The road more traveled

Dissertation: A student gathers anecdotes about the joys, frustrations and oddities of drivers on the Capital Beltway.

January 23, 2001|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - For Jeremy Korr, the question is fast becoming what won't people do on the Capital Beltway.

The 28-year-old graduate student at the University of Maryland has discovered that they'll put on makeup, fly kites, send e-mail, read novels, play poker, revive a romance and even shave while driving along one of the nation's busiest and most traffic-choked highways.

One thing is certain: The old "hands at 10 and 2" steering-wheel position appears to be a relic found only in driver's education textbooks.

Korr, who is writing his dissertation on "Washington's Main Street," has collected scores of amusing anecdotes and colorful complaints from commuters in the four months since he expanded his research with a Web site questionnaire.

More than 500 people have responded, many of them to agonize over traffic tie-ups that consistently rank among the worst in the nation. Drivers from the Washington suburbs - and from as far away as Florida and Minnesota - have shared horror stories about spending hours at a standstill. Some are almost apoplectic. Asked for the first word that comes to mind when they think of the Beltway, they use a profanity.

But others have humorous tales to tell. They have reminisced about drag racing at night, chatting with strangers during rush hour and seeing sights such as a man playing a trumpet behind the wheel.

"There's some interesting activity going on on the Beltway," said Korr, a candidate for a doctorate in American studies who is exploring the social significance of the 66-mile loop around the nation's capital.

"Some of it has surprised me," he said. "One gentleman told me he planted some marijuana back in the '70s on a cloverleaf interchange. Apparently, it grew for some time before a highway crew pulled it out."

Inspired by the book "Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike," Korr set out more than two years ago to study the history and culture of the Capital Beltway, a road he has traveled all his life.

He grew up "right off Exit 25B" in College Park and plotted his first imaginary trips as a toddler when an uncle gave him a road atlas. He has had a few harrowing experiences on the Beltway, including the time his car broke down in the left lane between Georgia and Connecticut avenues.

When Korr began his research, he found few documents and even fewer books that offered any insights. Maryland and Virginia histories often include only a passing reference to the Beltway, which is considered to be part of Washington, though only a few hundred yards of it lie within the city.

Moreover, Maryland and Virginia did not coordinate much of the road construction.

Essentially built over seven years as two separate highways - 44 miles of six lanes in Maryland and 22 miles of four lanes in Virginia - the Beltway opened in August 1964. No sooner was a red ribbon cut at the White Oak entrance than cars piled onto the road and instantly created the road's first traffic backup.

It's a phenomenon that has worsened with each passing year. The initial traffic projections proved to be perilously far afield. A long-range estimate of 50,000 cars a day was surpassed in the first year. Now, after more than three decades of sprawling suburbanization, more than 1 million cars a day travel the Beltway.

Congestion has grown so severe that three-quarters of the residents in Montgomery and Prince George's counties rate it a "major problem" or "crisis" in the Maryland Poll released this month by The Sun and two Washington-area news outlets. Many of those polled talked of adjusting their workdays to cope with the congestion or spending hours each day in their cars. One in five residents of Montgomery and Prince George's said traffic problems had led them to consider moving out of the area.

Small wonder then that Korr has been inundated with a chorus of complaints about traffic. Since he set up his questionnaire at www.wam.umd.edu/~kumquat (click on dissertation), Korr has heard from weary commuters who beg him to find a solution. "If nothing else," he said, "I'm giving people a chance to vent."

Many recall the excruciating backup when a man threatened to jump off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge 1998. "Stuck for two hours, stopped," wrote one man. "Played poker with the drivers around me and won $8."

In some ways, the Beltway is like an old car, annoying and high-maintenance but convenient. A number of Korr's respondents acknowledge that it's still the fastest way home. Some get poetic about watching the sun rise over the Wilson Bridge or catching their first glimpse of the Mormon Tabernacle's spires.

Paul Foer of Annapolis described watching bulldozers dig in preparation for the highway when he was 4. He was amazed when several houses were uprooted and moved in his neighborhood in North Chevy Chase. Worse, he told Korr, he and his friends lost "Indian Rock," a boulder in the woods where they played.

"I was just heartbroken to learn it was going to be blown up for the highway," Foer, 41, said in an interview. The experience led him to a career promoting public transportation in Annapolis.

Sharon Shelton, 49, of Waldorf has a happier memory.

One day in the early 1980s, she and her three children were traveling on the Beltway when they noticed other drivers "honking and smiling and waving." They were puzzled until she happened to glance out the back window.

"We finally noticed that the antenna of our CB radio (which was on the roof of our car) had somehow snagged a stray kite," she wrote to Korr's Web site, "and we were flying the kite from our car."

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