northwest Washington to Interstate 270 and the other through Northeast to I-95 north of the city -- were abandoned, as was an ambitious inner beltway that was supposed to circle downtown.

    Meanwhile, the region grew and grew. The Beltway was expanded to eight lanes as soon as possible after initial construction -- save for the one huge constriction of the six-lane Wilson bridge that is, by local legend at least, the largest single bottleneck on the interstate system.

    Fitting Tribute

    A final Beltway-related moment:

    On Dec. 28, 1961, Master Gunnery Sgt. Charles P. Erwin was the cornet soloist in the United States Marine Band. About 2 p.m., he found himself and about 50 other band members sitting in chairs in the middle of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which was being dedicated as the first significant piece of the Beltway to open. He remembers two things about that day.

    First, the weather. It was 33 degrees with a howling wind. "I can remember grabbing music, even with the heavy clips we use in outdoor weather," he said. The difficulty of playing in such conditions resulted in "a few clinkers," he said. "Unavoidable."

    And second, it occurred to Erwin that his life had just gotten easier. "I lived at the time in Oxon Hill, and I was thinking, 'Gee, this is going to be wonderful -- when I go to Virginia, I won't have to go through the city.' "

    Erwin became the assistant director of the band and retired a lieutenant colonel. Now, at his residence in southern Charles County, "I turn that radio on, I listen to the traffic reports," he says, "and invariably the Wilson Bridge is a topic."

    Douglas B. Feaver, editor of, covered transportation issues for The Washington Post in the 1970s and 1980s.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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