The freeway system for the Washington area, once the cause for rallies, sit-down protests, arrests and lawsuits, has almost disappeared as an issue because its once-planned sections within the Beltway are being erased from the map.
By the time District of Columbia and Maryland highway officials are through with their erasers, they will have wiped out a larger percentage of urban freeways than any other metropolitan area in the United States. Only 10.7 miles of a planned 36.4 actually will be built.
Only in Virginia are most of the once-planned interstate freeway miles completed or under construction and even in that state there has been some regression from the once-extensive dreams of the roadbuilders.
The statistics in the District of Columbia alone are mind-boggling. By not building 17.2 miles of interstate freeways, D.C. has:
Saved from destruction between 1,000 and 1,200 homes and apartments.
Saved from displacement about 3,000 jobs that might well have left the city.
Made available for Metro construction more than $1 billion that would otherwise have been spent on highways.
The interstate freeway system once planned for Washington would have ringed the downtown with freeway lanes, would have put a freeway through West Potomac Park, right by the Lincoln Memorial and would have put one freeway through Northwest Washington, with branches to the Beltway through both Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
There would have been yet another freeway to accompany the Whitehurst along the Georgetown Waterfront; there would have been another Potomac River crossing just upstream from Key Bridge; there would have been a freeway through or under the National Aboretum and along the west bank of the Anacosta River.
"There will be no more freeways," said Sammie Abbott. "It's over. It's over because from the very beginning we refused to concede defeat." Abbott was the "publicity chairman" for an unusual coalition of whites, blacks, citizens associations and civic associations that organized under the banner of the Emergency Coalition on the Transportation Crisis and fought the freeways to a standstill in the early 1970s.
It was Sammie Abbott who coined the campaign slogan, "White men's roads through black men's bedrooms," and his slogan was absolutely accurate. For while the final routing of the North-Central Freeway was through Northeast Washington along the B&O Railroad tracks, it had been moved there from the original route through Glover-Archbold Park and out Wisconsin Avenue, where influential white people live.
It was Sammie Abbott who led his coalition in 1970 to stand in front of the bulldozers at the construction site of the Three Sisters Bridge - the planned Potomac crossing above Key Bridge. After several days of media events, some shoving, hollering and a few arrests, the construction project was shut down by court order. It never started again.
Abbott's tactics were disliked, if not respected, by Frank Turner, then the administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. At the height of the freeway wars, Turner recalled recently:
"Abbott and Reginald Booker (another activist) came and laid down the law to (U.S Transportation Secretary John) Volpe. They were rude. They chewed him out. They talked about how blood would flow, maybe even in the Department of Transportation building, if the highway was built. Some of the groups with Sammie even tried to shut him up. . ."
Fighting highways, Abbott said last week, is "basically social warfare. There's no definitive victory or defeat. Momentum picks up. . ."
In Virginia, where the big battle of Interstate 66 was fought and lost, a contributing factor according to Abbott was that "Virginia people didn't put up the type of fight we did in the city. It's that suburban mentality . . . that sense of decorum. Once you're committed to a sense of decorum, you're screwed."
Those who protested, rallied, sued and picketed Transportation Secretary Brock Adam's home, and who continue to fight the construction of Interstate 66 through Fairfax and Arlington counties today, will not be pleased with that analysis.
It would also be fair to say that the freeways through the District of Columbia to the north had to go through Maryland to get to the Beltway, and Maryland said no first.
Therefore, there was no place for the main D.C. freeways to go if they reached the District of Columbia line and that fact helped the antifreeway forces.
In Virginia, a united front crumbled when Fairfax County shifted its vote at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments from one opposing Interstate 66 to one in favor of Interstate 66. Thus, Arlington County was left alone and surrounded by a highway-oriented governor and Fairfax County residents wanting a quicker trip downtown. Interstate 66 will be four lanes instead of six or eight and will be restricted to carpools and buses during rush hours, but it will be there. Virginians did win the elimination of the Soup Run freeway - Interstate 266 - which was to have connected with the aforementioned Three Sister Bridge.
Whatever the cause, the highway building program in the District of Columbia was slowed and finally stopped, despite directions from Congress that it be continued and despite the fact that appropriations to build Metro were held hostage by Congress to force highway construction.
The last project to survive Sammie Abbott's attack is nearing completion in the center of the city. It is a quarter-mile of what once was to be Interstate 95 through the heart of Washington. It is known, inelegantly, as the Center Leg of the Inner Loop and will complete the existing 3rd Street tunnel west of the Capitol between the Southwest Freeway and New York Avenue NW.
Just the construction work for that last quarter-mile will cost $35 million - not counting engineering and property acquisition.
The entire Center Leg, all 1.4 miles of it, will cost $164 million.
A total of 340 homes and apartments were razed to make way for the Center Leg and 150 businesses were displaced and relocated.
Two giant columns stand at either end of the construction project. They are the vent shafts through which 78-inch fans will expel carbon monoxide fumes.
The shafts are supposed to be hidden from view some day by building projects planned for the site, much as similar shafts are masked by the new Department of Labor Building at 200 Constitution Ave. NW, on top of the first-completed section of the Center Leg Freeway.
When the new section opens a year to 18 months from now, many federal and city employes will lose parking places on a completed but unopened section of paving between E. Street and Massachusetts Avenue.
Much commuter traffic that presently stops for the light at Massachusetts Avenue and then proceeds north on New jersey Avenue to New York Avenue, will be able to make the trip unimpeded.
The plans to build new housing on top of the new highway tunnel are dead, according to Steve Johnson of the Redevelopment Land Agency.
The plans call for two six-story buildings and 50 town houses - a total of 302 housing units. The Mt. Carmel Baptist Church wants to join with a contractor to build subsidized rental housing over the tunnel, but an application for the subsidy has been denied by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Johnson.
The church, at 3rd and I streets NW, is adjacent to the highway tunnel and has been propped up during construction to keep it from falling in.
"We've been working on this since 1968," said the Rev. M.L. Patterson, the minister of the church. "Hopefully, some of the displaced persons will be able to move back in here."
"We're now exploring every other subsidy source," said Johnson. "Even if they find a way to build the housing, the wrong people would get it without the (rental) subsidy."
That kind of story has been told about urban freeway projects across the country. Huge chunks of usable housing stock are removed. Time passes. Construction drags on. By the time housing can be rebuilt, prices have soared unbelievably and the people who were removed have no reasonable expectation of being able to return to their old neighborhoods.
Nationally, by one estimate, at least 1 million people have been moved out of the way of the interstate highway system. Although highway legislation was the first to require relocation assistance, it was not done all that well at first.
In the District of Columbia, for example, thousands of people were removed from the New Southwest for the urban renewal project that included the Southwest Freeway. Highway officials have no idea how many of those displacements were caused by the roadway.
Sammie Abbott thinks the battle against such projects was finally won in 1974, when Congress first permitted urban areas to eliminate sections of planned interstate highway and cash them in for other highway or mass transportation projects, such as Metro.
Frank Turner, the old highway builder, was opposed to that and it did not happen while he was still in office (Turder retired in 1972). "Criticism and emotion have swung the pendulum to the extreme," Turder said.
"Some time the District of Columbia bia is going to have to have that north-central, northeast freeway, and the money isn't going to be there. That's one of the problems I have with Metro's plans to finnance itself with interstate transfers."
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