The George Washington Memorial Parkway, the four-lane road that travels about 25 miles north and south along the west bank of the Potomac River provides some beautiful scenic overlooks of the river, features a well-used bike path, and provides direct access to Mount Vernon, the home and burial ground of the first US President George Washington.
Speaking in more practical terms, it serves hundreds of thousands of cars daily, accesses all seven bridges across the Potomac River in the metropolitan area (five of the seven are direct exits from the GW Parkway, while two bridges, Chain Bridge and the Wilson Bridge, have secondary access via a few turns to another road), and has entry/exit points to most of the major highways in Virginia and DC (I-495, VA-123, US-29, US-50, I-66, I-395, and US-1). The road sounds like a travelers dream: it has access to everything. However…
The GW Parkway is one of the biggest piece-of-crap roads in the entire United States. It is riddled with potholes, especially on the northern section from I-495 to the Key Bridge in Arlington, has no shoulder for emergency pull-offs or accident reports, has no lighting, has exit signs are about the size of a stop sign, and has no exit numbers. Let’s go one by one:
- Potholes: The GW Parkway is riddled with potholes, particularly the section north of Arlington toward I-495. Why are there so many? The GW Parkway is maintained by the National Park Service, part of the Department of the Interior. These are the people that run national parks and make sure you have park rangers at the Civil War battlefields to answer your questions. They’re not in the transportation maintenance business. For example, it took the NPS more than 18 hours to clean up an oil spill that occurred when the engine of a tour bus exploded, spilling fluid and parts everywhere on the road. If it takes an organization 18 hours to do that, how do we expect them to maintain a smooth roadway? Just imagine if I-66 or I-495 or I-395 had as many potholes as the GW Parkway. There would be a riot… Those roadways are smooth simply because they have ample funding from the Department of Transportation.
- No shoulder: When a vehicle is disabled on the GW Parkway, it sits in the roadway, simply because there is no shoulder. Even worse, there is a three-inch lip that separates the roadway from the grass line, and unless you’re Hulk Hogan, you’re not going to be able to push a car over the lip on to the grass. So, then the car sits there, and so do motorists stuck behind the disabled vehicle. It could be hours until help arrives, again because there is no shoulder for a tow truck to drive on to get to the disabled vehicle.
- No lighting: The road is pitch black at night. Normally, for NPS roads, this is not a problem because national parks close at night. However, when you’re the GW Parkway and hundreds of thousands of commuters use you on a daily basis during the winter when you’re driving home at 6 p.m. (and it’s dark out), you could use some lighting on the road. Moreover, because the GW Parkway sits in a “national park,” there are deer and other animals that end up in the roadway. With no lighting, any animal can get in the road and cause havoc for drivers.
- Exit signs: One of the most confusing things about the GW Parkway is the lack of adequate signage. This is especially chaotic for new drivers to DC…it takes them months to finally figure out how the road works. The exit signs that do exist are small, and few and far between. There are a handful of “Upcoming Exits” signs, which are also few in number and difficult to read. When an exit finally does appear, sometimes it is too close to an exit, and many drivers will completely miss the exit. The GW Parkway needs large green, reflective signs, (just like on highways) which are illuminated and actually usable by drivers.
The list of problems with the GW Parkway goes on and on. When thinking about the GW Parkway, and other roads like it (especially a road like Rock Creek Parkway), ask yourself this question:
Does this road belong in the hands of the National Park Service, or does it serve a greater purpose?
When debating the GW Parkway, the answer to this question is “no.” Skyline Drive, a gorgeous, scenic route that that runs the ridge line of the Shenandoah Mountains, belongs to the NPS. The GW Parkway accesses seven bridges across the Potomac River; seven major highways into Maryland, DC, and Virginia; and runs 25 miles parallel to the most important city in the world. It should be treated with the same level of seriousness. It deserves Department of Transportation federal, state, city, and local funding. It deserves to be a road fit for its mission.
Update from 2021:
The GW Parkway was significantly repaved in 2019-2020. That said, the other issues listed above still remain. The road will continue to plague drivers until all of these issues are addressed.