Thursday, December 29, 2011


Yesterday's colossal crash on Rockville Pike just outside of downtown Bethesda was another painful reminder that Bethesda traffic didn't have to be this way.

In more responsible times, and in preparation for expected growth, I-70S (which we know as I-270 today) was planned to enter Washington, D.C. through Bethesda along the 355 corridor.

This 6 lane, grade-separated highway was to be called the Northwest Freeway.

Why was the Northwest Freeway cancelled?

Political and financial influence of its opponents. Nothing more.

In fact, Montgomery County's political establishment and the special interests that get them elected were so desirous of self-benefitting traffic gridlock, they never even entered a true planning phase for the road.

Now we pay the price every day in wasted time and fuel on Wisconsin Avenue.

If one day we had politicians with the sense and courage to build the Northwest Freeway, where would it go?

Tough question, but I'll try to answer it.

Herman, set the wayback machine to the days of Eisenhower and JFK.

In the good old days, I-66 was planned to run through part of Washington. But it also had an I-266 spur that would cross the Potomac on an also-planned Three Sisters Bridge directly below Georgetown University. A beautifully-designed interchange would allow access to M Street, the George Washington Parkway, the (also-cancelled Palisades Freeway, and - one of my favorite roads - the iconic, Hollywood-famous Whitehurst Freeway.

But there was one more connection: the Northwest Freeway north through Glover Archbold Park. Yes, the park is a highway facility that you have been told is a park.

Heading north, you would have the option to exit to an eastward leg taking you past the National Zoo and on to a connection with I-66 within DC. But staying on the Freeway, you'd have passed under Tenley Circle in a tunnel. Underground, you would be on the right side of Wisconsin Avenue heading northwest.

Stop right there. This entire leg can be built this way today. But when we exit the tunnel, we have a problem. The right-of-way has been redeveloped.

Today, the costly tunnel would have to extend to past Western Avenue. Then current parking areas at the Collection at Chevy Chase and Saks Fifth Avenue could be rebuilt as garages over the freeway trench. Then there are houses. The freeway would have to go over, under, or the properties would have to be acquired.

The area where the Chevy Chase Club meets 355 is clear for the road.

Then you hit the commercial area in downtown Bethesda. Like Friendship Heights, redevelopment was irresponsibly allowed where the highway was to go. The one crude map I've found of the downtown Bethesda segment is woefully out of scale.

Today, you'd have to tunnel under Bradley Lane, the church and the initial shopping centers on the east side of 355 (Trader Joe's, etc.). But you could bring the road above ground through the parking lots and Elm Street Park (it would likely be in a trench). Then tunnel under the East West Highway area.

Resurface again and acquire properties? Unlikely. The tunnel would have to extend underneath Jones Bridge Road.

Then the freeway would be above ground the rest of the way to its connection with the Beltway. This would also allow the highway ramp directly into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. For that reason alone, this segment of the Northwest Freeway would be heavily or entirely-subsidized by the federal government and the Pentagon.

Okay, wiseguy, you may be asking, how does the freeway get from Cedar Lane to I-495?

Glad you asked!

Because no map exists of this segment, I've wondered about this myself.

After studying Google Maps, I think I've figured it out.

Cross Cedar Lane to...

Elmhirst Parkway! It has all of the characteristics of a classic right-of-way placeholder. Plenty of room for six lanes, and the green space at the dead end hits - you guessed it! - the Beltway.

I've finally solved the mystery of the Northwest Freeway.

Now let me take off my Indiana Jones fedora. As you have just read, a viable but expensive Northwest Freeway is still viable today. And as Bethesda drivers know, it is desperately needed. As is political will and courage to finally get the DC area's missing freeways built.

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