Thursday, March 18, 2010

After Winter Floods, Signs of Life in the Potomac Gorge

ODDLY ENOUGH, one of the most biologically diverse natural areas in the Mid-Atlantic lies inside the District of Columbia’s borders. Few people, however, know where to find it. And right now is perhaps the best time to see the landscape change.

The Potomac Gorge, which stretches from a point upriver from Georgetown to Great Falls beyond the District boundary, is a wild area reshaped annually depending on the severity of flooding. In the vicinity of Little Falls, just upriver from Chain Bridge, the river channel narrows and fast-moving floodwaters can litter the floodplain, which stretches up to the C&O Canal, with boulders, trees, sediment and other debris.

I used to live on the bluffs overlooking this wonderful natural area and have spent a good deal of time exploring the gorge, which falls largely under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Earlier today, I went on a 7 1/2-mile roundtrip hike into the gorge from my apartment and for the first time, have seen this landscape fresh after floodwaters have receded.

Currently, there’s a fresh layer of sediment that has already sprouted new plantlife. Water has pooled at different elevations, abandoned by receded floodwaters which have drained away through a complex network of streams and rivulets back to the river channel. The other dominant sign of intense flooding: The vegetation that had survived the winter has been bent over in a downstream direction.

Once spring takes hold and this area leafs out, it will be quite difficult and treacherous to navigate if you leave the established trails between the C&O Canal towpath and the river’s rock-strewn channel. So I got the timing just right — after the winter floods and before spring has sprung.

I was not, however, able to hike all the way to the river channel at Chain Bridge because of the way the flooding had left behind pooled water. Normally, I like to go to hike there to a point opposite Pimmit Run on the Virginia side of the river, where there was once a mill where the Declaration of Independence was stashed away safe keeping as the British were torching Washington in 1814.

From way down at the bottom of the gorge looking up at the Chain Bridge, it’s hard to imagine that floodwaters could rise so high as to wash away the bridge’s superstructure. That happened in 1936, when the Potomac had its largest recorded flood. The bridge was rebuilt atop the stone piers that date to the 1870s. On one of them, there’s some 1880s-era graffiti if you look closely enough.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Attention DDOT: Route 29 Doesn’t Travel Through Dupont Circle

THE DISTRICT DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION has been receiving plaudits in the local Twitterverse recently for being responsive to pothole repair requests coming in via Twitter following our epic snowfall and slow snowmelt, all which tore up D.C. streets. I’ve seen a few DDOT pothole patrols patching rough spots around town. So Twitter has certainly shown its effectiveness in promoting responsive government — as long as those in government want to be responsive.

I have a non-pothole related issue I'd like DDOT to address: incorrect wayfinding signage.

The "bastard child” of U.S. highway routes through the District, Route 29, has an identity crisis. Although it technically runs from the Key Bridge to the D.C.-Maryland border at Georgia Avenue via Rhode Island Avenue, 11th Street NW, K Street NW and the Whitehurst Freeway, pedestrians and drivers heading through Dupont Circle might be a bit confused.

For years, the city has posted signs at the circle indicating that Route 29 travels along New Hampshire Avenue, which is not accurate.

The Route 29 signage confusion isn’t necessarily a new concern. I wrote about it when I was editing DCist back in 2005. Years ago, Route 29 ran through the District via New Hampshire Avenue, 16th Street NW and Alaska Avenue and at some point — when, I’m not too sure — was rerouted to its current path.

While I sort of like the old Route 29 signs at Dupont as a relic of historic wayfinding, there’s no need to have them posted.

To test DDOT’s social media responsiveness, I just tweeted a request for DDOT to remove the old Route 29 signs. ("Happy Sunday @DDOTDC! Can you please remove all Route 29 signage from Dupont Circle? Route 29 was rerouted years ago. Thanks.") Let’s see how much time it takes for the signs to come down. A couple days? A week? Four years? Only time will tell.

In the course of researching the history of Route 29 in D.C., I dug through my map archives and pulled out a 1973 Amoco Oil Company map of the District, pictured below. It has the old New Hampshire Avenue routing, plus an ALT 29 routing between the Key Bridge and New Hampshire Avenue via M Street NW. Route 50, which cuts through the District on Constitution Avenue, was once routed via Independence Avenue.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, when a northern extension of Route 29 into D.C. and Maryland was considered in the 1930s, there was an "understanding that when the by-pass and direct line around Washington has been constructed that [Route 29] will hook up and follow it, or some route passing around out of the thickly congested area in Washington."

Well, that never happened.

Most curious, perhaps, are the former D.C. truck routes meant to “expedite traffic through the city.” For some reason, one truck route for Route 29 takes the trucks from K Street NW to Virginia Avenue via 25th and 26th streets. Imagine the uproar within the membership of the Foggy Bottom Association if DDOT were to re-sign the truck route on such quiet residential streets!

Photos by Michael E. Grass

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