The weather may be awful. Housing prices may be horrendous. The hockey team may be the absolute pits. But nothing in the Washington area is worse than traffic.
Not just when it's snowing or just when it's steaming. Or just during rush hour. Or just on Belt-, Free- or Park-ways. Traffic in and around Washington is bad, all the time.
Not every intersection threatens instant death. Not every highway shrinks from four lanes to two without warning. But some slabs of concrete must have been designed by Barnum and Bailey.
But which driving hazards are worst of all? Which are Washington's Asphalt All-Stars?
Twelve people were asked to answer that question. Each nominated a personal list of the area's 10 worst stretches of highway.
Two of the jurors fly traffic helicopters for local radio stations. Two are traffic engineers. Two are cab drivers. Four are garden-variety commuters. One is a policeman. And one drives a typewriter when he isn't driving a car.
The ballots were remarkably similar. The dozen jurors nominated only 20 candidates in all. Six places appeared on every ballot. Then one places-appeared on at least two ballots.
We will call the first 10 Washington's Woeful Worst. We will call the second 10 Dishonorable Mentions.
The Woefuls are all on or hear super-highways. All handle a weekday average of at least 75,000 cars aday. None can be improved easily without massive reconstructions or additions.
The Dishonorables were a mixed bag. Some are center-city intersections. Many were engineered for the 1940s and haven been overwhelmed by the traffic of the 1970s.Only a few are major rush-hour checkpoints.
But enough analysis. Start those engines. Stay very, very alert. Here they are: 20 places to avoid, or at least pray through. Woefuls
Junction of U.S. 50, 1,295, New York Avenue and Baltimore-Wasington parkway - Cheverly (12 votes): They call this "The Little Mixing Bowl." The jurors called it lots of other things, too.
Twenty lanes of traffic meet here, under the watchful neon eye of a Pepsi-Cola plant on a nearby hill. The problem is in trying to move from one throughfare to another. You could drink a Pepsi in less time.
Oh, yes, there are exist ramps. But there is also choppy pavement, extremely heavy traffic (including trucks) and relatively short ramps. As a result, cars switching thoroughfares often spill back onto the thoroughfares they are trying to leave. And still there. And get run into from behind.
"Can you believe that, in 1956, they brought engineers from all over the world to look at this as a model of how to build an intersection?" asked Walt Starling, WASH's traffic man.
"If there is anything worse on the East Coast, I'd like to see it," said Belyville commuter Hugh Harris.
"No. Wait a minute. No. 1 wouldnt't."
Junction of I-66 and Capital Beltway - McLean (12 votes): No matter how one feels about the extension of 166 through Arlington, one cannot deny this bit of mathematics:
Four lanes into one lane equals big trouble.
Yet that is the equation at this inter-section, both getting off and getting on the Beltway. The result is traffic stopped in high-speed lanes - two-mile stacks of it during rush hours.
The extension of I-66 to the Potomac River will bring with it two-lane exit ramps at the Beltway junction. But such progress is at least two years away. Meanwhile, despite its stoplights. "I take Rte. 50 whenever I go to Fairfax," said D.C. policeman Dennis Duncan.
Capital Beltway between Georgia Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue - Bethesda and Silver Spring (12 votes): The Mormon Temple sits at the eastern edge of this nomination. Pooks Hill sits at the western edge. At rush hours, many, many Washingtonians sit in between.
Again, this bottleneck is a matter of vanishing lanes. At the Mormon Temple, heading west, four lanes become three At Pooks Hill, coming east, five lanes become three.
This 3.5-mile stretch is also the curviest on the Beltway. It is the only place on the Beltway where the speed limit is 50 miles an hour. And it is the busiest single stretch on the Beltway (weekday average: 101,000 cars a day).
The problem was caused when this stretch for Beltway was planned in the late 1950s. Some homeowners in its way did not want to sell and many in the community did not want an arrow-shaped highway piercing Rock Creek Park. So the road was designed to dip and dart.
Capital Beltway's Woodrow Wilson Brodge - Oxon Hill to Alexandria (12 votes): Take your pick on this one: poor surface, no shoulders many decisions in very little time on the Alexandria end.
But also poor attention paid by drivers. The reason: the unique view to the north along the Potomac River. The result: more side-to-side collisions than anywhere else in the Washington suburbs, according to the Virginia and Maryland State Police.
"It takes an accident to get this one started," said Steve Thompson, traffic reporter of WTOP. "But once it starts, it takes hours to get back to normal."
Shirley Highway and Glebe Road - Arlington-Alexandria (12 votes): Another Case of the Vanishing Lanes. Eight become six. In addition, entrance ramps are extremely short and tightly banked.
Traffic engineers anticipated problems here. A two-lane service road was built paralleling Shirley Highway's southbound lanes. But traffic volume on the service road has become as great - and as eager to change lanes - as on the highway itself.
"Every morning it gets worse," said Evelyn Huntington, who commutes between Springfield and the Pentagon.
New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE. (12 votes): The last of the unanimous choices, and the easiest to explain. This is the first stoplight a southbound traveler encounters from the time he leaves Maine.
Most of the accidents here are rear-end jobs in the westbound lanes, performed by drivers who are used to freeway speeds. It doesn't help that there is no sign telling drivers to keep right for downtown until it's too late to get out of the left lane safely.
Eastbound, there is a similar problem. Motorists are not warned until they are on top of the intersection that the two left lanes are for New Carrollton, not New York. Thus, there is much last-second lane-changing, with "smashing" results.
Minnesota and Pennsylvania Avenues SE. (7 votes): With 62 collisions, this intersection led the way among accident sites in the District in 1976.
It is surprising the total wasn't greater, for this is a classic urban intersection. Nine lanes of freeway pitch traffic into six clogged lanes of city streets. The streets can't catch it all.
Not only that, but it is impossible to go directly from southbound 1-295 (a block away) to westbound Pennsylvania Avenue. There is no exit ramp. Thus, anyone wishing to make this maneuver must first go east on Pennsylvania, double back around L'Enfant Square, jog west on Minnesota and only then have a crack at westbound Pennsylvania.
Traffic could be greatly reduced at this intersection if the Southeast Freeway did not end at the nearby Sousa Bridge and dump all its traffic onto eastbound Pennsylvania. But citizen groups blocked further construction of the freeway 10 years ago.
Capital Beltway's Cabin John Bridge - Cabin John (6 votes): No obvious hazards here, other than a lack of shoulders. But few bridges have those. And in fact, the death rate here is among the lowest of all the stretches on the Beltway.
But the accident rate is among the highest. Even though the Beltway lanes are as wide here as they are over land, motorists lose control of their vehicles and bang aginst the side rails.
"I think it's an optical illusion, the same kind you get in a tunnel," said commuter Evan Bailey, of Great Falls, Va. "People are so conscious of the sides of the road that they lose concentration."
New York, West Virginia and Montana avenues NE. (6 votes): The problems and results are the same as at this intersection's nearby cousin, New York and Bladensburg (see above) too much freeway hypnosis, too much lane-changing.
This intersection was second-worst in the city in 1976, with 53 crashes.
Kenilworth Avenue NE. (1-295). between RFK Stadium and Maryland border (6 votes): How this was approved as a "safe" interstate highway still has some Washingtonians shaking their heads.
While the speed limit (45 miles an hour) is below those of other interstates, that may be merciful for the roadway is in extremely poor condition. The median divider is mostly a wire fence, which barely deflects oncoming headlights. Most dangerous of all, hundreds of children live in nearby housing projects and they run across the highway at all hours.
"Buddy of mine was killed there once," said cabbie William Nelson. "I wouldn't drive that road on a bet." Dishonorables
Rock Creek Parkway at P Street NW. (5 votes): The key problem here is a sharp left curve in the northbound lanes. It is easy to wind up on the right-hand shoulder, expecially in bad weather. No median divider here, either.
George Washington Parkway and Spout Run Parkway - Arlington (5 votes): This is Aggravation City. In morning rush hour, two lanes from each parkway merge without benefit of a stop sign, a yield sign or a traffic light.
Only a U.S. Park Policeman keeps things on the good side of anarchy. He stands at the point of merger, letting a few cars go from Spout Run, then a few from GW Parkway. Two-mile backups are utterly standard.
Washington Circle NW. (3 votes): Pennsylvania Avenue meets K Street meets 23rd Street. Busy hospital (George Washington) on north edge. Lots of traffic generated by nearby downtown, nearby Kennedy Center. Traffic usually goes too slowly for major accidents, but this is the fender-bender capital of the Capital.
Dupont Circle NW. (2 votes): Much the same as Washington Circle. Beware of out-of-state plates here.They will never figure out how to stay on Massachusetts Avenue. Pedestrians here are especially jaywalk-happy, too, police say.
Rosslyn Circle - Arlington (2 votes): "Unspeakable," said Virginia traffic engineer James Catalanos. But much, much better since subway and Wilson Boulevard underpass opened.
Wisconsin and Western avenues NW. (2 votes): Choked by shoppers at the four major department stores nearby and their cars.
Capital Centre - Landover (1 vote): Access roads totally inadequate for crowds of more than 7,500 especially as they are leaving. Police presence smaller than desirable too.
Bradley Lane - Chevy Chase (1 vote): This heavily used cross-street between Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues is only two lanes wide. So why not widen it? Because of the passionate opposition of the Chevy Chase Country Club and nearby homeowners. Don't hold your breath on this one. Pressure to widen has been resisted for more than 25 years.
Suitland Parkway and Stanton Road SE. (1 vote): Local street crosses major highway. Signal light has no left-turn phase. Left-turn traffic going five miles an hour meet beat traffic going 50 through the intersection. Sometimes it doesn't happen.
U.S. 1 between University of Maryland and Capital Beltway - College Park (1 vote): No mystery here - hundreds of cars arrive on campus every morning at the same time. Rear-end collisions are the order of the day here, particularly because so much traffic enters and exits from parking lots of fast food restaurants.