DDOT needs to fix or replace the Frederick Douglass Bridge on South Capitol Street, and the Gray administration has started moving decisively forward with the project. We need some project in this area, but new renderings should raise questions about whether DDOT is building the right thing, or just continuing an existing old plan on autopilot.
The centerpiece of the project is a new bridge on South Capitol Street. The old bridge either needs replacing, or DC will have to keep shoring it up every few years. The proposed new bridge would be 1 lane wider than the existing bridge.
In addition, the plans call for moving the bridge slightly to the southwest and creating a large racetrack-shaped traffic oval on the ballpark side and a circle on the Poplar Point side. Near Anacostia Metro, where South Capitol/Suitland Parkway crosses 295, they also plan to redesign the interchange to be more compact than the cloverleaf it is today.
Is this a good idea?
These plans come from an Environmental Impact Statement that DDOT did in 2008. A lot has changed in 5 years, including evolution in our understanding of what kind of transportation network we want. It’s easier for DDOT to simply take the existing plan and implement it, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right plan for 2013.
Certainly, something needs to be done with the bridge. DC can also do much more to better connect the east and west sides of the river. However, leaders need to ask some tough questions about whether this is the best way to do it, because a few parts of the plan raise red flags.
Are the circle and racetrack a good idea?
That racetrack has a lot of traffic lanes — 5 in many places. DC’s traffic circles aren’t especially comfortable to walk or bike around. The EIS says the corners will have traffic signals, like Dupont or Logan Circles, so pedestrians will be able to cross at the crosswalks, but they will still have to cross multiple wide roads to traverse the area.
The same goes for the circle east of the river. The animation shows this as a 5-lane circle, which is far larger than DC’s other circles. To cross into the center, you’d have to traverse 2 crosswalks. Do we get any of the benefits, or just the drawbacks, from a circle where each side is as wide as many major boulevards?
Plus, what will go in the middle? These are not going to become any kind of neighborhood public space. Is the circle really that much better than the existing approach ramps on the southeast end that it’s worth a lot of money to demolish them and move the bridge?
What happened to the 295 interchange?
Fixing the interchange with 295 could create a more walkable place, but DDOT seems to have backed off the initial designs for an urban diamond and created something that’s still more focused on moving cars quickly than walkability.
Sidewalks run along off-ramps and then cross at what engineers have presumably determined is the safest place, but if there’s no intersection with a light, it’s not really that safe. It’s the same problem we have at the Pennsylvania Avenue cloverleaf with 295. DDOT spokesman John Lisle promised to get back to me with more information about this interchange. Can we really not fix the bridge? At $660 million, this is a really expensive project. It’s even more expensive if DDOT has to replace the swing span, which they’re asking the Coast Guard and Navy to let them leave out of the new bridge. The whole project could top $900 million if you include other plans in the EIS to change the intersection of M and South Capitol Streets. The Gray administration says it will be cheaper in the long run to replace the bridge as opposed to fixing it. The press release also says that if they keep the old bridge, trucks might have to divert off South Capitol because of safety concerns. That last part doesn’t seem like a big deal, as we just built a new 11th Street highway bridge, but we certainly don’t want bridges falling down. DDOT says it would cost $120-150 million to fix the existing bridge. That kind of figure has some appeal to many in the Council who have to make tough budget choices among many projects. Is this really better for people east of the river? The DDOT press release quoted Mayor Gray as saying:
By better connecting both sides of the river, the new crossing will be the single largest physical embodiment of my “One City” governing philosophy of bringing the District together across geographic, income and ethnic boundaries. This graceful new bridge will be a welcoming gateway to the center of Washington, while also serving as an anchor for the revival of the Anacostia waterfront.
Speeding up traffic across the river could help some residents who drive that way in the short run, but may also ultimately attract drivers between Maryland and Virginia, or traversing the region longer distances, to use this as a cut-through, or encourage Prince George’s County commuters to drive instead of parking and riding Metro. In poor neighborhoods already struggling with public health and cut off from the river by a large freeway, more through traffic could be just the environmental injustice they don’t need. It’s important to ensure the South Capitol Street bridge is structurally sound. We also should improve connections across the river. But just because there’s a 5-year-old plan doesn’t mean we have a project worth spending hundreds of millions even beyond the cost of the bridge itself. DC leaders need to ask a lot more tough questions before rubber-stamping this plan.