My house is about 3,000 feet from the DC Beltway, and the white noise of Beltway traffic is ever present, even in the middle of the night. The Beltway was already in place when I moved to the DC area in 1978, so I was curious about its history. Fortunately, Wikipedia came to the rescue.
Interstate 495 (abbreviated I-495) is a 64-mile (103 km) Interstate Highway that surrounds the United States’ capital of Washington, D.C., and its inner suburbs in adjacent Maryland and Virginia. I-495 is widely known as the Capital Beltway or simply the Beltway, especially when the context of Washington, D.C., is clear. It is the basis of the phrase “Inside the Beltway”, used when referring to issues dealing with American government and politics. Interstate 95 utilizes the southern and eastern half of the Capital Beltway to circumnavigate Washington, D.C., and is cosigned with I-495 along that route.
This circumferential roadway is located not only in the states of Virginia and Maryland, but also crosses briefly through the District of Columbia, near the western end of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River. The Beltway passes through Prince George’s County and Montgomery County in Maryland, and Fairfax County and the independent city of Alexandria in Virginia.
The federal government gave final approval for the construction of the Capital Beltway (also known as the Circumferential Highway in the planning stages) on September 28, 1955. The first section of the 64-mile (103 km) long Beltway (including the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River) was opened on December 21, 1961; the highway was completed on August 17, 1964.
Originally designated I-495, in 1977 the eastern portion of the Beltway was re-designated I-95 when a proposed alignment of I-95 from New York Avenue in Washington, D.C., through Prince George’s County, Maryland to I-495 was canceled. Motorists never fully adjusted to the two halves of the Beltway having different numbers. According to Ron Shaffer of the Washington Post, “There were signs stating that to continue on the Beltway, you had to get off at the next exit, when all you really had to do was keep going straight. Lots of resistance from bureaucrats, but eventually we got dual I-95/I-495 signs on the eastern half of the Beltway.” So, in 1989, the I-495 designation was restored to the eastern portion, making it a dual I-95/I-495.
Traveling clockwise, the Beltway is designated as the “Inner Loop”; traveling counter-clockwise, it is designated as the “Outer Loop”. This parlance too has led to its own confusion, with unfamiliar motorists imagining two separate, distinct highway alignments, one some distance inside the other. At entrance ramps to the Beltway and on the on-highway signage, “Inner Loop” and “Outer Loop” shields are posted in conjunction with the route marker shields, although the terms are not emphasized in signage.
The Beltway was originally envisioned as primarily a bypass for long-distance eastern seaboard traffic to avoid driving directly through Washington. However, the explosive growth both of housing and business in the Washington suburbs following the Beltway’s completion quickly made the Beltway the area’s “main street” for local traffic as well. Numerous large shopping malls, community colleges, sports and concert stadiums, and corporate employment centers were purposely built adjacent to the Beltway, and these added greatly to the traffic, as has the passenger growth of regional airports accessed by the Beltway. The formerly more affordable price of housing in Southern Maryland versus northern Virginia, also led tens of thousands of commuters to live in Southern Maryland and commute on the Beltway to Virginia. The newer Fairfax County Parkway in the 1990s helped ease some traffic on the Virginia beltway; however, various proposals to build another complete outer beltway in the outer suburbs cannot get off the ground, since local governments in Maryland object to building additional Potomac River crossings as well as destroying protected “open space” and creating sprawl.
Despite numerous widening projects during its history, heavy traffic on the Beltway is a continuing problem. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge – where eight lanes were squeezed into six – was particularly onerous, with miles-long backups daily during commuter rush hours and on heavily traveled weekends. Relief for this bottleneck came on May 30, 2008, when the 12-lane replacement bridge opened to traffic in both directions (the six-lane span carrying Outer Loop traffic had opened in June 2006). Two of the lanes on the Wilson are being held in reserve for future use as bus rapid transit or rail transit.
Two intersections on the Capital Beltway are ranked in the top 20 on a study of the “worst bottlenecks in the nation.” They are the I-495 at I-270 interchange in Montgomery County, Maryland, ranked third overall, which receives 760,425 cars daily, and the I-495 at I-95 interchange in Prince George’s County, Maryland, ranked 11th, with 340,125 cars. The Springfield Interchange, where I-395, I-95, and I-495 meet, was previously ranked fifth worst in the nation, but recent improvements have taken it off the top 20. Local commuters refer to the Springfield Interchange as “The Mixing Bowl,” although this designation is reserved by highway officials for the even more complicated interchange complex adjacent to The Pentagon on the original Henry G. Shirley Memorial Highway (currently better-known as Interstate 395) at State Route 27 in Arlington.
In April 2005, the Virginia Department of Transportation signed an agreement with two private companies to build high-occupancy toll lanes on the stretch of the Beltway between Springfield and Georgetown Pike. Construction began in 2008. Maryland officials are considering such lanes on their segment of the Beltway, as well as other major commuter highways in the state. Locals who disapprove of these projects have nicknamed them “Lexus Lanes” because of the potential high price for using the lanes in exchange for bypassing congestion. These new lanes are one stage of a controversial project to widen the beltway, with the second stage involving widening the beltway to 12 lanes; opponents have called for various alternatives to this project (as well as the controversial Intercounty Connector project) which would divert many vehicles off the northern beltway. The proposed Purple Line of the Washington Metro subway system is just one example.