The District Department of Transportation is now sending an e-mail response (pdf) to anyone who has urged Mayor Gray to halt the reopening of the Southeast Freeway segment between Barney Circle. While I appreciate DDOT acknowledging concerns of Hill East residents, it does not alleviate my concerns about the agency’s plans.
Here is my response to the response, section by section:
We at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) have received your concerns about reopening the connection between the Southeast/Southwest Freeway (I-695) between 11th Street SE and Barney Circle.
This is an important connection for District residents east of the Anacostia River, primarily in Ward 7. Reopening this roadway segment will reestablish traffic movements (for example, eastbound I-695 to eastbound Pennsylvania Avenue SE toward Ward 7; westbound Pennsylvania Avenue SE to westbound I-695). However, the restricted lanes under Barney Circle to access Capitol Hill neighborhoods will remain closed.
Thanks to a productive conversation last weekend, I certainly have a better understanding of the traffic issues and concerns raised by Ward 7 residents. A major issue is the poor design and layout of freeway ramps at I-295 and Pennsylvania Ave, where merging traffic leads to numerous accidents. But reopening the freeway connection will encourage more vehicles to exit I-295 off of these ramps and will likely lead to more congestion on the Sousa Bridge, making it more difficult for Ward 7 drivers to even access the new connection.
Additionally, DDOT does not need to rebuild a freeway to “reestablish traffic movements between I-695 and Pennsylvania Ave SE.” Traffic movements can also be reestablished by building a boulevard or more neighborhood-friendly connection. That is the purpose of the Barney Circle-Southeast Boulevard project and why DDOT should be putting taxpayer dollars toward the final project recommendations.
This reopening is expected to have positive effects for residents of Capitol Hill and surrounding neighborhoods. It will reduce traffic on streets such as Potomac Avenue and I Street SE, which have been used by residents to access Pennsylvania Avenue SE from east of the Anacostia River. As part of the 11th Street Bridges Environmental Impact Statement, it is also necessary to open these to meet projected traffic levels within the project area.
The reopened freeway is not going to significantly reduce traffic on Potomac Ave and I Street. As long as 17th Street remains a two lane one way thoroughfare through the neighborhood, commuters are going to continue to use 17th, Potomac and I as a shortcut route when I-295 is backed up at East Capitol Street. Implementing the long-delayed 17th Street safety improvements (narrowing the street to one lane, adding curb extensions and a bike lane, etc.) will do more to help traffic on Potomac Ave and I Street than reopening the freeway.
Also, when the new freeway connection inevitably backs up as drivers continue to try to get around backups on I-295, vehicles are going to continue down Pennsylvania and take Potomac Ave and I Street once again, merging with all the traffic originating on 17th Street.
And while DDOT does plan to prevent vehicles from accessing the freeway from 17th Street, it does not change the fact that the agency is re-establishing a barrier between the neighborhood and waterfront. If you build a freeway connection, it is going to attract more high-speed traffic into the neighborhood and along the waterfront. This cost significantly outweighs any (if any) “positive effects” of reopening the freeway.
Finally, DDOT fails to address two major risks associated with reopening the freeway connection:
- The use (waste?) of around $6 million of 11th Street Bridges funding to rebuild the “temporary” freeway, money that could be used to fund the construction of the permanent boulevard and circle, and
- As David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington points out, the significant risk that the temporary reopening becomes a permanent reopening (for a Hill East example of this phenomenon, see DC General Temporary Emergency Family Shelter).
The city has a great opportunity to connect the neighborhood to the Anacostia waterfront and correct a mistake of the past. Let’s not waste it. If you haven’t already done so, please contact Mayor Gray and urge him to halt the reopening of the Southeast Freeway.