In Jim Elliott's office each afternoon, the clock radio clicks on for the 4:20 traffic report. Elliott must navigate 41 miles from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt to his home in Fairfax, and he'd just as soon avoid any surprise encounters with Beltway bottlenecks.
Lazarus Coleman, a truck driver with Giant Food Inc., spends at least five hours a day in Beltway traffic. Sometimes he spends 45 minutes trying to negotiate, say, the 2 1/2 miles from Old Georgetown Road to the Connecticut Avenue exit. His watchword: "Patience."
Joanna Figuerola, who lives in Woodbridge and works on Capitol Hill, didn't venture onto the Beltway for two years. She was subject to "panic attacks" of overwhelming dread. With therapy, she has the problem under control. She is not alone in her fear.
In its 22 years, the 66-mile Capital Beltway around the District not only has become firmly entrenched in the Washington area lexicon ("Only minutes from the Beltway," "Temperatures inside the Beltway . . . "), it has become an infamous -- and unavoidable -- part of Washington area life.
We relentlessly monitor its conditions. We curse its congestion. We anticipate its landmarks -- the glittery expanse of the Potomac at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the rockier view at the Cabin John Bridge, the Oz-like beacon of the Mormon Temple. We crowd it with 600,000 vehicles a day. We are the Beltway. It is the intended bypass that became, by default, our commuter funnel, our beaten path, our Main Street.
As a force, it never stops. Even past midnight, 10,000 cars an hour cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
As a problem, it will not go away. Last year, more than 2,300 accidents were reported on the Beltway. Eighteen percent involved tractor-trailers, the much-discussed "heavies" of the highway.
Today, a day-long conference in Greenbelt will address increasing concerns about Beltway safety and congestion. Entitled "Solving the Problem of Greater Washington's Main Street," it will bring together such state officials as Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles and Maryland Secretary of Transportation William Hellmann, local officials, transit planners and representatives of the business community.
The conference is sponsored by The Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Officials with the two agencies warn that if something is not done soon, Beltway congestion will cost the region more than 100 lives and millions of dollars in the next 10 years.
But until a combination of possible solutions -- widening lanes, increased ride-sharing programs, construction of alternative routes -- is implemented, the Beltway remains for its users a quirky sort of obstacle course. Through their eyes, it is a road both fickle and familiar.
Jim Elliott knows well the irony. Once he was a jet fighter pilot who streaked through the skies at 500 mph. Now he works as public information chief at Goddard Space Flight Center, a research division of NASA. Travel technology aside, for two hours a day and sometimes more, he is at the mercy of the often-halting rhythms of the Beltway.
Elliott, 61, is a typical commuter.
He flows with the traffic in a 1980 Toyota station wagon that has logged more than 100,000 miles. In six years he has not had an accident on the route, although he has seen, and been affected by, many. He tends not to notice drivers in the vehicles around him; the Beltway is, after all, not a neighborly route.
"It's not a very productive period of time," Elliott said drily as he eased his car, homeward bound, into the Rte. 495 West traffic on a recent afternoon.
"I listen to the radio. I think about the day ahead or the day just passed. I try to do stomach exercises, but primarily, that just means that I grunt and groan a little bit."
While Elliott is a calm, careful driver, he is not immune to the irritations of the Beltway -- the motorists who recklessly whiz by in the snow or rain, the frequent slowdowns in traffic that can be attributed only to rubberneckers looking at a stalled car on the shoulder. "People so doggone curious about nothing," Elliott muttered.
The Beltway was not meant to be like this. It was part of President Eisenhower's 42,500-mile interstate system and it was designed to divert interstate traffic around the heart of Washington.
Instead, with its completion in August of 1964, the suburbs sprang alive, and soon the Beltway was an overburdened commuter route. Today, more than two-thirds of all trips on the Beltway are local traffic.
Originally planners envisioned an Outer Beltway as well that would circle the District five to eight miles beyond the present one. While a second full loop is no longer feasible, COG transportation planners say, plans for at least two of its most important segments have been revived recently. Both the Springfield Bypass in Fairfax County, which would carry cars from Shirley Highway to Rte. 7, and the Intercounty Connector in Maryland,which would link the Shady Grove exit on I-270 with Rte. 1 in Laurel, are in the design stage.
For Elliott, at least, this particular afternoon turned out to be a good one. He saw a few tow trucks helping disabled vehicles, but no accidents, no blue lights, no standstills. There have been times, due to accidents, when he was stalled on the Beltway for several hours.
The Mormon Temple in Kensington suddenly loomed ahead, sparkling white with six golden spires. For a moment, because of the angle, it looked as if Elliott could drive right up to the door. The temple is a high point of his daily trip.
"It's breathtaking," he said. "It looks as if it doesn't belong there."
Usually, Elliott steels himself for congestion on the Cabin John Bridge separating Maryland from Virginia, a notorious trouble spot, but this afternoon he breezed across.
"I have nothing against Maryland," he said, "but I look forward to getting across the Cabin John. I feel like when I get to Virginia, I'm close to home.
"I don't know how much I'm a part of the Beltway, but the Beltway is very much a part of me. My wife and I always said when our son graduated from high school we would move to Maryland. He graduated a year and a half ago, and we just added an addition to our home and . . . . "
He shrugged. "I guess I'm destined to ride the Beltway."
Good days, bad days.
Lazarus Coleman knows first hand the perils of trucking.
As a driver for Giant Foods for 13 years, he has had no accidents, but several close calls.
As a resident of Cheltenham in Prince George's County, he and his family were recently evacuated from their home for about 14 hours. A tanker carrying a hazardous chemical used in making styrofoam plastic had overturned -- this time not on the Beltway, but on Rte. 301.
"I do think trucks get a bad rap," said Coleman, 38, as he pulled his 60,000-pound blue tractor-trailer onto the Beltway, I-95 South. It was 3:15 p.m., the traffic was already quickening, and Coleman was hauling a load of produce from Giant headquarters in Landover to a supermarket in Springfield.
"A few bad people bring us all down," he said. "There needs to be a better understanding between trucks and cars. There's always a tendency if there's an accident involving a truck, for people to automatically think it was the truck's fault."
According to the American Automobile Association's most recent study of Beltway accidents, tractor-trailer accidents have increased at more than three times the rate of other Beltway accidents. That translates to a 43 percent increase for heavy trucks compared to a 13 percent increase for other vehicles. The bottom line is that a tractor-trailer accident now occurs on the Beltway on the average of once every 18 hours.
The AAA report, released this week, was based on state police accident reports for an 18-month period between July 1984 and December 1985.
It said that while tractor-trailers made up only 3.2 percent of Beltway traffic during the period, the rigs were involved in 19 percent of all Beltway accidents -- compared to 16 percent in AAA's 1984 study.
It also said that truck drivers were ticketed in the accidents 68 percent of the time.
"It's obviously not getting better, despite the goodwill of the trucking industry," said Mary Ann Reynolds, a spokeswoman for AAA-Potomac, which represents a half million area members.
"Traffic volume on the Beltway is increasing 10 percent a year," she said. "With the traffic volume and congestion, there is less room for error, less and less room to maneuver."
For a year, as a safety measure, heavy trucks have been banned from driving in the lefthand lane on large portions of the Beltway. In Fairfax County, the scene of several recent major truck mishaps, some county supervisors have suggested banning trucks from the Beltway altogether.
But that is hardly an option, said Tom Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the American Trucking Association.
"It was originally envisioned that trucks primarily would use that road," Donohue said. "Now they are sharing the road with everybody else. The problem was not created by trucks. It is a reflection of the massive growth in this area. It's a situation where it is so crowded that when a truck does have an accident, it causes a lot of trouble.
"The trucking industry does have a PR problem," he said. "We do have some bums and we're doing everything we can to get them off the road. But let's say you take trucks off the Beltway. Where are we going to put them? In your neighborhoods."
For now, Coleman drives the Beltway.
He wears a safe-driver patch, an award, on his shirtsleeve. On the back of his truck is the slogan, "Careful driving is a civic duty." He drives in the second lane from the right, the safest for truckers, he said, because of its proximity to exit and entrance ramps.
At a steady 55 mph, he drove past split-level houses with back yards sloping down to the Beltway; over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge with the Washington Monument hazy in the distance; alongside the blue and gray corrugated sound barriers on the Virginia side that give the area a vaguely industrial look.
This recent weekday afternoon, the trip to Springfield took 40 minutes. Not bad, Coleman figured, not bad at all.
But as he began a trip to another warehouse, the I-495 section of the Beltway leading into Maryland lay ahead. And rush hour was rapidly approaching its zenith.
Through the broad expanse of his windshield, Coleman pointed out the hazards for the trucker: The motorcyclist zipping in and out of traffic. The bronze LTD cutting in front of Coleman's truck to reach an exit, without benefit of a turn signal. The woman in the slate-blue Mercedes who kept changing hesitantly from lane to lane. ("She probably doesn't know what she wants to do.")
On the roadside, gigantic mounds of dirt reflected the new construction along the Beltway. The skeleton of a new hotel under construction was draped with the sign "Hilton Loves McLean." Just before the Welcome to Maryland sign, on the shoulder, sat a dark-blue MG, the driver a dejected silhouette folding his ticket as the state police car pulled off.
When Coleman reached Wisconsin Avenue, it was 4:47 p.m. and cars were sitting bumper to bumper. By the time Coleman was able to accelerate to 55 mph again, the better part of an hour had passed. It turned out there was no accident, just a crush of vehicles entering and leaving the Beltway. "The only thing you can do is ride it out," Coleman said calmly, as he watched several impatient motorists barrel up the shoulder past the stalled vehicles. "Basically, drivers on the Beltway are good drivers," he said, "but everybody wants to do it the easy way."
Although he spends most of his working day on the Beltway, he tends to avoid it at other times.
"I don't think I could do this every day. Get off work, then get on the Beltway."
And then there are some people who don't get on the Beltway at all.
Joanna Figuerola and others like her have what is called a driving phobia. To them, the Beltway is a beast, representing the worst possible driving conditions.
"At times, I felt trapped, just by the volume of traffic," said Figuerola, 38. "There was a lot of stress involved. I would grasp the steering wheel and think, 'If I just grab on real tight, nothing will happen.'"
"Driving phobics never get out of the righthand lane," said a 32-year-old woman who works for the Defense Department and also has been treated for the problem. "I got to the point where I avoided the Beltway so well, I didn't even consider it an option."
Both women sought help through the phobia treatment program at the Roundhouse Psychiatric Center in Alexandria. Counselors said that while a surprising number of people suffer from driving phobias, no formal studies have been done, and no statistics are available.
"Usually, they are very high-powered Type A people, very successful," said Debbie Shank, a psychiatric nurse with the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Rockville, which offers a similar phobia treatment program. "But they get on the Beltway and they think they're going to die."
Treatment involves group therapy sessions and a confrontation with the Beltway. Accompanied by a therapist, participants begin with small driving goals -- crossing a small bridge, enduring a mile on the Beltway. Treatment usually takes about four months.
"Now," said the Defense Department employe, "I drive on the Beltway or any major highway when it makes sense to go that way . . . . But occasionally, I do feel that little spike of fear up my back.