The District of Columbia is considering tearing down the deteriorating Whitehurst Freeway on the Georgetown waterfront and replacing it with a surface-level boulevard along K Street NW.

The District plans to award a $200,000 engineering contract this fall as the first step toward building a replacement for the 32-year-old elevated freeway, said D.C. Transportation Director Thomas Downes.

The engineering consultants are being asked to tell the District whether it is feasible to tear down the Whitehurst and how much it would cost, he added. "You can't just decide to do it, you have to know what you can do," he said.

"The Whitehurst Freeway definitely needs a complete reconstruction," Downes said. Rather than just rebuild the steel structure, city traffic planners want to find an alternate way to carry cars between Key Bridge and downtown.

The city is considering tearing down the freeway, Downes explained, because elevated highways require expensive and continuous maintenance to fight the ravages of rust and auto traffic.

"The other reason is that it's just plain ugly," he added.

Work on a replacement for the freeway will have to be coordinated with a $32 million reconstruction of Key Bridge that is also being planned by the District, the city traffic chief said.

District officials have asked the federal government to make Key Bridge eligible for a special problem bridge repair program under which federal funds would pay three-quarters of the cost.

"We have to do something about Key Bridge," Downes explained, because the roadway and the supports that hold up the bridge deck are badly deteriorated.

While that work is being done, the city would like to reconstruct the interchanges that tie the Whitehurst Freeway into Key Bridge and Canal Road west of the Georgetown business district.

The ramp from Key Bridge to the Freeway requires motorists to make a sharp right-hand turn in the middle of the bridge and is "outside the bounds of any modern safety standards," Downes said.

Orders to the engineers studying the Whitehurst Freeway stress that any new connection with Key Bridge must not detract from the bridge's graceful arches and must show "sensitivity of design to surrounding historic elements."

Downes said he has met with one Georgetown citizen's group and has an appointment with another to discuss replacing the freeway. "I've not had any adverse comments so far."

Reconstruction of the Whitehurst Freeway is not meant to encourage use of that route, the city's proposal states. The rebuilt road "must not create additional inducement for automobile commuting nor generate additional traffic," according to the city's description of the project.

When it was built in 1949, the Whitehurst Freeway was hailed as a "motor skyway" that would speed cars into the heart of the District. Three decades later the rusting girders of the freeway block the view of the Potomac from some of the most expensive real estate in Washington.

Running like an amusement park ride along the Potomac waterfront, the Whitehurst is still a major commuter route, whose reconstruction would disrupt the daily drive of thousands of Maryland and Virginia residents who work in Washington.

When Key Bridge is rebuilt, it will be done in stages, rebuilding the lanes on one side first, then the other. The project is far enough away that city officials have not yet decided how to divert traffic during construction.

Downes said it probably would be possible to bring city-bound traffic off Key Bridge and then immediately drop down to the level of K Street, which now runs beneath the elevated Whitehurst roadway.

At the opposite end of the route, new connections would have to be built to the continuation of K Street, Rock Creek Parkway and the E Street Expressway. Complicating planning of the surface level street is a railroad track that once served dozens of waterfront industries but now mainly hauls coal to a government heating plant.

The city is planning to clean up the waterfront by removing city garbage trucks and impounded cars now parked there. District officials are expected to decide next month whether to approve a multimillion-dollar residential, shopping and office complex on the site of the present cement plant near the mouth of Rock Creek.