In the beginning, it was to be scenic and serviceable - a wooded lane linking Washington with four federal installations to the northeast.
In no time, it became suburban and scary - a heavily travelled commuter road with pavement that began disintegrating from age and the volume of traffic.
Fourteen months ago, it had a rebirth. The southern 18 miles were repaved, and many safety improvements were added.
But in the future, its exact design, its use patterns and its looks are anyone's guess.
Whither goest the Baltimore-Washington Parkway? Other than to Baltimore, the answer lies with engineers, planners, politicians and noise-sensitive citizens. After more than five years of active study, the answer is still far from clear.
One thing appears certain: As soon as it decides how to rebuild the B-W Parkway (should it be six lanes wide? eight? four?), the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) will take over the road from the National Park Service, which opened it in 1954 and has been responsible for it ever since.
In 1970, Congress appropriated $65 million for parkway reconstruction. In 1972, the Park Service and Maryland agreed that the money would be turned over to Maryland as soon as the state developed a plan for a new parkway that conformed to "interstate standards."
But the plan remains unfinished, and all but $4 million of the money remains unspent. SHA officials say things will remain that way at least until early 1979. The reason: an unusual number of revisions in proposed plans, caused by an unusual number of opinions, options and objections.
Meanwhile, the wisdom of transferring control of the highway from the federal government to Maryland is being increasingly questioned.
Some beautification interests, worried that the new parkway will obliterate trees and wildlife, want to remain with the nature-conscious Park Service.
Some local politicians along the parkway, among them the town councils of Greenbelt, Cheverly, Berwyn Heights and Bladensburg, worry that the new parkway will be a noisy, dangerous, truck-infested "son of I-95." These politicians feel that is less likely to happen under Park Service management.
Other observers foresee the possibility of a large drain on Maryland's treasury if it takes over the parkway. As U.S. Park Police Maj. James C. Lindsey puts it, "If I've got Uncle Sugar taking care of something in my state, why change that?"
But to undo Maryland's scheduled takeover of the parkway would require federal legislation. And Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.), whose district includes more than half the parkway and who helped arrange its repaving last year, and she has "no plans" to introduce any.
Spellman said the repaving, completed in October, 1976, at a cost of $5.7 million, has focused attention on the looks of the new parkway rather than its safety.
"Before," she said, "you knew you were looking at ruts. Now you can see the beauty - the trees, the colors and so forth. People are really quite happy with it looking the way it does."
Spellman added that complaints to her office about the parkway's safety, which once averaged several a week, now are rare.
Maj. Lindey said it is still too early to say whether the repaving has significantly improved the parkway's safety. He stressed, however, that even before it was improved, the B-W was not much more dangerous than the George Washington Memorial Parkway, along the Virginia side of the Potomac River, or other Park Service roads.
In 1975, for example, Maj. Lindsey said, 535 accidents were reported along the 18.6 federally patrolled miles of the B-W Parkway. In the same year, along the 30 federally patrolled miles of the GW Parkway, 540 accidents were reported.
Similarly, 1975 service calls along the B-W Parkway totalled 5,800. Along the GW, they totalled 5,900.Traffic volume was approximately the same - 60,000 vehicles a day at the busiest points along the B-W Parkway, 55,000 along the GW.
Maj. Lindsey suggested that the legendary traffic congestion along the B-W Parkway, especially between the District line and the Beltway, may have made the road safer.
"It's not uncommon to have it going very slowly through there," he said. "We've had to live with some merger problems, but (most accidents) have been fender-benders."
Maj. Lindsey cited the Rte. 193 exit in Greenbelt as one of the more dangerous along the parkway.
"To get off at 193 safely (going north)," he said, "you almost have to stay in the right lane." The trouble is that, in doing that, a motorist can be whipsawed by slow-moving traffic entering or leaving the Beltway. The Beltway interchanges are only 400 yards south of the Rte. 193 interchanges.
Another longstanding hazard is the northbound Riverdale Road exit in Hyattsville.
Not only is there no deceleration lane, but traffic leaving the B-W meets a red light only 150 yards down the exit ramp. As a result, especially at rush hour, cars waiting to get through the light stack up and spill back onto the right lane of the parkway itself.
Even the repaving is only temporary. SHA officials say it will begin to crumble in five years. And despite new signs and some fresh paint, the B-W's safety features remain vastly inferior to those of any other high-speed road in the Washington area.
The B-W's shoulders, although now all-weather asphalt, vary in width from eight feet to 11 - sometimes suddenly. The parkway has few guard rails and little fencing. North of Jessup, warnings of the bridge abutments consist of hard-to-see yellow diamonds.
At night, the road becomes even more dangerous. The main roadway is entirely unlit, and the only illuminated interchanges are those at the Washington and Baltimore Beltways.
SHA officials say that all such hazards will disappear when the B-W is reconstructed. The major remaining question is the nature and styling of the main roadway itself.
A 1976 study by Systems Design Concepts Inc. of Washington boiled the issue down to six choices. They ranged from leaving the road as it is, to creating a highway of eight lanes all the way from Monroe Street in downtown Baltimore to the junction of U.S. 50, Kenilworth Avenue, New York Avenue and the parkway in Cheverly.
Frederick Gottemoeller, director of the SHA's office of planning and preliminary engineering, said the six choices have now been whittled to three:
Leaving the parkway's lane structure as it is and improving the signing, fencing and lighting. This choice would leave three lanes in each direction from the District line to just north of Rte. 450 and within the Baltimore Beltway. Otherwise, the parkway would consist of two lanes in each direction, as it now does.
Extending the third lane in each direction. At the Washington end, this would make the parkway six lanes wide from the District line to the Beltway. At the Baltimore end, the road would be six lanes wide from downtown Baltimore to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Making the parkway six lanes wide for its entire length.
None of the options would allow truck traffic south of the Rte. 175 exit in Jessup, where southbound trucks must now exit. And little new land would have to be bought or regraded if the six-lane option is chosen, because the parkway's right-of-way has always been six lanes wide.
The SHA has not endorsed any of the three options yet, Gottenmoeller said. The agency expects to make a recommendation in early 1979, after public hearings are completed.Construction would probably begin no earlier than 1982, said Eugene T. Camponeschi, chief of the SHA's bureau of project planning.
Regardless of the number of lanes in the new B-W, the SHA is "completely committed to keeping the parkway characteristics of the highway," Gottemoeller said.
He acknowledged that "people don't believe that because that's not our image." But he said his agency has urged the Federal Highway Administration to relax the already-spongy definition of "interstate standards" in the case of the B-W Parkway, and has gotten "good cooperation."
"We expect to keep an awful lot of what's there now," Gottemoeller said. For example, he said, the FHA has agreed to let Maryland keep the hand stonework on the parkway's present bridges and to add matching stonework on any bridges that are rebuilt.
In addition, Gottemoeller said, any safety improvements that are potential eyesores - such as noise baffling or fencing - would be added in ways to preserve trees and not threaten wildlife.
Most motorists would settle for the safety, however.
John Jacob, of Southeast Washington, was fixing a flat near the Rte. 198 interchange in Laurel one recent afternoon, as traffic whizzed past his hip.
"I could have come on I-95," he said, "and now look. I've got to stand here on this shoulder (eight feet wide) and risk my life."
Jacob said highway beauty "doesn't matter as much as getting where you're going alive." As for wildlife, he said, "any squirrel who lives near this road is nuts."
Many of the parkway's closest neighbors feel they're going to little nutty themselves. Anti-noise sentiment is especially strong in the new Greenbriar condominium apartments in Greenbelt, some only 100 yards from the parkway.
"I never thought about how noisy it would be before I moved in," said Catharine Perkins, a resident. "You learn to live with that, but you never like it."
The one party to the B-W dispute that has no public position is the Park Service.
John Jessup, a Park Service executive, said "we would prefer to see it remain much the way it is in terms of appearance." But he said the Service has only an "advisory" role in determining the parkway's future.
Whither goest the B-W Parkway? After 23 years of existence, it's too soon to tell.