1968 War Over D.C. Interstate Highways

As you all know, D.C. is one of the only cities (if not the lone city) without an interstate highway cutting through the heart of it. I-395 makes its way all the way to New York Ave. and I-295 slices through the east part of D.C., but nothing cuts through the core of the District.

Back in the heyday of highway building, a number of folks were arguing for more highways through our city, including 95/395 going all the way through, and 66 and 70 uniting between Georgetown and the Palisades. Things sure would be different had these plans come to fruition.

Check out the map below from The Washington Post on January 23rd, 1968.

Proposed 1968 highways
Proposed 1968 highways

Below are excerpts from the article.

The District’s 20-year war over interstate freeways appears to be entering ints most decisive stage.

Ten miles of the 29-mile system proposed in 1947 are open to traffic. The 19 miles the Highway Department wants to build before 1973, the target completion date for the national system would cost about a half-billion dollars, of which 90 per cent would be provided by the Federal Government.

One of the main complaints of the system’s opponents is that the 19 miles would displace 1359 families and several hundred businesses.

Actually, the rapid rail system of Washington has been the principal hostage of this freeway war. In 1966, members of the House threatened to kill the proposed subway unless freeways go the go-ahead.

They got it, and the subway system is still alive. But so is the threat of retaliation against the rapid rail forces if the House District Committee decides the freeway system is being slowed.

The article goes on for a while about arguments over who has the authority to kill the projects, but it gets interesting again when talk resumes about a proposed crosstown link under K Street.

As now planned, the link would be a tunnel, beneath K Street, beginning at 26th Street nw., surfacing near Mount Vernon Square (9th Street nw.) and connecting with the Center Leg of the Inner Loop, near the Capitol.

This tunnel was proposed in the Policy Advisory Committee’s sweeping agreement that cleared the freeway program in 1966.

Evidently, there was also a proposed “North Leg” route which cut up Florida Ave. and then east between S and T Streets, which would have displaced 10,000 people, a number of businesses, in addition to the Cosmos Club. Another proposal in the article mentions a four-lane freeway through Glover-Archibold Park. Ugh, thankfully none of these happened. How awful would that have been?!

proposed highway costs
proposed highway costs

Thankfully, a large number of these city-destroying proposals didn’t happen.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • Anonymous

    This protest poster gives a more detailed image of the proposed route through Shaw, and what else would have been lost.

    The story of Home Rule is deeply connected to this protest.

    http://cdn1.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/2314790/Screen_Shot_2014-09-30_at_5.53.24_PM.0.png

  • Froggie

    FYI, since you mention both in the article, the tunnel under K Street was a later rendition/revision of the original “North Loop” proposal. They were not both proposed at the same time.

    The MLK Library has a copy of the 1971 study by DeLeuw, Cather Associates, which highlights the last, systemwide proposal before the mass freeway cancellations began.

  • douglasawillinger

    That poster has the 1955 plan for cross-town I-66, opponents of which as USNCPC’s Elizabeth Rowe promoted the replacement plan for a crosstown I66 via a tunnel beneath K Street:

    http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2007/03/i-66-north-leg-west-k-street-tunnel.html

    Alas the K Street Tunnel was stopped during the 1970s under arguments that the impending obsolescence of private automobiles due to the world running out pf petroleum by the 1990s never mind alcohol fuels nor electric propulsion:

    http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2007/02/doctrinaire-anti-new-highways-position.html

    A more comprehensive overview of the systematic cancellations here:

    http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2014/09/getting-over.html

  • Sheila

    I know one thing for sure, NO ONE wanted the highway. My father was driving me to work (telephone Company) at the time, and he worked at the Washington Post, and he had a fit over this issue. My father was the most calm and collected man I have ever known, but he sure could be “set on fire” when it came to that highway. Every neighbor, friend, or human being, hated the idea. I don’t care where you came from, it was a “Hands Down” no go, as far and the Washington, Maryland, and Virginia commuters were concerned. You could hear people talk about it in the grocery store, the Pizza stores, gas stations, and anywhere you went. That fight went on forever.
    I am SO GLAD they did not run the highway through our Capital, it would have been a disaster.

    • douglasawillinger

      Not according to a 1967 letter from a Takoma Park resident- at least with regard to the highway with the most hyped protests, the North Central Freeway alongside Catholic University of America. Rather it became highly unpopular with the planning shenanigans with the strange deviations from what the assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy had endorsed in late 1962:

      Citizens of Takoma Park and
      Silver Spring had reason for their demonstrations of bitter
      dissatisfaction with the highway authorities of your predecessor’s
      administration. After we had been given reason to believe that the
      causes of our protests had been in at least some part overcome, the
      matter now threatens to break into renewed bitterness. I am sure you
      will wish to avoid this as much as many of us.

      We
      showed that the methods of traffic projections which were claimed to
      justify the North Central were fallacious, the results in error by as
      much as 400 percent. Our contention was tacitly admitted in “re-studied”
      versions of the proposal made public last year, sharply reducing the
      original plan of 5 lanes each way.

      The
      re-studied proposal also tacitly admitted that the route first proposed
      was needlessly, even carelessly if not ruthlessly, destructive of our
      communities. The new version hugged both sides of the existing Baltimore
      and Ohio railway, thus avoiding a new swath of destruction to divide
      our communities and sharply reducing the number of homes to be taken.

      The
      reduced, re-routed proposal was made public last year with endorsement
      of D.C. And Maryland highway authorities. The D.C. Portion was forced
      through the National Capital Planning Commission by votes of
      representatives of the D.C. Highway Department and of the U.S. Bureau of
      Public Roads. From this we concluded, reasonably enough, that the
      highway authorities of the two jurisdictions (Maryland and D.C.) had
      reached a firm understanding with the Bureau of Public Roads.

      Many
      of us were therefore astonished and aroused to preparations for renewed
      protests when Washington newspapers recently reported that the Bureau
      has acted to open it all up again. We have not found the Bureau
      forthcoming with candid information, but the press articles intimate an
      intention to force Maryland to accept modifications of route or design
      ostensibly “cheaper.”

      The
      result is that the whole controversy, which had been somewhat
      quiescent, is beginning to agitate the communities again. I can assure
      you this is so, for although I recently resigned chairmanship of the
      Metropolitan Citizens Council for Rapid Transit and write this simply as
      an individual citizen who wishes your administration well, I do remain
      in close touch with neighborhood sentiment on transportation-related
      issues.
      http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2012/01/crafted-controversy-scuttling-of-jfks-b.html

  • ET

    New Orleans almost ended up with a freeway going along the river which would have meant between the river and Jackson Square. Historic preservation folks (and others) managed to stop it but there is still a freeway that goes though the city – just in a different place. And it did disupt the communities that were there – which some might have thought was the reason.

  • geMeg

    If they plowed over the Capitol and Hoise and senate office buildings…would that help?