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Monday, December 15, 2008

The Little Freeway That Couldn't

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.

View Larger Map

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.


Nick said...

Why not expand Anacostia Drive and create a mirror free-way/boulevard/parkway on the other side of the river? I'm picturing something along the lines of Storrow Drive and Memorial Drive in Boston and Cambridge. They keep traffic moving but also keep people connected to the river.

Dave Murphy said...


I don't see the point of that when there is a perfectly good Anacostia Freeway right there. I think a few more streets should pass over (or under?) the Anacostia Freeway, and Anacostia Drive can serve to connect the street grid, but the idea is to take freeway traffic off of the riverbanks.

Douglas A. Willinger said...

I believe a better idea is taking the traffic off the surface.

The Anacostia Freeway needs a major rebuild which should depress and cover it with a low speed boulevard.

The eastern SE Freeway meanwhile has the benefit of not requiring regrading the existing roadbed, but rather a cover over this existing road bed which is the cheapest type of freeway under grounding.

Its extension to RFK Stadium meanwhile can be cut into the hill and covered with a waterfront promenade with stairs to the riverfront , beneath a new low speed waterfront promenade. Since there will always be activity at the RFK site, and new development is envisioned, placing the new boulevard directly upon the existing freeway grade makes no sense, especially with the ease of covering the existing roadbed with a new lid with new low speed boulevard that would then have to handle but a fraction of the traffic.

With the two freeways the new 11th Street Bridges could be a bit narrower, with 2 rather than 3 lane connectors.

Dave Murphy said...


I support your views on taking freeway traffic off the surface, and I believe this should be a prerequisite for most urban freeways in cities throughout the United States. I also understand the elevation would be good for a deck, but how would it be possible to create a smoothe grade down to the river? I imagine this would involve removal of the ramps to the 11th Street Bridge.

I still don't see how it would be cost effective to have two redundant freeways running on each side of the highway. The new extended 695 would still dead end in the new RFK development... unless you construct the Barney Circle bridge, which would put a strain on the northern section of DC 295

Douglas A. Willinger said...

Extending the freeway to RFK would connect it to the East Capitol Street Bridge, which needs to have its connecting 295 rebuilt (needed in any event), preferably with extending the L'Enfant plan to the east with a deck over the highway and improved ramp connections.

I would also build the continuation of this East Leg as per the schematic of the 1971 plan with my Grand Arc NCF Mall Tunnel.

The deck over the existing eastern SE Freeway and its extension would also cover the rr right of way with a terrace to the waterfront, making it far more accessible to pedestrians.

Dave Murphy said...

I get nervous when people start treating East Capitol like a highway. That road needs to be less highway and more boulevard.

Douglas A. Willinger said...

East Capitol Street can be less like a highway with denser development, with the increased traffic confined to the East Capitol Street Bridge itself, and with a deck-over of the DC 295 freeway;

your idea of reviving the Barney Circle Connector Bridge would reduce the traffic load on the East Capitol Street Bridge; my one objection/concern it its conflict with what would be a strictly boulevard bridge, a Massachusetts Avenue SE Bridge.

Could a Barney Circle Bridge could be designed to pass beneath a Massachusetts Avenue Bridge?

Christopher said...

The Barney Circle Interchange is still the ideal solution. It should have been built decades ago. Unfortunately it will never happen.
However, I do think the 11th Street bridge solution is okay. It accomplishes its mission; get I-295bound traffic, off New York Ave and Pennsylvania Ave. It will eliminate the gigantic, northbound, nightmare at the Pennsylvania Avenue exit. Likewise south I-295 will be relieved of the awkward manuver of exiting at Howard Rd. SE and getting back on northbound I-295 to cross the 11th street bridge onto I-695. This nightmarish interchange should have been blown up years and years ago. It is (one) of the primary contributors to backups on I-395 that sometimes go as far as the mixing bowl.