This 2004 photo shows the Whitehurst Freeway (US 29) looking east from atop the Key Bridge. (Photo by Laura Siggia Anderson.)
THE K STREET SKYWAY: Planning began in 1942 for the "K Street Skyway," a four-lane elevated highway stretching approximately nine blocks from 27th Street NW and the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway west to M Street and the Key Bridge. The skyway above K Street, which connects downtown with Canal Road and the Key Bridge, was designed to bypass M Street, the main thoroughfare through Georgetown. At the time, M Street was a cobblestone street through an industrial waterfront neighborhood, not the upscale shopping destination that it is today.
H.C. Whitehurst, who was director of the District Highway Department, conceived the skyway that eventually bore his name. He designed the K Street Skyway as the first piece of a long-range, district-wide plan to build freeways through Washington and its neighboring suburbs. Whitehurst, who was an early booster of the Interstate highway system as chairman of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), died while the freeway was under construction. The Whitehurst Freeway was named for the former highway chief after his death.
The District awarded the construction contract to Archibald Alexander, a pioneering black engineer who worked his way up at Marsh Engineering on projects such as the Tidal Basin Bridge and seawall during the 1910's and 1920's. Alexander eventually founded his own firm specializing in bridge design and construction, which carried out the contract.
ALONG THE POTOMAC, WASHINGTON'S FIRST FREEWAY GOES UP: The Whitehurst Freeway was built to what were contemporary standards in the 1940's, but far short of Interstate standards. The four-lane freeway was built without shoulders and had a design speed of only 30 MPH. Exit ramps also were of substandard design. Because the freeway was to be built directly above K Street, very little demolition work was necessary. However, there was one notable exception - the home of Francis Scott Key, the author of the poem that became the Star-Spangled Banner - that was torn down for the western terminus of the freeway.
At the western terminus, a ramp was built to connect the northbound Key Bridge to the eastbound freeway, providing direct access for northbound US 29 traffic. The original design of the freeway also had a loop ramp connecting westbound freeway traffic directly onto the bridge. All other traffic from the freeway emptied out at the "T"-interchange on M Street.
At the eastern terminus, a modified cloverleaf interchange was built to connect the freeway to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway and to 27th Street. (The freeway was to continue east along K Street as a depressed highway toward Florida Avenue; only an tunnel at Washington Circle / 23rd Street was built under this plan.)
Work began on July 7, 1947 on the construction of the freeway. During the summer and fall of 1947, workers laid the foundations for the steel supports that were the lift the freeway above K Street. However, sporadic steel shortages - the result of postwar demands on the construction industry - resulted in delays in building the steel viaduct. Nevertheless, much of the steelwork on the viaduct was completed by the fall of 1948 except at the eastern and western termini where work still was in its early stages.
The $3.3 million Whitehurst Freeway was opened to traffic on October 8, 1949, nearly one year behind schedule. During its first year of operation, the freeway carried approximately 30,000 vehicles per day (AADT).
This 1948 map from the September 19, 1948 edition of The Washington Post shows the route of the Whitehurst Freeway (US 29) then under construction along with the proposed easterly extension along K Street to Florida Avenue.
ONCE CONSIDERED AS AN INTERSTATE: Planning for a northwest extension of the Whitehurst Freeway into Maryland began in 1950, one year after the original stretch of freeway opened. In 1956, the Whitehurst Freeway was added to the Interstate highway system, making it eligible for 90 percent Federal funding for improvements. On the drawing board for the Whitehurst Freeway was an expansion to six or eight lanes along the existing right-of-way. A 1957 planning study by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) called for an eight-lane Potomac River Freeway from the Inner Loop (today's interchange between the Whitehurst Freeway, I-66, and K Street) northwest to the Capital Beltway (I-495). Upon completion, the Whitehurst Freeway was to be re-christened as the Potomac River Freeway.
The Potomac River Freeway corridor was one of two corridors considered for the extension of I-70S (today's I-270) into the District of Columbia; the other corridor, which was to be called the Northwest Freeway, was to be routed roughly along Wisconsin Avenue. Strident opposition in Northwest Washington to the proposed I-70S prompted Congress to impose a five-year moratorium on building new freeways west of 12th Street. Eventually, the Northwest routes for I-70S - and later the I-70S North Central extension altogether - were dropped.
In 1961, the NCPC considered the Whitehurst-Potomac River Freeway as a connector between downtown Washington and a new Potomac River crossing. The NCPC studied three alternatives, including a new bridge south of the existing Key Bridge and a site near Georgetown Reservoir, but decided upon a site between Glvoer-Archbold Park on the District side and the Spout Run Parkway on the Virginia side - over the Three Sisters Islands, a series of rock formations in the middle of the Potomac River - for the new crossing. The proposed $28.5 million bridge-and-highway combination was planned as a truck route to Virginia, as trucks were prohibited from the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge (I-66) then under construction (at the urging of the NCPC and the National Park Service).
The I-266 designation for this plan first appeared in a 1964 study for the proposed Potomac River Freeway and the Three Sisters Bridge. Under the I-266 proposal, the existing Whitehurst Freeway was to serve as the four-lane outbound roadway for the new Potomac River Freeway. A new parallel four-lane elevated roadway was to be built south of the existing freeway to carry inbound traffic. West of the existing end of the Whitehurst Freeway, the eight-lane I-266 was to be extended west on new alignment between the C&O Canal and the Potomac River. An interchange was to be built for the proposed Glover-Archbold Parkway (which was to be built through the eponymously named park) and Palisades Parkway (which was to continue along the Potomac shoreline into Maryland to I-495). At this point, I-266 was to cross the Potomac and the Three Sisters islands into the Virginia, where it was to be built over the Spout Run Parkway en route to the proposed I-66 in Arlington.
By the end of 1964, workers completed a six-block-long viaduct south at the eastern end of the Whitehurst Freeway that was to become part of the new Potomac River Freeway. The viaduct, which was to carry four additional lanes of traffic, also had ramps to I-66 and the North Leg of the Inner Loop (which never was built). Further west, the District government condemned two historic warehouses along the right-of-way for the expanded freeway. However, I-266 appeared to be an on-again, off-again project through much of the 1960's as its funding remained uncertain.
Congress ordered work to begin on I-266 under the provisions of the 1968 Federal Highway Act, and cofferdam work began on the Three Sisters Bridge during the fall of 1969. However, a 1970 court injunction halted all work on the bridge. As the bridge's future was being debated, the devastating floods of Hurricane Agnes on June 22, 1972 swept away the preliminary construction work. Although the House of Representatives passed legislation prohibiting court intervention in the construction of the bridge, the provision did not survive in the Senate.
The death of I-266 appeared final in May 1977 when the District received permission to transfer $392 million of interstate highway funds to the Metrorail network and other street improvements. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) formally removed I-266 from its route log in 1978.
This 2002 photo shows the Whitehurst Freeway (US 29) looking west at 34th Street, NW. Note how the ramp from the Key Bridge is architecturally consistent with the main span. (Photo by NARPAC, Inc.)
AT LONG LAST, REHABILITATION: By the early 1980's, the Whitehurst Freeway had shown signs of age and neglect. Throughout the 1960's and early 1970's, it appeared that rehabilitation of the Whitehurst would come with an expanded Potomac River Freeway. Although I-266 had been killed off, funding to repair the Whitehurst was hard to come by. Some planners and officials began to consider replacing the elevated freeway with an expanded six-lane K Street boulevard - as was being done for New York's West Side Highway - under the premise that an at-grade urban arterial would reconnect Georgetown to the Potomac shoreline.
Other planners suggested tearing down the existing elevated roadway and tunneling underneath K Street for a new Whitehurst Freeway. The idea for a Whitehurst tunnel was not a new idea: the Georgetown Planning Council first suggested it in 1965 as a four-tube, eight-lane tunnel underneath the Potomac shoreline, and Federal highway officials considered it in 1968 as part of a Three Sisters Tunnel alternative. However, District officials shelved the tunnel proposal because of its prohibitive cost, which was estimated at $400 million by the early 1980's.
In 1984, District officials presented the following alternatives for the Whitehurst Freeway:
RE-DECKING: This alternative consisted of repaving and re-decking the existing freeway. Estimated cost: $31.3 million.
REHABILITATION: In addition to the re-decking alternative, the existing roadway was to be widened to provide shoulders, and other safety upgrades were to be made. At the freeway's western end, a tunnel was to be built to carry the westbound lanes of the freeway onto Canal Road, eliminating the bottleneck caused by the Canal Road (M Street) traffic light. In addition, the loop ramp connecting directly from the westbound freeway to the Key Bridge was to be eliminated; this movement was to be done via M Street (a park was to be built in place of the ramp). At the freeway's eastern end, the unused remnant section of the Potomac River Freeway and ramps connecting to the unbuilt Inner Loop (I-66) were to be torn down. Estimated cost: $99.4 million.
NEW ELEVATED FREEWAY: In this alternative, the existing freeway was to be torn down and replaced with a lower-profile roadway. The new elevated roadway was to be 15 feet lower (the existing roadway was about 50 feet above K Street) and 16 feet wider than the existing roadway. There was to be a grade-separated interchange at Canal Road (M Street) to replace the existing traffic light. Estimated cost: $113.9 million.
URBAN BOULEVARD: In this alternative, the existing freeway was to be torn down and replaced with a six-lane urban boulevard. Traffic signals were to be located at Wisconsin Avenue, 31 Street, and 30 Street. Estimated cost: $96.6 million.
After several public hearings, the District decided upon the "rehabilitation" alternative, but the National Parks Service objected to the connecting tunnel to Canal Road. This lowered the cost estimate to $60 million.
Strapped for cash, the District government stalled on the Whitehurst project through the rest of the 1980's. The only work done on the project was a $4 million removal of the Potomac River Freeway remnant, which was paid for by the developer of the National Harbour luxury residential and commercial complex. This work was done over a period of several weeks during the summer of 1985.
Work finally began on rehabilitating the Whitehurst Freeway in November 1990. In addition to repaving and re-decking the roadway, workers rebuilt the eastbound approach from the Key Bridge. They also repainted the bridge in a more aesthetically pleasing shade and installed new "classical" lighting. The project was delayed by material shortages, falling concrete from deteriorating sections (including a large chunk that crushed a parked car), an unstable support that engineers had to shore up, and an archeological dig at the interchange with I-66 and the Rock Creek Parkway. Eight years, $100 million, and countless traffic delays later, the project was completed in August 1998.
This 2004 photo shows the Whitehurst Freeway (US 29) heading west toward the Key Bridge. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
WHITEHURST REMOVAL GAINS TRACTION: Responding to consistent pressure from a small - but vocal - contingent of Georgetown residents and businesses, the District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT) unveiled plans to tear down the Whitehurst Freeway in March 2005. District officials offered 17 different alternatives, six of which involved keeping the existing freeway in place.
Once again, demolition proponents blame the Whitehurst as an impediment to connecting Georgetown with the waterfront, particularly as construction on the long-delayed Georgetown Waterfront Park began in June 2006. Those opposed to demolition cite studies that the approximately 50,000 vehicles using the Whitehurst each day would clog already overburdened K and M streets in the absence of a freeway. They also cite possible delays in emergency response time if the freeway were to be dismantled.
The DDOT, which held several public hearings in 2005 and 2006, has yet to come to a decision on the future of the Whitehurst Freeway.
SAVE THE WHITEHURST: The Whitehurst Freeway should be preserved as an invaluable transportation asset. To increase the freeway's usefulness, new ramps should be built to connect the eastbound lanes of the freeway to the northbound and southbound Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, as shown in "Alternative 4" of DDOT's 2005 Whitehurst Freeway study.
SOURCES: "Revised Road Program for DC Approved," The Washington Post (1/25/1942); "$3,300,000 Whitehurst Freeway Work 70 Percent Complete," The Washington Post (9/19/1948); "Whitehurst Freeway Traffic Plans Released," The Washington Post (10/07/1949); "Road, Bridge Work Gets $65 Million" by John J. Lindsay, The Washington Post (8/10/1958); "New Bridge Slated for Early Start" by Willard Clopton, The Washington Post (8/06/1961); "Opening of Third Ramp, Due in Month, Should Simplify Whitehurst Detours," The Washington Post (11/02/1964); "Location Studies, Interstate Route 266," National Capital Planning Commission (1964); "Interstate 266 Route Is Fixed, Now for a Potomac Bridge" by George Lardner, Jr., The Washington Post (3/26/1965); "A Return to Historic Georgetown," The Washington Post (10/14/1965); "New City Road Map Would Scrap Freeway Link, Tunnel Potomac" by Jack Eisen, The Washington Post (11/05/1968); "House Clears Path To Build Three Sisters" by Stephen Green, The Washington Post (10/06/1972); "DC Razes Two Historic Buildings" by Timothy S. Robinson, The Washington Post (3/01/1973); "I-66 Corridor Transportation Alternatives Study: Draft Environmental/Section 4(f) Statement," U.S. Department of Transportation (1973); "Three Sisters Highway Project Is Killed Again" by Douglas B. Feaver, The Washington Post (5/13/1977); "Whitehurst Freeway: Replace, Repair, Remove?" by Stephen J. Lynton, The Washington Post (3/14/1984); "Remnant of Interstate Going Away" by Barbara Gamarekian, The New York Times (7/28/1985); "Whitehurst's Makeover Nears Reality" by Stephen C. Fehr, The Washington Post (3/09/1989); "Panel Approves DC Plan To Fix Whitehurst Freeway" by Stephen C. Fehr, The Washington Post (1/05/1990); "Whitehurst Switch a Shocker to Many" by Stephen C. Fehr, The Washington Post (12/11/1990); "Boulevard Backers Back" by Stephen C. Fehr, The Washington Post (9/09/1991); "DC Road Work Is Detoured by Red Tape" by Alice Reid, The Washington Post (3/19/1996); "Two DC Road Repairs Mean Slow Traffic," The Washington Post (7/28/1996); "Treasures of the Whitehurst Freeway: Archaeologists Find Historical Trove in Excavation for Exit Ramp on Rock Creek" by Linda Wheeler, The Washington Post (2/14/1997); "Concern About Support Closes Whitehurst Freeway" by Alice Reid, The Washington Post (4/19/1997); "The Final Touches on the Whitehurst Freeway," The Washington Post (8/20/1988); "As Depression Deepens, ARTBA Defends Road Program, User Taxes" by Tom Kuennen, Expressways Online (April 2001); "Whitehurst Freeway Eyed for Demolition," The Associated Press (5/02/2005); "District Trying To Topple the Whitehurst" by Steven Ginsberg, The Washington Post (5/08/2005); "Whitehurst Freeway Deconstruction Feasibility Study," District of Columbia Department of Transportation (2005); NARPAC, Inc.; National Society of Black Engineers; Mike Hale; Scott Kozel.
US 29, I-70S, and I-266 shields by Scott Colbert. Lightpost photos by Jim K. Georges.