It’s official: According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the Washington area has the nation’s worst traffic. Our highways are parking lots. Metrorail is packed. Could things possibly be worse?
Actually, yes. The region has the much-maligned Capital Beltway to thank for preventing a terrible mess from descending into a disaster. As much as we love to hate the Beltway, the only thing worse than living with it would be living without it.
Some readers will recall traffic conditions in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the only links among D.C.’s suburbs were narrow, accident-prone roads. Trips between Maryland and Virginia required passage through the congested capital to reach one of the crowded Potomac River bridges. Transit routes were designed to move people in and out of Washington, not around it. A freeway around the city could not arrive soon enough for suburban drivers.
Though segments of the “Washington Circumferential Highway” opened to traffic as early as 1957, anticipation built for the opening of the full ring in August 1964. In an editorial published on the eve of opening day, the Washington Evening Star gushed that “this magnificent stretch of superhighway is by all odds the most exciting and in many respects the most important public works project ever built in the Washington area.”
The excitement lasted about five minutes. Moments after Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes cut a ceremonial ribbon near the New Hampshire Avenue interchange, spectators returned to their parked cars lined up for two miles along the new Beltway and drove straight into the highway’s first traffic jam. It was a harbinger of many more to come.
For the first few months, drivers loved the Beltway and flooded local newspapers with praise. “All I can say from my point of view is ‘It is the best thing since the invention of the wheel!’ ” one reader wrote to the Evening Star.Many applauded its lack of traffic signals, its multiple lanes and its wide medians. An urban legend developed that local bars were experiencing a drop in business because workers could no longer claim to have been stuck in traffic after their shifts when they were actually grabbing a drink.
But within two months, the Beltway had nearly exceeded the daily number of vehicles that planners had projected for years in the future. Cheers turned to grumbles, then to anger. In late 1965, the American Automobile Association convened a “Beltway Forum” at the National Museum of Natural History to debate the question: “Golden Ring or Vicious Circle?”
Ever since, Washingtonians have struggled to live with the Beltway’s faults. Drivers have developed coping mechanisms for traffic jams, including reading and playing poker with drivers in adjacent vehicles. And the Beltway Singles Club, founded in 1984, used Beltway standstills as its premise: The organization provided individually coded bumper stickers enabling club members stuck behind a stickered car to call the club for the first name and phone number of its heartthrob driver.
Meanwhile, planners and engineers have played catch-up with increasing traffic. Maryland added lanes to a portion of the Beltway even before the full ring opened. Virginia will soon open new high-occupancy toll lanes that are free for carpools but not individuals. And both states have made countless other fixes, such as improving signage and modifying exit and entrance ramps. Unfortunately, the most heavily traveled portions of the Beltway today carry roughly five times as many vehicles each day as planners originally expected. Needless to say, the number of lanes on the road has not quintupled accordingly.
Worse, designers assumed that the Beltway would be one piece of a freeway network that included other concentric beltways and a series of radial freeways connecting them. When these plans were canceled in the 1970s, the Capital Beltway had to absorb more traffic on its own. And when plans were dropped for I-95 to run through the city — as it does through Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York— the Beltway was left to carry most long-distance traffic going up and down the East Coast, too.
No single new highway, HOT lane or Purple Line can solve every problem with the Beltway. We can increase capacity by adding a lane or two, and we can decrease vehicular travel by offering incentives for telecommuting. But for nearly 50 years, the Beltway has been the only game in town for drivers trying to move quickly among the suburbs. Surface streets don’t do it. The Red Line sure doesn’t do it. The Beltway doesn’t guarantee a quick ride every time, but it offers us a fighting chance.
The alternative is almost unthinkable. Some portions of the Beltway carry well over 200,000 vehicles each day. Without the Beltway, where would those drivers go? Straight back to 1964, but with far more congestion. Driving from Alexandria to Suitland, or Rockville to Vienna? Good luck without the Wilson and American Legion bridges.
In fact, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the Beltway’s river crossings. Without them, suburban Virginia and Maryland residents would each be far less likely to visit each other’s states for work or leisure. Integration of the metro area into a cohesive whole (what some call the “DMV”) would probably have been slower. Area residents would still share common points of reference — the Redskins, for example — but might not see each other as frequently. Metrorail’s map would look different; it was created to coordinate with the Beltway. Commercial development might be concentrated more intensely around other freeways and Metro stations, and the development of regional shopping hubs such as Tysons Corner and Montgomery Mall might seem less appealing.
And, of course, without the Beltway, we would need a new shorthand to refer to the capital’s political culture. In 1983, then-Washington Post columnist Mike Causey introduced the phrase “inside the Beltway,” which the late William Safirelater defined as “having the conventional wisdom held by self-described political insiders.” It’s hard to think of an alternative phrase that works as well. “Around the monument” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, especially after August’s earthquake.
So the next time you’re stuck in traffic somewhere between the Mormon Temple and Rockville Pike, stifle the expletives and count your blessings. Besides, there are fringe benefits. After all, without the Beltway, what would presidential candidates have to complain about?
Jeremy L. Korr, who grew up in College Park near Beltway Exit 25B, is a dean at Brandman University.