It’s been 50 years since the Capital Beltway looped its way into the heart of the Washington area. The 64-mile highway is synonymous today with traffic jams. But when it was completed in August 1964, it created a new way to get around the fast-growing Washington region.
“It has cut my travel time almost in half between my Bethesda office and my office in Laurel,” wrote one doctor in a 1964 letter to The Washington Post.
Let’s all hop in a time machine, and dust off a few historical facts about the Beltway.
- Aug. 17, 1964
The Beltway opened in 1961 and was completed on a Monday in 1964. The ribbon-cutting that day was in the middle of the highway and jammed up traffic for miles.
“I’ll never get out of here,” one driver told a reporter that day.
- Aug. 18, 1960
You know it as the Capital Beltway or Interstate 495. It was even once called the Circumferential Highway.
In 1960, the Maryland State Roads Commission asked to consider spelling it as the Capitol Beltway, with an “o,” because they wanted pictures of the U.S. Capitol on every highway sign. In a letter, the commission’s chairman called the idea “imaginative” and said it would symbolize “democracy for free men everywhere.”
The switcheroo never happened. Officials at the time said the word capital encompassed “the whole Washington area,” according to a 1960 Washington Post article.
That’s how many vehicles traveled the Beltway north of Maryland’s US-50 in the Beltway’s first year, according to daily traffic estimates. The same stretch now carries 220,731 vehicles daily – a 626 percent increase in five decades.
That’s the number of fatal crashes on “the road that has no end” in its inaugural year — 13 of them in Maryland and six in Virginia.
In 2013, the Maryland State Highway Administration tallied four fatalities on the Beltway, while the Virginia Department of Transportation says there were none.
Maryland State Police had that many troopers regularly assigned to the Capital Beltway when it first opened. Now 100 troopers patrol the Beltway, a spokesman said.
— Denise Lu contributed to this report.