South Capitol Street traffic oval
The corridor project will create traffic ovals at both ends of the rebuilt Douglass Bridge, like the one seen here near Nationals Park. (Artist’s rendering courtesy of DDOT)

The District Department of Transportation on Tuesday explained its plans for rebuilding the aging Douglass Bridge over the Anacostia River and turning South Capitol Street near Nationals Park and the potential site of a soccer stadium into a “grand boulevard.”

The meeting at a hotel just off South Capitol Street drew about 130 people, many of them cyclists, walkers and nearby residents wanting to know how the huge, multi-year project will affect them during the construction and how it could affect their travels when complete.

One of the characteristics of project meetings with any transportation agency is that they are held near the site of the future construction, which makes sense, but that means they rarely draw one constituency: People who drive a long way and will be affected by the construction and its aftermath.

South Capitol Street corridor Yellow and Blue areas are in the first phase of construction. (DDOT map)

Thousands of driving commuters use I-295, Suitland Parkway, the Douglass Bridge and South Capitol Street, and the project will alter travel on all of them — for the better, I hope, but their main concerns are likely to be how well traffic flows during bridge replacement, construction of traffic ovals on either side, reconstruction of the I-295/Suitland Parkway interchange and rebuilding of M Street/South Capitol Street into an at-grade intersection.

And if they’re still around after the construction, they’ll want to know whether it adds or subtracts from their commuting time.

The Douglass Bridge needs to be replaced. It’s still safe to travel, thanks in large part to a rehabilitation project that shut down the span during summer 2007.

But when I asked Ronaldo T. “Nick” Nicholson, the District’s chief engineer, if the newly proposed soccer stadium at nearby Buzzard Point was a factor in advancing the corridor plans, he said no: The overwhelming factor was the aging of the bridge.

And the corridor plans were developed long before there was a soccer stadium proposal —  really long before, in some visions. D.C. officials often speak of the “grand boulevard” concept as dating back to Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the nation’s capital.

But L’Enfant’s plan didn’t include traffic ovals like the one in the artist’s rendering at the top of this page. In the rendering, it looks like the planners think we may someday host the summer Olympics.

The games I’m worried about include lane-changing and traffic-dodging. There’s nothing like these traffic ovals in D.C., and it would certainly take a while for travelers to adjust to them — assuming they ever do.

At the Tuesday night meeting, they certainly had the attention of people who travel by bike or foot. The circles will be very wide, and they will be controlled at several points by traffic signals. How drivers will react to the multiple lanes and the traffic lights is one issue.

But another concern should be the likelihood that pedestrians will follow what safety experts call their “desire line” in crossing South Capitol Street. Look at where the crosswalks are, then look at the shortest distances between any two points and imagine where drivers might encounter pedestrians running across the travel lanes.

Then imagine it at night after a game at Nationals Park or the new soccer stadium, which would be toward the upper right side of the artist’s rendering.

Sanjay Kumar, program manager for the District’s Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, said DDOT expects to begin the first phase of construction — replacing the bridge, adding the ovals and rebuilding the interchange in Anacostia — in late 2014. That work is scheduled to be done late in 2018, though travelers might have full access to the changes earlier than that.

The second phase, including the rebuilding of M Street/South Capitol Street, would be scheduled later.

See more background about the project on the District’s Web site for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.