A Brief History of the Capital Beltway

08/17/2016
By Preservation Maryland

On August 17, 1964 Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes cut the ribbon to officially open the final stretch of the just-completed Capital Beltway, I-495. Buckle up for a brief history of the Capital Beltway:

RING ROAD CONCEPTS

As early as the 1880s, planners had floated the idea of a circular road that would surround Washington, DC and improve travel within and around the city. The proposed “Fort Circle Drive” would have connected the Civil War-era circle forts that defended the Capital, but this plan was never realized. Several ring road proposals were considered over the next decades, including plans with multiple concentric highways radiating out from the city center.

MANAGING GROWTH

By the 1950s, Washington’s suburbs were growing rapidly and overtaxing the existing transportation network. After prolonged negotiations over everything from the route to the name, the final plan for the Capital Beltway was approved on September 28, 1955 as part of the Interstate System backed by President Eisenhower. I-495 was constructed in several stages over the next nine years.

EARLY ENTHUSIASM

Hopes were high at the Beltway’s opening that a new era of commuting had dawned. Floyd Hedrick, who drove each day from Springfield, VA to Northeast Washington, wrote in to the Washington Evening Star to commend the planners on the highway and named it “the best thing since the invention of the wheel!

Photo from The Washington Post.

Photo from The Washington Post.

Considerable hoopla surrounded the lead-up to the grand opening. Local grocery chain Giant Foods sponsored a promotional cycling tour around a section of the Beltway to highlight the family-friendly sport (and to showcase the bicycles sold in their stores). McDonald’s began stocking maps of the Beltway in their restaurants, with the location of each McDonald’s clearly marked. These maps also had tips for those driving on a high-speed interstate for the first time: no sudden stops, and if you miss your exit, don’t back up or make a U-turn to get there.

THE FIRST TRAFFIC JAM

The initial acclaim was short-lived. In fact, it took only five minutes from the official ribbon-cutting for the first traffic jam to form as the thousands of spectators who had gathered to watch the ceremony rushed to their cars to test the Beltway for themselves.

Local drivers have been suffering through daily delays ever since.

A 2015 study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute determined that D.C. commuters waste the most time in traffic out of all the nation’s major cities, losing an average of 82 hours per year in traffic jams. Per The Washington Post, traffic volume has increased far more quickly than transportation planners envisioned, in some places by more than 600% since the 1960s.

The next chapter for the Beltway will likely be shaped by the changing transportation patterns that are beginning to emerge across the country. As Americans increasingly prefer to drive less, live in more compact, walkable communities, and minimize their commute times by living closer to their workplaces, vehicle miles traveled may begin to level out and eventually decline. That change, however, will probably be slow; just like your evening commute.

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