The Anacostia River could be one of the most iconic urban waterways in the US, but instead it is blockaded on both shores by freeways. DC/Interstate 295 cuts off the east bank virtually the entire length of the river in the District, and the Southeast Freeway blocks of Boathouse Row on the west bank.
One of my chief complaints about the use of land in the District of Columbia is the gross underutilization of river frontage. And something must be done to make the river more accessible. Removing the highways, however, would raise strong concerns over dumping what might otherwise be freeway through traffic onto city streets, which, as we've seen on New York Avenue between the 395 tunnel and 295, can turn a city boulevard into a traffic sewer.
Removing highways diminishes induced demand, thus reducing vehicular traffic through the area. For the most part, I don't believe this to be an excuse for the wholesale removal of all the freeways through the District. The District does not have too many highways, but rather a horribly inefficient highway system that dumps dead-end freeway traffic onto city streets. What needs to be removed are the dead end highways, and what remains should be logically and thoroughly connected to the rest of the city's highway system in a manner that minimizes the highway's physical impact on the cityscape.
Douglas Willinger of A Trip Within the Beltway would be decking over our freeways, which in theory may be the best way to diminish a highway's impact on urban landscape. The obvious downside is, of course, cost. Would it be worth it to deck over the Southeast Freeway between Barney Circle and the 11th Street Bridge? Only if the plan included extending the Southeast Freeway past Barney Circle, conducive to the original plan for freeways in the District of Columbia. That full plan, for the record, was not exactly in line with city's current movement toward smart growth (to say the least). Otherwise, we are decking over a largely useless stretch of freeway that ultimately dead ends, dumping freeway traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Another option would be one that I had suggested back over the summer, building the Barney Circle Bridge. This plan, which also called for boulevardization of part of the Anacostia Freeway, might be a good alternative, but it would be cumbersome and expensive to implement. I also foresee this plan going through but without the boulevardization of the Anacostia Freeway, which would go against the notion of making the river more accessible.
The 1.39 mile section of the Southeast Freeway east of the 11th Street Bridge (unsigned but designated Interstate 695) is six lane freeway becomes a two lane access road to RFK Stadium as it passes under Pennsylvania Avenue, and the only purpose this route currently serves is getting traffic to the Sousa Bridge. I use it regularly to get to northbound 295 when I am driving out of the city (there is currently no access from the southbound 11th Street Bridge to northbound 295). JD Land offers insight to the fate of this route. In the plan, the virtually useless ramps from the Bridge to the RFK access road will be completely removed, and that portion of freeway will be replaced by a boulevard.
What about the aforementioned problem of inefficient freeways lacking logical connectivity? Removal of this section of highway could ostensibly be completely mitigated with a couple of ramps which, in my opinion, should have been built decades ago. Ramps between the 11th Street Bridge and the northern route DC 295, along with a ramp from southbound 295 to westbound Pennsylvania Avenue would create a more functional, logical, and efficient highway network, making the undesirable section of the Southeast Freeway virtually obsolete, as it would have all the same functionality of the freeway it parallels on the east bank of the river. Below shows the three new ramps in pink, and the obsolete (ready for boulevardization) stretch of freeway in green.
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I don't have statistics, but I imagine that construction and upkeep for three new ramps would be more than offset by the economic development that highway removal could ostensibly bring to that stretch. The result: less through traffic on city streets like Pennsylvania Avenue and South Capitol Street, no induced traffic, and an overall reduction in vehicle miles traveled.
And Boathouse Row on M St. SE is now accessible to the rest of the adjacent neighborhood, right? Well, no, not exactly.
There is still another bulwark: the CSX line. Certainly, it is much easier to build an at-grade crossing for these railroad tracks which parallel the highway before going underground at the 11th Street Bridge. However the physical and psychological barrier between the river and the neighborhood will remain an impact of developing this area to its full potential as premier riverfront destination.
So is removal of this stretch of freeway worth it? Absolutely. But better connectivity between the remaining freeways is constructed and plans to remove, deck, or realign the CSX track must be devised. Removing an urban freeway is often very good for a city, but the plan must go far beyond simply the physical removal of the roadway. In Near Southeast, simply removing the highway will not be enough for the neighborhood to achieve its full urban potential.