- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

There aren’t many ways to get across Washington without traffic snarls or successive red lights. One of them is the Whitehurst Freeway. But maybe not for long. The District is considering tearing down the Whitehurst to spur waterfront development. The D.C. Department of Transportation is holding public meetings in Northwest over the next month to discuss its plans, which are still in a formative phase.

Trends nationwide certainly seem to favor removing roads like the Whitehurst. Freeway-removal projects in Boston, San Francisco and Portland have been credited with helping redevelop waterfront areas and beautify city environs, and that’s not lost on D.C. planners. A D.C. Department of Transportation report released in March is heavy on the economic benefits of such projects and light on the potential drawbacks, noting that such projects “supported increased property values and new or infill development.”

Whitehurst deconstruction could get hung up — rightly, in our view — if city planners cannot show a workable plan to handle the traffic consequences. Washington’s problem is disproportionately bad: We are the country’s 21st-largest city, but we ranked third in congestion in a 2003 traffic study by the Texas Transportation Institute. Only Los Angeles and San Francisco were worse. It’s hard to see how the removal of a major cross-town thruway could help, especially given the Whitehurst’s proximity to the chaos of M Street.

The city may be making gentrification and new tax dollars the priority over the city’s interest in keeping traffic flowing. Rich property owners stand to gain immensely. Removing the Whitehurst would open Potomac River views and free Canal Street of its Gothamesque ambience. City planners are salivating at the prospect of new tax revenues.

The Department of Transportation’s plans are too sketchy to determine how traffic would be affected. But absent a massive and expensive redevelopment effort — new tunnels, say — it’s hard to envision how traffic flow could be improved or even kept at the present unsatisfactory level. The most recent precedent, Boston’s exorbitant Big Dig, isn’t encouraging. At $14.6 billion, it cost more than a trip to Mars or two Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

We’re not necessarily opposed to destroying the Whitehurst if a believable scheme emerges that doesn’t measurably worsen the city’s traffic problem. But in a city as traffic-plagued as Washington, the plan would have to be an ingenious one. The District must demonstrate that its schemes are more than crafty handiwork by developers and landowners who stand to get richer at the expense of everyone else.

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