This 2002 photo shows the inner loop of the Capital Beltway (I-495 eastbound) at EXIT 38 (I-270 SPUR) in Bethesda. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
A LOOP AROUND THE NATION'S CAPITAL: Plans for a loop highway around the nation's capital were developed as early as the 1920's, but the first official plans for what was then known as the "Washington Circumferential Highway" were announced in 1952 by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission. From the beginning, the route was planned as a controlled-access road located as close as possible to developed areas. At the time of planning, most of the areas through which the freeway was to pass in Maryland and Virginia were undeveloped.
There already was a nearby precedent for a loop highway. In 1949, work began on the Baltimore Beltway as a county project; the state took over the project during the early 1950's. With state funds directed at the Baltimore Beltway - and at that time, the state picked up half the tab for that route - funds were hard to come by for the "Washington Circumferential Highway."
Nevertheless, the need for building a highway around Washington's suburbs was a top priority in the early postwar era, when the threat of nuclear annihilation and long-term interruption of government functions prompted Federal officials to relocate a number of agencies from the District of Columbia to the nearby Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The beltway also was to serve as a critical route for military vehicles in the event of an attack. Francis C. Turner, former head of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), related the following to The Washington Post:
The concept was that every major city had to have not only a route that penetrated the city but (also) routes around the city. So in case a bomb dropped, like in Hiroshima, the military needed a route to go around the city, to bypass it.
The Capital Beltway finally received a break in 1954 when Congress approved construction of what would eventually become the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, followed a year later by construction approval from the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, in conjunction with the state highway departments of Maryland and Virginia. The funding issue was solved in 1956 with the inclusion of the beltway in the Interstate highway system, making the Capital Beltway eligible for 90 percent Federal financing.
Soon after the beltway was included in the Interstate system, Virginia officials first tried to designate the highway I-68. However, the American Association of State Highway Officials approved Maryland's proposal to designate the entire 64 miles of the beltway I-495.
The Capital Beltway received its name officially in 1960 following several years of debate. Officials in Maryland and Virginia wanted to name the road the "Capitol Beltway" after the building, and hoped to feature the Capitol on beltway signs. Although the National Capital Park and Planning Commission ultimately decided this matter in favor of "capital," the likeness of the Capitol appeared on beltway signs beginning in the 1980's.
YESTERDAY: This 1964 photo shows the outer loop of the Capital Beltway (I-95 and I-495 northbound) at EXIT 19 (I-595 and US 50 / John Hanson Highway) in Hyattsville. (Photo by Maryland State Highway Administration.)
BUILDING THE BELTWAY: Construction of the beltway already was underway for one year by the time President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act into law. In 1957, the first section of beltway opened as part of the "Washington National Pike" (originally designated US 240). This two-mile-long section from the current end of I-270 (EXIT 35) east to EXIT 33 (MD 185 / Connecticut Avenue) - built roughly along the southern boundary of Rock Creek Park over the objections of the National Parks Service - ultimately was incorporated into the beltway. However, the four-lane highway was designed prior to the 1956 law, requiring reconstruction to Interstate standards between 1957 and 1959. During this period, the highway was widened to six lanes, with right-of-way for future expansion to eight lanes.
In the years immediately following the beltway's inclusion into the Interstate highway system, Virginia highway officials appeared more earnest to begin construction, while their counterparts in Maryland appeared content to wait until the second half of the 1960's to begin construction, after the Baltimore Beltway (I-695) was completed. That all changed in 1959 when J. Millard Tawes, upon taking the governorship of Maryland, ordered an acceleration of work on the Capital Beltway for a completion date of 1964.
Most of the geography along the beltway was conducive to highway construction. The two exceptions were in the area of the American Legion Bridge, where rock excavations had to take place, and the Springfield-to-Alexandria section, which had to be raised above the swamps surrounding Cameron Run.
Ultimately, it was in Maryland that the first stretch of Interstate-funded beltway was built with the opening of a two-mile-long stretch from EXIT 29 (MD 193 / University Boulevard) to EXIT 31 (MD 97 / Georgia Avenue) in early December 1961.
Two bridges were built across the Potomac River:
At the lower end of the Potomac, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge - originally called the Jones Point Bridge - was built to connect the Oxon Hill in Prince Georges County, Maryland with Alexandria (Jones Point Park), Virginia. The 5,900-foot-long bridge accommodates six lanes of traffic across the Potomac, and was designed to carry 75,000 vehicles per day (AADT). It has a multi-span girder design except for a bascule drawbridge about 500 feet east of the Virginia shoreline. The $16.7 million drawbridge and its approaches (from US 1 in Alexandria to MD 210 / Indian Head Highway in Oxon Hill) opened in December 1961. The cost of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was paid in full by the Federal government (per 1955 legislation granting construction of the bridge), and the highway departments of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia (a 100-foot-long, over-water section of the bridge crosses District boundaries) cover ongoing maintenance costs.
At the upper end of the Potomac, the American Legion Bridge - originally called the Cabin John Bridge - was built to carry six lanes of traffic across one of the deepest gorges along the Potomac. The $2.8 million bridge and its immediate approaches were opened to traffic in December 1962.
As the 1965 completion deadline approached, Maryland and Virginia officials competed - if only on a friendly basis - to get their respective sections of the Capital Beltway completed. The 22-mile-long, $56.6 million Virginia section opened on April 2, 1964, while the 41-mile-long, $96.4 million Maryland section was completed on August 16, 1964.
When it opened, the Capital Beltway had two lanes in each direction from the I-95 / I-395 (Shirley Highway) interchange in Springfield to VA 193 in McLean. The remaining sections of I-495 in Virginia, along with the entire length of I-495 in Maryland, were built with six traffic lanes (three in each direction).
… AND TODAY: This 2002 photo shows the inner loop of the Capital Beltway (I-95 and I-495 southbound) at EXIT 19 (I-595 and US 50 / John Hanson Highway) in Hyattsville. This interchange was rebuilt during the early 1990's with the upgrade of US 50 to Interstate standards. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
SHATTERING PREVIOUS PATTERNS OF DEVELOPMENT: As rights-of-way were purchased through the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, developers purchased land for industrial parks, warehouses, distribution facilities, and shopping centers. Specifically, the close proximity of government-funded research centers encouraged the development of "clean" industry near beltway exits. Jack Klingel, director of the Fairfax County Economic and Industrial Development Commission, said the beltway "shattered all previous patterns of development."
AS TRAFFIC GROWS, SO DOES THE BELTWAY: In 1972, Maryland widened the Beltway to eight lanes (four lanes each way) for 29 miles from I-95 EXIT 2 (MD 210 / Indian Head Highway) in Oxon Hill north to I-495 EXIT 31 (MD 97 / Georgia Avenue) in Silver Spring. Five years later, Virginia widened its section of the Beltway to eight lanes (four lanes each way) for 20 miles from I-95 EXIT 177 (US 1 / Jefferson Davis Highway) north to I-495 EXIT 44 (VA 193 / Old Georgetown Pike) in McLean.
During the early 1990's, Maryland extended the eight-lane widening for four miles from I-495 EXIT 31 north to EXIT 35 (I-270) in Bethesda. Shortly thereafter the Old Line State joined the Old Dominion State in widening a five-mile stretch from I-495 EXIT 38 (I-270 SPUR) in Bethesda to EXIT 44 (VA 193) in McLean. This left a three-mile stretch through Bethesda at the original six-lane width. However, Maryland officials decided against widening this segment because it has half the traffic volume of adjoining segments; the remainder of this traffic is bound for the two legs of I-270.
The beltway opened with 37 interchanges, which were numbered consecutively and counter-clockwise beginning at US 1 in Alexandria and finishing at I-295 in Oxon Hill. Interchanges were added for I-66 in Falls Church in late 1964, I-95 in College Park in 1971, the Metro-MARC Station in Greenbelt in 1993, and Eisenhower Avenue Connector in Alexandria in 1998. In 1986, the interchange between I-95, I-495, and US 1 (EXITS 25-27) in College Park was rebuilt with a new two-lane, high-speed ramp carrying I-95 onto the Beltway, new collector-distributor (C/D) roads for southbound traffic, and a new park-and-ride lot in the right-of-way for the unbuilt Northeast Freeway (I-95).
I-95 JOINS I-495 ON THE BELTWAY: With the 1973 cancellation of I-95 between the Center Leg Freeway in the District and the I-95 / I-495 interchange in College Park, the I-95 designation was shifted onto the Capital Beltway from Springfield north and east to College Park in 1977. The I-495 designation was retired officially from this section, while the completed sections of I-95 (the Shirley Highway, Southwest Freeway, and Center Leg Freeway) were re-designated I-395.
After years of motorist confusion, I-495 signs were added back alongside the I-95 signs to the eastern arc of the Capital Beltway in 1991. However, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recognizes only the western arc of the beltway as I-495; the eastern arc is recognized only as I-95.
This 2002 photo shows the inner loop of the Capital Beltway (I-495 northbound) at EXIT 49A (I-66) in Falls Church. This interchange was opened to traffic in 1964 and expanded in 1982 upon the completion to I-66 east to Washington. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
CHANGES FOR THE SPRINGFIELD INTERCHANGE: In 1999, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) began an eight-year, seven-phase project to rebuild the Springfield interchange between I-95, I-395 (Shirley Highway), and I-495. When it opened in the early 1960's, the interchange was built to favor continuous flows on the Capital Beltway and the Shirley Highway, which were designated I-495 and I-95 at the time. The cancellation of I-95 through the District of Columbia in the 1970's created a bottleneck for I-95 through traffic. By the dawn of the new millennium, more than 400,000 vehicles (AADT) passed through the interchange each day, making the bottleneck worse.
The $700 million Springfield interchange project, which was completed in July 2007, was organized as follows:
PHASE 1: A fourth travel lane on I-95 south was built between EXIT 168 (VA 7100 / Fairfax County Parkway) in Newington and EXIT 170 (I-395 / I-495) in Springfield. A new northbound exit ramp to Spring Mall Drive was built from EXIT 169 in Springfield.
PHASES 2 AND 3: I-95 EXIT 169 (VA 644 / Franconia Road) was rebuilt and local roads were widened.
PHASE 4: A new high-speed, two-lane elevated ramp was built to provide a direct bypass for southbound I-95 bypass over the Springfield interchange. At its highest point, the ramp is 120 feet above ground level. I-495 through traffic was relocated through the interchange.
PHASE 5: The ramp between southbound I-395 and northbound I-495 was rebuilt. Additional improvements (such as rebuilt bridges and new sound walls) were made along I-495 from the Springfield interchange to just south of EXIT 54 (VA 620 / Braddock Road).
PHASES 6 AND 7: A new two-lane northbound ramp for northbound I-95 traffic was built, along with new connections between the I-395 / I-95 HOV and C/D lanes and the Capital Beltway.
There was an eighth project phase that included construction of HOV lanes on the Capital Beltway and their connections to the HOV lanes on the Shirley Highway (I-395 and I-95). Although this phase was moved to the "Future Capital Beltway" project, VDOT reserved rights-of-way for the additional lanes and connecting ramps.
A NEW BRIDGE ACROSS THE POTOMAC: As far back as the 1980's, officials have sought to relieve the bottleneck across the six-lane Woodrow Wilson Bridge. A deck rehabilitation and widening project in 1983 brought new seven-foot-wide right shoulders, but congestion persisted because not only did it have only six lanes (the Beltway approaches had eight lanes), but also the bridge's 50 feet of vertical clearance required frequent openings.
In 1989, a multi-government coalition promised of officials from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia devised the following alternatives in its "Woodrow Wilson Bridge Corridor Study:"
NEW BRIDGE, EXISTING ALIGNMENT: Two parallel six-lane drawbridges would be built parallel to the existing span. The draw spans on the new bridges would have a 70-foot vertical clearance, which would cut the number of openings by two-thirds. The old bridge would be removed upon completion of one of the two spans.
NEW BRIDGE, SOUTHERN ALIGNMENT: This would be similar to the "new bridge, existing alignment" alternative except that the twin bridges would be built 1,800 feet south of the existing alignment. The existing bridge and approaches would be removed.
SPLIT ALIGNMENT, EXISTING AND NEW BRIDGES: The existing bridge would be rebuilt and reconfigured to carry four lanes of express traffic, while a new eight-lane bridge for local traffic would be built 1,800 feet south of the existing span.
EXISTING BRIDGE AND NEW TUNNEL ON SAME ALIGNMENT: A twin-tube, 11,000-foot-long tunnel would be built immediately south of the existing bridge. The two tubes would carry six traffic lanes. The existing bridge would be rebuilt and reconfigured to carry four lanes of express traffic.
SPLIT ALIGNMENT, EXISTING BRIDGE AND NEW TUNNEL: This would be similar to the "split alignment, existing and new bridges" alternative except that instead of a new bridge, a low-level bridge and 4,000-foot-long tunnel combination for local traffic would be built 1,800 feet south of the existing span.
The cost of the alternatives ranged from $1.4 billion to $3.5 billion (in 1992 dollars). The coalition presented a fixed bridge with a 135-foot vertical clearance in all of the bridge alternatives. However, officials in Alexandria balked amid fears that a high bridge would be aesthetically inconsistent with the predominantly low-rise architecture of Old Town. The coalition also backed away from the tunnel proposals because of their prohibitively high costs. Following a lengthy public evaluation process, the coalition decided on the "new bridge, existing alignment" alternative (officially called "Alternative 4A") as their preferred alternative in September 1996. The Federal government approved the preferred alternative in November 1997.
Ground broke for the $2.4 billion project on October 20, 2000. In June 2006, three lanes of Outer Loop (northbound I-95) traffic were diverted onto the new bridge, followed by the diversion of three Inner Loop (southbound I-95) lanes one month later. The main span of the old drawbridge was detonated on August 24, 2006; this was followed by demolition on the old approaches. With the completion of the parallel span in 2008, the combined crossings now accommodate five general-use lanes in each direction, with two lanes (one in each direction) reserved for future HOV use. A 12-foot-wide multi-use path for pedestrians and cyclists was opened on June 6, 2009, allowing them to cross the Potomac between Oxon Hill and Alexandria for the first time.
In conjunction with the project, interchanges also are being built for EXIT 2 (I-295 / Anacostia Freeway and proposed access to National Harbor) and EXIT 3 (MD 210 / Indian Head Highway) on the Maryland side, and EXIT 177 (US 1 / Jefferson Davis Highway) and EXIT 176 (VA 241 / Telegraph Road). Most of the rebuilt interchanges were completed between 2008 and 2010, with the Telegraph Road interchange slated for completion in 2011.
A WIDER BELTWAY WITH HO/T LANES: In 1989, VDOT began more than 15 years of studies on improvements to Virginia's 22 miles of the Capital Beltway. After studying a number of alternatives including a express-local (C/D) setup, a proposed new Metro line (often referred to as the "Purple Line"), and express bus lanes, VDOT decided upon a 12-lane setup - eight general-use and four HOV lanes (a 4-2-2-4 lane setup) - in January 2005. The HOV lanes would have an "HO/T" feature that would allow single-occupant vehicles to use the lanes at a variable toll, which would be collected at highway speeds. The project would require the acquisition of up to 258 homes, 32 businesses, a nursing home, 20 acres of parkland, and five acres of wetlands. In December 2007, Fluor-Transurban and VDOT signed a partnership agreement for the financing, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the HOT lanes. Construction of 14 miles of the $1.4 billion project began in early 2008 and is slated for completion in 2013. No construction dates have been set for the remaining eight miles in Virginia, whose cost is estimated at $1.1 billion.
Officials in Maryland have been conducted their own Capital Beltway widening studies since 1990. Although planning still is underway, Maryland officials joined their counterparts in Virginia in ruling out a fixed-rail (Metrorail) alternative and advanced their own HO/T plan. The Maryland plan would comprise either six general-use and four HO/T lanes (a 3-2-2-3 lane setup), or eight general-use and two HO/T lanes (a 4-1-1-4 lane setup).
According to officials in Maryland and Virginia, the average segment on the Capital Beltway now carries between 200,000 and 225,000 vehicles per day (AADT). This volume is expected to be between 250,000 and 275,000 vehicles per day by 2030.
This 2010 photo shows the inner loop of the Capital Beltway (I-95 and I-495 southbound) at the rebuilt EXIT 2 (I-295 / Anacostia Freeway / National Harbor) in Oxon Hill. This interchange was rebuilt as part of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge reconstruction project. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
SOURCES: The Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital and Its Environs, National Capital Park and Planning Commission (1950); "Two Belt Roads in Area Get Approval" by Richard J. Maloy, The Washington Post (9/29/1955); "It's the Capital Beltway (With 'A'), That's Final," The Washington Post (8/18/1960); "Virginia's Portion of Beltway Shown" by William Chapman, The Washington Post (5/19/1961); "Concrete Loop Around Capital" by Horace Ayres, The Baltimore Sun (7/01/1962); "Another Beltway," The Baltimore Sun (6/22/1964); "65-Mile Capital Beltway Opens" by John C. Schmidt, The Baltimore Sun (8/16/1964); "Ring Around Washington," Baltimore Magazine (September 1964); "Washington's Main Drag" by Douglas B. Feaver, The Washington Post (8/30/1999); "Rock Creek Park: An Administrative History," National Parks Service (2003); "Memory Lanes" by Jeremy L. Korr, The Washington Post (8/15/2004); "New Wilson Bridge Opens Completely, Ahead of Schedule; Real Relief to Come With Second Span" by Leef Smith, The Washington Post (7/17/2006); "You Could Be the End of the Wilson Bridge" by Robert Thomson, The Washington Post (8/10/2006); "Deals Clinched on HOV Lanes" by Tim Craig, The Washington Post (12/21/2007); "Bringing Maryland a Little Closer: Wilson Bridge Bike and Pedestrian Path to Open Saturday" by Michael Laris, The Washington Post (5/31/2009); Maryland State Highway Administration; Parsons Corporation; Rummel, Klepper and Kahl; Virginia Department of Transportation; Nick Klissas; Scott Kozel; Scott Oglesby; Mike Pruett; Stephen Summers; Alexander Svirsky; William F. Yurasko.
I-495 and I-95 shields by Ralph Herman. Capital Beltway shield photo by James Lin. Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.