Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Beltway

Planning on visiting or moving to our Nation's Capital? Then be sure to visit our most traveled tourist attraction, the Beltway, formally known as

THE %$@#$%%!@*&%@ * BELTWAY

Yes, the Beltway: 60 miles of "freeway" which proves that Washington politicians, engineers and drivers can cause problems like no other.

The Beltway. Slower than a snail on downers, cause of more delays than a plumber's appointment, able to stop speeding truck convoys at a single bridge; and who, disguised as a mild-mannered roadway around a great Metropolitan area, fights a never-ending battle for delay, overheated radiators, and the American (OK, Japanese) vehicle industry.

The Washington Beltway: Actually, almost all of it is in Virginia and Maryland. The only part of the Beltway actually inside the District of Columbia is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge (see Bottlenecks). The official designation of the Beltway was once I-95 on the east side of DC, and I-495 on the west. This confused some people, so now the I-495 designation applies to the entire road, but the east side is also I-95. This helps enormously when giving directions.


Terms used to described parts of the Beltway and surrounding roads:

  • Outer Loop: The part of the Beltway on the "Outside". Traffic on the outer loop moves in a counterclockwise direction around Washington, except, of course, for the occasional British driver.
  • Inner Loop: Obviously, the inner part of the Beltway. Traffic on the inner loop moves clockwise about DC, when it moves.
  • Maryland: The part of the Beltway in Maryland.
  • Virginia: The part of the Beltway in Virginia. (Duh)
  • Stuck: Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the American Legion Bridge at Cabin John, also Shirley Highway.
  • I-95. The intersection of the Beltway and I-95 in Maryland.
  • The Shirley Highway. I-95 in Virginia, which leads to I-395 into Washington, which would have been I-95 if they'd ever completed the road.
  • The World's Largest Parking Lot: The Shirley Highway
  • The Mixing Bowl: The intersection of I-95, I-395 and I-495 in Virginia. Now under reconstruction.
  • The Baltimore-Washington Parkway: Alternate route between the DC Beltway and the Baltimore Beltway. No trucks allowed on the south part of the road. This does not mean that no trucks are ever on this part of the road. Best feature of the Parkway: It terminates at Camden Yards in Baltimore. [Note: This road and its extensions are collectively known as I-295, DC-295, and Maryland-295. However, following the signs for I-295 north from the Beltway will land you in the parking lot of RFK Stadium, soon to be home of the Washington Nationals. Once on I-295 north, but before you get to RFK, look for signs which say "To I-95" (not "To Maryland-295", silly) to find the BW parkway.]
  • Southeast-Southwest Freeway: The parts of I-395 and I-295 that connect to each other in the District of Columbia, but not the part of I-395 from the Beltway to the Potomac River, nor the part of I-395 that goes under the Mall, nor the part of I-295 that starts south of the Beltway and leads to DC-295.
  • Exit numbers: Virginia exits were once numbered in order from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the Cabin John (sorry, American Legion Bridge at Cabin John). Maryland have always been numbered by mileage from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. One change that actually made sense.

Beltway signs:

Certain signs on the Beltway are sometimes misunderstood by new arrivals in the area. As a public service, we present some of them here, with the approved interpretations.

  • Maximum Speed 55 MPH: Minimum speed 55 MPH (bicycles).
  • Minimum Speed 40 MPH: Maximum speed entering Beltway: 40 MPH. (Actually, as a point of courtesy to the other drivers on the Beltway, when entering the roadway one should always drive to the end of the exit ramp and stop, preferably with part of the car sticking into the far right lane of the roadway. Men may comb their hair, women apply makeup. After all cars have passed, the motorist may enter the Beltway. If you are entering the Beltway at a lane which serves as both an on and off ramp, please stop your car in a location which will prevent any driver from exiting the Beltway.)
  • No trucks in left lane: Along much of the Beltway, the left lane is reserved for automobiles. How you get from the left lane across three lanes of semis to the exit is your own business.
  • Frederick: The inner loop of the Beltway provides access to I-270 and hence to westbound I-70, which runs through the cities of Pittsburgh, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver. Department of Transportation rules require that this information be spared drivers, however, and replaced with the nearest city of "significant" size. It's in Maryland, about 50 miles north of DC. The signs are in Virginia.
  • To I-95/495: If you follow these signs, you'll probably cross the Beltway. Eventually. If you are lucky, it will be near an on ramp. No promises, though.
  • HOV-X: Not on the Beltway itself, but on adjoining roads, where "X" is the minimum number of passengers allowed in an automobile on this road, and varies with political clout of local legislators. In some jurisdictions HOV restrictions are only during rush hour. On US-50 in Maryland, however, HOV-2 applies all the time. Similarly, driving a hybrid car may allow you to get in an HOV lane solo. Or not.
  • HAZMAT: Hazardous Materials are restricted to certain lanes of the Beltway. Most of the time. Except on bridges, where there might be some point to it. And always on the right hand lanes, so you'd have to drive through any spill to get off the Beltway.

Beltway etiquette

Turn signals: "Turn signals?! We don't need no f&$(ing turn signals!"

When a driver does signal, indicating he would like to enter your lane, you may assume that he wishes to enter behind your car. Accelerate until you are within one foot of the car ahead of you so that he has plenty of room to get behind you.

If someone does enter your lane ahead of you, flash your bright headlights to inform them they have completed the maneuver. Arm/hand gestures are also appreciated.

Beltway sights:

  • On the Outer Loop: The Mormon Temple, between Beltsville and Silver Spring. Also, the "Surrender Dorothy" sign spray painted on the overpass before the Temple.
  • Inner and Outer Loops: The raised drawbridge of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. This is an especially wonderful sight at 6pm.

You were expecting more? Sorry, that's it.


  • The Woodrow Wilson Bridge: Home of the only drawbridge on an Interstate highway. Source of many good excuses. ("Sorry honey, I was late because the drawbridge was stuck open. The lipstick? Oh, one woman kissed me when I showed the engineers where the power switch was.") Now being rebuilt into a twin-span, twelve lane extravaganza. With a draw bridge.
  • The American Legion Bridge (at Cabin John): Formerly known simply as the Cabin John Bridge. It used to be slow because it was only three lanes wide. Now it is because it takes the traffic reporters so long to say the name that they can't warn anyone of problems elsewhere on the Beltway.
  • The Shirley Highway: Coming from DC, the only easy way to get from the Pentagon to the Beltway.

How to avoid the Beltway

  • Take the Metro: If it is completed to where you want to go. If where you want to go is where people lived 30 years ago.
  • Take the (Metro)bus: Also referred to as "Metro" as in the real estate advertisement "House located near Metro". The bus will, eventually, take you to a Metro (train) stop, where you can take a train to another Metro stop, then take a (Metro)bus to your destination. If you've always wanted to read Stephen King's complete Dark Tower this is your chance. But what will you read tomorrow?
  • Drive on local roads: Fine, unless it is under repair. Or the scene of a drug investigation.
  • Move someplace with less traffic: Anywhere else except Los Angeles and New York. Maybe even there.
  • Investigate living at your office: There is one house/office in the heart of DC that changes occupants every four to eight years. Inquire at Democratic National Committee Headquarters (slogan: "Over 35? Live in Red State? Will you run? Please?")

And to think, I haven't even mentioned the truck fires, rolling road blocks, and the backups to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (20 miles to the east). Maybe another day.

Anyway, all of us in the Washington area welcome you, and devoutly wish that you will have a safe and enjoyable time on our Beltway.

* A 13 letter word indicating the extreme action which may accompany an Oedipus+ complex. (return)

+ Actually, I always thought Oedipus got a raw deal with this. It's not like he knew what he was doing.


Carol Davidson said...

Good stuff! Though you've sufficiently frightened me from ever visiting again, but it might still be worth it to see "Surrender Dorothy." Funny.

rcjhawk said...

I'm not sure if the sign still exists or not. For some time it would go up, be painted over, and then appear again. However, I don't drive that stretch of the Beltway very much, so I can't say if it's up or not.

If anyone has a picture, email me and I'll be happy to post it.