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This 2000 photo shows the southbound Southwest Freeway (I-395) approaching EXIT 4 (Maine Avenue). (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)

THE FIRST LINK OF THE INNER LOOP: Planned by District officials as early as 1946, the Southwest Freeway was first publicized in a 1951 presentation by city traffic director George Keneipp before the Civitan Club at the Mayflower Hotel. The proposed freeway, which was to extend from the 14th Street Bridge to South Capitol Street, was conceived as part of a $200 million general construction program. It also was incorporated into plans to redevelop Southwest Washington, which at the time was a lower-class (but commercially thriving) neighborhood.

When it was first planned, the 3.4-mile-long Southwest Freeway was to have six lanes throughout its entire length. It was to extend east from the concurrently proposed bridge over Washington Channel over F Street SW. A pair of 33-foot-wide roadways was to have been separated by a four-foot-wide median barrier and flanked by 60-foot-wide sloped embankments.

From the beginning, the Southwest Freeway and its bridge connection across the Potomac was the subject of controversy. Officials at the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) proposed a new span connecting Southwest Washington with Roaches Run in Arlington, a little more than one-half mile south of the Railroad Bridge. This proposal had Congressional support; an alternative proposal to build an expressway connecting to E Street near the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial met with disapproval in Congress (but ultimately was built as part of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge several years later). Although the Roaches Run Bridge, which was to have been built with a bypass of the Shirley Highway / Pentagon "mixing bowl" interchange, was backed by Congress and the NCPC, many Federal and District officials worried that the new bridge site would interfere with Southwest Washington redevelopment efforts. After several years of heated debate, officials decided to build a new four-lane span to replace the existing Highway Bridge. The new span, known today as the George Mason Bridge, was to carry southbound traffic and supplement the four-lane northbound Rochambeau Bridge.

The Southwest Freeway received a boost when a 1955 report by De Leuw, Cather and Company proposed the link as part of the $272 million, 18-mile Inner Loop project in a 1955 report. The report advocated keeping the Southwest Freeway route approved earlier that decade, but instead recommended expanding the freeway to eight lanes (except in the area of the Maine Avenue interchange, where there were to be three through lanes in each direction). The cost of the freeway was estimated at $34 million, or roughly $10 million per mile.

DESIGN OF THE SOUTHWEST FREEWAY: The configurations on the Southwest Freeway were as follows:

  • The 14th Street Bridge actually is comprised of a series of bridges. Northbound traffic used the existing four-lane Rochambeau Memorial Bridge built in 1950, while southbound traffic used the new four-lane George Mason Memorial Bridge, which replaced the old truss "Highway Bridge" when it opened in 1962. A third bridge accommodating four lanes of HOV and express traffic, which was built immediately south of the George Mason Bridge, was opened to traffic in 1972.

  • At East Potomac Park, the six-lane US 1 leaves the freeway to connect to 14th Street SW. North of this interchange, the freeway transitions from a local-express-local (4-2-2-4) configuration to an eight-lane (4-4) configuration en route to the 12-span Washington Channel Bridge. The bridge, which separates East Potomac Park from Southwest, was named after Francis Case, a member of the Senate District Committee who died shortly before the span was completed in 1962.

  • As the Southwest Freeway enters Southwest, a complex series of ramps connects the freeway to L'Enfant Plaza / 12th Street SW from the northbound lanes, and to Maine Avenue from the southbound lanes. The two-lane ramps leading to and from Maine Avenue were vestiges of the unbuilt South Leg Freeway (I-695). The Southwest Freeway has six through lanes (3-3) in the area of this interchange as it transitions from viaduct to depressed freeway.

  • The Southwest Freeway resumes its eight-lane (4-4) configuration east of 7th Street SW as it transitions from depressed freeway to an above-ground embankment built along the alignment of F Street. This configuration is maintained until it reaches the "Y"-interchange between the Southeast (I-695) and Center Leg (I-395) freeways.

This 1961 artist's depiction shows the Southwest Freeway (I-395) looking east. The Southwest Freeway, which was completed two years later, is shown entering from Washington Channel on the lower right corner. Note the Maine Avenue ramps (on the Washington Channel shoreline) that were to be used for the unbuilt South Leg Freeway (I-695). (Photo courtesy of Gelman Library, Peter S. Craig papers, George Washington University; supplied by Douglas A. Willinger.)

WITH THE HELP OF INTERSTATE FUNDING, CONSTRUCTION PROGRESSES…  District officials pushed successfully to have the Southwest Freeway, along with the rest of the Inner Loop, as part of the Interstate highway system signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1956. The law provided for 90 percent financing for the freeway, with the remainder coming from District funds.

Construction under the first contract began at 4th Street SW in December 1957. Work under a second contract from 4 Street east to the "Center Leg" interchange began in January 1958, while construction of the remainder of the route - including the Washington Channel Bridge - got underway in March 1959. In 1960, District officials requested a shift in funding from other parts of the Inner Loop toward completion of the Southwest Freeway. Under the revised schedule, work was accelerated on the section between the 14 Street Bridge and 9th Street SW. This section was opened to traffic on July 31, 1962.

The remainder of the Southwest Freeway from 9th Street SW to South Capitol Street was completed on August 26, 1963. Construction crews built stub roadways for the future Southeast and Center Leg freeways, on which work continued into the early 1970's District officials rushed to get this final section of the Southwest Freeway finished in time for the crush of crowds anticipated for the massive civil rights march on the Mall in which Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

… BUT LEAVES A LEGACY IN ITS WAKE: Even as construction progressed on the freeway, District officials declared eminent domain over all land south of the Mall (except Bolling Air Force Base and Fort McNair), calling Southwest a "problem area" due to substandard housing and overcrowding. The city demolished hundreds of dwellings and commercial buildings, leaving only a few landmark structures such as the Maine Avenue Fish Market ("The Wharf"), the Thomas Law House, the Wheat Row townhouses (the city's oldest block of townhouses, built in 1793), and St. Dominic's and Friendship churches.

Although the District built a mix of low-rise and high-rise residential dwellings (most in the 1960's "brutalist" style) in the Southwest redevelopment, commercial development was slow to follow. It was only in the early 2000's that commercial development made it to the waterfront; this was accompanied by a wave of gentrification.

I-95 BECOMES I-395: When it opened, the Southwest Freeway was part of Interstate 95. The original plans for I-95 through the District called for I-95 to continue onto the Center Leg Freeway, parts of the North Leg and North Central freeways, and the Northeast Freeway before entering Maryland. After more than 15 years of controversy, District officials moved to cancel a number of freeways, including roads that were to carry the I-95 designation, between 1973 and 1976. More than $2 billion in highway funds originally set aside for these highways were reallocated for the construction of the Metro system.

The cancellations of the North Leg, North Central, and Northeast freeways dead-ended I-95 at the north end of the Center Leg Freeway, prompting District officials - in cooperation with Virginia and Maryland officials - to reroute I-95 around the eastern half of the Capital Beltway. In 1977, District and Virginia officials re-designated the orphaned section of I-95 as Interstate 395, a move that was approved immediately by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

REBUILDING THE FREEWAY… OR GETTING RID OF IT? As early as 1993, District officials considered dismantling the eight-lane elevated sections of the Southwest and Southeast freeways to help re-reestablish Washington's historic street grid system. The "Legacy" proposal offered by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) proposed a four-lane underground tunneled freeway from approximately 7th Street SW (where the Southwest Freeway transitions from an open-cut depressed freeway to an elevated one) to approximately 7th Street SE (just before the 11th Street Bridge approach). An arterial boulevard built to replace the elevated freeway - which was to be built in conjunction with the tunnel - was intended to reconnect communities south of the freeways.

However, these plans were pushed aside in 1998 when the DDOT began a project to rebuild the Southwest Freeway. The project was part of $400 million in work to rebuild the city's freeway system, including elevated sections of the Southeast (I-695) and Whitehurst (US 29) freeways. Nevertheless, some District officials continued to favor tearing down the Southwest Freeway even as reconstruction work neared completion in 2000.

According to the DDOT, the Southwest Freeway carries approximately 165,000 vehicles per day (AADT). A sequential exit numbering scheme was added to I-395 through the District in 2008, replacing the previously unnumbered exits.

This 2002 photo shows the northbound Southwest Freeway (I-395) at EXIT 3 (12th Street SW). The exit ramp actually is located on the bridge spanning Washington Channel. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)

SOURCES: The Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital and Its Environs, National Capital Park and Planning Commission (1950); "Highway Planners Propose New Way into Southwest," The Washington Post (9/16/1952); "Bridge-Highway Plan Sound for District, Expert Reports" by Sam Zagoria, The Washington Post (10/27/1952); "$328 Million Roads Plan Is Proposed in DC Area" by Matt McDade, The Washington Post (12/14/1952); "Potomac Span Row Keeps on Rolling" by Sam Zagoria, The Washington Post (3/28/1954); "District Ready To Design Southwest Freeway" by Grace Bassett, The Washington Post (5/16/1954); "DC Seeks Federal Aid on Freeway," The Washington Post (2/25/1955); "50 MPH Traffic Loop Would 'Feed' Central DC" by Robert C. Albrook, The Washington Post (12/04/1955); Inner Loop Freeway System, De Leuw, Cather and Company (1955); "First Expressway Link To Start in Two Years," The Washington Post (8/11/1956); "Southwest Freeway Contract Near," The Washington Post (12/13/1957); "Southwest Freeway To Be Open Year Sooner," The Washington Post (9/16/1960); "Bridge, Expressway Will Open July 31," The Washington Post (7/22/1962); "DC Highway Officials Set To Open New Section of Southwest Freeway," The Washington Post (8/22/1963); "DC Roads Take Turn for the Better; $400 Million in Work Getting Done in City" by Alice Reid, The Washington Post (10/12/1997); "DC, USDOT Sign Agreement With Contractor To Preserve, Enhance City's Major Bridges and Roads," Federal Highway Administration (6/19/2000); "Southeast Freeway Could Go Under: New Six-Lane Boulevard, Tunnel Would Boost Area Development" by Stephen C. Fehr, The Washington Post (10/09/2000); Anacostia Waterfront Corporation; District of Columbia Department of Transportation; Scott Kozel; Scott Oglesby; Alexander Svirsky; Douglas A. Willinger; William F. Yurasko.

  • I-395 and I-95 shields by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightpost photos by Jim K. Georges.

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  • Southwest Freeway (I-395)

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