You know you’re talking to veteran Washingtonians if they remember the battle of the Three Sisters Bridge.
The three sisters were — and are — a trio of rocks in the Potomac River just north of town. The best thing about the bridge would have been the name, but it wouldn’t have lasted. The name would have been changed to something politically useful or influential, at the time probably named after whomever was chairman of the bridge and highway subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee.
The bridge immediately south of the Three Sisters originally went by the enigmatic and exotic name of Cabin John, who, legend had it, was a local hermit and recluse. Romantic though it was, politically the name was a nonstarter and the bridge was named after the American Legion and has become synonymous with a twice-daily traffic jam.
In the woods not far from my house there is a graceful highway bridge to nowhere, now almost completely obscured by trees, its roadbed overgrown. It’s a relic of a master highway plan for the national capital that would have had four huge interstates linking up around the National Mall, offering motorists speed and convenience, although at the sacrifice of several historic neighborhoods and treasured national parks.
The great national monuments would have been ringed by interchanges and accessible only to those fleet enough of foot to sprint across six lanes of traffic. Mercifully, almost none of this was ever built, although evidence of it still survives in the form of the capital’s bizarre traffic patterns.
That traumatic experience is perhaps one reason the Washington metropolitan area took with great equanimity the finding by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute that Washington has the worst traffic congestion and longest commutes of any city in the nation, including such notorious traffic snarls as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston.
We spend 67 hours a year in our cars compared to runner-up L.A.’s 60 hours, take 114 minutes to make a 30-minute trip compared to just over 90 minutes for L.A., and waste 32 gallons of gas a year compared to 27 for L.A.
And it’s going to get worse, a lot worse, because Uncle Sam is consolidating some huge government complexes in areas that are already notorious for massive traffic jams.
The Washington area has gone crazy installing speed cameras, but in a few years, instead of churning out revenue-producing photos of speeding cars, they will be rewarding city fathers with huge galleries of automotive still-lifes.
A shortcut in Washington is not intended to save time or distance — in fact, both are usually longer — but to allow the driver to keep moving, giving him the illusion that he’s actually getting somewhere.
Soon the Three Sisters Bridge and the plan to pave over the National Mall will pass from memory. For now we’ll try to convince capital newcomers that they’re not stuck in gridlock but in an ongoing victory parade. (Victory over what we’ll leave vague.)
That will explain why so many drivers are flashing the “we’re number one” sign. That is what they’re signaling, isn’t it?
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.