With little of the controversy that embroiled earlier freeway schemes, the District of Columbia is pressing ahead with plans to build its last link in the interstate highway network--a $93.5 million bridge-and-boulevard project designed to connect the Southeast and Anacostia freeways.
The plan--aimed at siphoning cars away from traffic-clogged Capitol Hill, Lincoln Park, Kingman Park and Anacostia--includes a new 1.5-mile bridge across the Anacostia River and a four-lane parkway through Anacostia Park between Barney Circle and the East Capitol Street bridge. Construction is expected to begin within the next three years.
Officials say the bridge and parkway are designed to close a troublesome gap between the two heavily used freeways. "It's got to be the city's worst traffic situation," said Patricia Fairbairn, a D.C. transportation official who has overseen the project, "because there's no way to get from here to there."
This month, the District took a crucial step when it completed a report on the environmental effects the project might have on surrounding areas. City officials believe the study provides evidence that the bridge and road project would be socially beneficial and environmentally benign.
The proposed structures would constitute the last interstate highway section in the District. A provision of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1978 limits all additions to the federal interstate system to those for which environmental impact statements are prepared before Sept. 30.
Only one other interstate, a 2 1/2-mile road in Montgomery County known as I-370, is scheduled to be constructed in the Washington area, according to transportation officials. The highway, which received federal approval a year ago, is expected to be built in the late 1980s at a cost of $160 million. It would connect I-270 north of Shady Grove Road in the Gaithersburg area with the Shady Grove Metrorail station near Rockville Pike.
While the District's proposal for the Anacostia project has caused little public controversy so far, it has already aroused opposition from several organizations, including the board of directors of Congressional Cemetery. The cemetery, where numerous former senators, House members and other persons of note are buried, was founded in 1807 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Located near 18th and E Streets SE, the cemetery is just north of where the new roadways are planned.
The cemetery's board has complained that the tranquility of the graveyard would be marred by traffic noise from the proposed parkway and that the view from the cemetery would be obstructed by the planned bridge. "A highway here is no more appropriate than a highway at the foot of Mount Vernon," the cemetery's board said.
The Sierra Club and several other environmental groups have joined the board of the cemetery in challenging the highway project. They have argued that it may lead to increased air pollution, objected to its encroachment on park land and questioned whether it would result in any significant easing of traffic congestion on neighborhood streets.
Despite complaints, none of the project's critics has filed suit to stop construction. And city officials have expressed hopes that the disputes may be settled through negotiations with the cemetery's board, the National Park Service and other groups. One suggestion, for example, is to reduce the bridge's height to make it less obtrusive.
If the city succeeds in building the parkway and bridge without protracted conflict, it may owe its achievement to one carefully chosen tactic. The project was designed, officials said, to avoid dislocating any homes or businesses. Officials said that any displacement, a key issue in earlier freeway battles, would almost certainly have stirred community opposition and jeopardized their plans.
District officials are also counting on support both from commuters and from homeowners. If the bridge and boulevard would mean quicker trips for commuters and substantially reduce the amount of traffic on neightborhood streets, they contend., commuters would have quicker trips, free of detours throughneighborhood streets. According to the city's forecasts, 77,000 cars would use the bridge and parkway on weekdays.
The subdued debate that has surrounded the city's proposal bears little resemblance to highway controversies in the past. Most of the District's plans for ringing the downtown area with freeways were quashed during the 1970s amid sitdown protests, rallies, arrests of demonstrators and lawsuits.
Only 11.9 miles of interstate roads have been built in the city, including the Southwest Freeway and Center Leg (I-395), Anacostia Freeway (I-295) and a section of I-66 connecting the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and the Whitehurst Freeway. Nearly $2 billion in federal funds once earmarked for freeways has been turned over by the city for construction of the Metro subway system.
The collapse of the District's expressway plans left the gap separating the Anacostia and Southeast freeways that officials are now seeking to close. "When all of this got aborted, we got left with something that didn't make a whole lot of sense," said Wallace J. Cohen, a D.C. transportation official. "What we're trying to do is just pick up the pieces."
The missing links between the Southeast and Anacostia freeways are viewed as most troublesome for commuters and other motorists traveling between northern and eastern parts of the metropolitan region and the city's downtown area.
An inbound motorist heading south on the Anacostia Freeway cannot enter the John Philip Sousa (Pennsylvania Avenue) Bridge or the 11th Street bridges without detouring through neighborhood streets. No ramps were built. Nor can an outbound motorist get on the northbound lanes of the Anacostia Freeway without a similar detour. In addition, traffic on the East Capitol Street Bridge cannot reach the Southeast Freeway without traveling through local streets.
Transportation officials said they are also considering other measures to reduce commuter traffic on neighborhood streets near Capitol Hill. They have proposed to permit parking during rush hours on Constitution Avenue between Third Street NE and North Carolina Avenue. They have also suggested making Independence Avenue two-way--instead of one-way eastbound--between Third and 19th Streets SE.
Nonetheless, District officials have cautioned that future growth of the Washington region promises continuing traffic congestion, even if the proposed parkway and bridge are built. During rush hours, commuting is likely to be only slightly faster, officials said. But at other hours, they added, drivers might save more time if the bridge and parkway are constructed.
The National Park Service has argued that the proposed bridge and boulevard should offer a scenic approach for visitors to Washington. "Our biggest concern with this whole project is that it will be a very important gateway to the nation's capital and it should be built with the first quality," said John Parsons, an associate regional park service director.
In exchange for turning over about 29 acres of Anacostia Park for the proposed roadways, the park service is seeking changes in the proposal that could accomplish a broad array of esthetic and recreational goals.
The park service wants the boulevard landscaped and traffic using it restricted to a 35 mile an hour speed limit.
It wants Barney Circle restored, perhaps to include a statue. Their requests also include stonework that would decorate walls and bridge abutments, noise barriers, crosswalks over the Anacostia Freeway and bicycle trails. The park service proposal also requests millions of dollars for a new marina on the Anacostia River and other park projects on the Georgetown waterfront and elsewhere in the Washington area.
The continuing debate has focused partly on whether the city's goal of connecting the Southeast and Anacostia freeways might be achieved without building a new highway or bridge. Environmental groups have argued that the city might need only to build ramps to link the Anacostia Freeway with existing bridges. District officials have contended that such ramps would displace many homes and businesses and would prove costly.
This approach appears to have gained support from several community groups, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions on both sides of the Anacostia River. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society has endorsed the city's plan, saying it would "get commuter traffic off our residential streets."
But some environmentalists have ended up advocating that the city consider relocating residents.
"While the Sierra Club is as concerned as anyone about the impacts of highways on neighborhoods and the resulting relocation, we do not believe that relocation per se is bad without proper analysis," the group said in a May 4 letter. "Has anyone asked the people involved if they want to be relocated?"