The Lost Highways of D.C.

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(Jonathan Wilson - WAMU, Washington, D.C.) Residents in the D.C. area may have heard about the long-discussed “Outer Beltway,” but many don’t know about the smaller loops once proposed for the heart of Washington during the 1950's and 60's.

“The inner loop of this three-loop plan, would have been around the central core of the city, and actually about a half a mile north and south of the White House,” Cultural Tourism DC Historian Jane Freundell Levey says.

The southern part of the loop would have approached the Mall, and the northern end may have cut a path somewhere near Dupont Circle.

So what stopped the highways plans from becoming a reality? Freundell Levey says the mix of neighborhoods that would have been disproportionately affected by the highways – from predominately African-American areas around 3rd St NW, and others in SW D.C., to more affluent, whiter neighborhoods in Cleveland Park and Georgetown – created a powerful coalition that was able to push back against the business interests in favor of the plan.

“This being Washington, D.C., we had so many marvelous lawyers here who got involved, and then we had activists. We had people who took to the streets, and picketed, and disrupted city council meetings and brought an incredible amount of attention to the injustices that they saw in the plans for the routes of these highways.”

After a fight that lasted decades, D.C. and the federal government eventually decided to pour more resources into rapid transit – and the Metro system.  But Freundell Levey says the story isn’t as simple as highways versus mass transit.

“Planners wanted both rapid transit and highways,” she says.  “[President] Lyndon Johnson, who was very powerful, ended up releasing funds from the money for the highways and diverting them to the Metro.”

There are still remnants of D.C.’s lost highway plan. Freundell Levey says they are most clear near the 3rd St. Tunnel, where the government began buying up land in preparation for a highway extension, and near the Kennedy Center, which is still separated from much of the city by four lanes of freeway traffic. I-295, also known as the Southwest Freeway, and I-495, the Capitol Beltway, stand as two parts of the plan that were actually completed.

“When you come downtown and you see a big parking lot, that’s a signal for you to think, ‘Well, what happened here?’”

For more on highway proposals that were -- and weren't -- check out our documentary "Back of the Bus: Mass Transit, Race, and Inequality."