The Beltway: D.C.'S Busy `Main Street' Turns A Congested 30

WASHINGTON - Local residents may curse the congestion and complain about never-ending construction, but for the past 30 years that has hardly kept them from using the Capital Beltway to get around the Washington area.

Lon Anderson, director of government and public relations for the American Automobile Association-Potomac, remembers being one of the first to drive on the new road as a child.

After the pavement was put down, he took his gas-powered go-cart out on the open - and empty - road, joining other Silver Spring, Md., residents who used the unfinished Beltway as their community recreation area.

When it was completed on Aug. 17, 1964, the cars took over. Today 600,000 vehicles log 8 million miles daily on the roadway, according to the AAA.

"It has become Washington's main street," Anderson said.

The AAA-Potomac, Greater Washington Board of Trade and the American Trucking Associations marked the roadway's 30th anniversary with a celebration at the National Press Club last month.

Built at a cost of $189 million, the 66-mile circular highway was intended to help interstate travelers bypass Washington. But it was not designed as the major commuter thoroughfare it has become. Ninety percent of Beltway traffic is local.

Beltway construction sparked the growth of the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs, leading to a dramatic increase in commuting among the bedroom communities as well as into the city itself.

According to the Census Bureau, the population of the Washington area has more than doubled since 1960, even as the population of the city itself has marked a consistent decline.

This suburban shift has resulted in increased congestion on the Beltway, which carries twice the amount of traffic intended by the original design.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, Washington commuters have the second-longest daily trip to work, trailing only those in New York City.

However, area residents do appear to be moving in the right direction, leading the country in their use of high-occupancy vehicles.