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Clash with police in council chambers: 1969 | by Washington Area Spark
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Clash with police in council chambers: 1969

Police and building guards scuffle with freeway opponents in the District of Columbia Council chambers August 9, 1969 as the city body voted to approve a new Potomac River bridge crossing.


As the council as called to order, 300 freeway opponents began chanting “no, no!” and council chair Gilbert Hahn then ordered the room cleared.


The chants turned to “Hell no, we won’t go.” As police moved to clear the room, chairs flew and fists ere exchanged.


In all fourteen opponents were arrested, including Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis co-chairs Sam Abbott and Reginald Booker. School Board member Julius Hobson and the chair of the D.C. Democratic Central Committee Bruce Terris were also among those arrested.


The council voted 6-2 to approve the Three Sisters Bridge that would connect proposed freeways in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia with a crossing from Georgetown to an area north of Rosslyn.


Civil disobedience to halt bridge construction as employed later in the year and those protests ere broken up with tear gas and arrests.


Bridge foes and the city sponsored an unofficial referendum on the project, which was placed on the November 4, 1969, general election ballot. The bridge was opposed by 85 percent of voters in the city. The day before the election, construction trailers at the construction site were firebombed.


The larger fight was over whether to spend funds on more freeways or to build the Washington, D.C. Metro system.


The residents of the greater Washington area overwhelmingly supported Metro while congressional leaders, particularly William Natcher (D-Ky.), who as chairman of the Subcommittee on Appropriations for the District of Columbia of the House Committee on Appropriations blocked Metro construction funds and insisted on building highways.


Natcher was a key ally of the highway construction lobby.


A series of court actions and opposition from local bodies consistently delayed Natcher’s freeway plans and Natcher in turn blocked Metro construction funds.


After years of delay, Metro proponents finally out-maneuvered Natcher with the help of President Richard Nixon. The House voted in 196 to 183 with a significant number of Republicans joining Democrats to defeat Natcher and release Metro construction funds.


The Three Sisters Bridge and the Center Leg Freeway died many deaths and were resurrected many times.


Hurricane Agnes washed away the partially finished piers that had been built in 1972.


Finally in 1976, Virginia altered the route of I-66 due to opposition from residents of Arlington County. The route made construction of the Three Sisters Bridge moot.


Virginia Governor Mills E. Godwin, Jr. agreed that, if DOT approved the route change, he would transfer Virginia's share of the bridge construction funds ($30 million) to Metro construction. The change was approved in July 1976, leaving no funds for the construction of the bridge.


In May 1977, the Department of Transportation permitted the District of Columbia to remove the Three Sisters Bridge from its formal master transportation plan. Noting that the bridge was "killed" yet again, the Washington Post said, "This time it looks unusually permanent."


The result of the more than 10-year fight against the proposed freeway system for the District was the building of the Washington Metrorail system.


The faltering and ultimately dissipation of the broad-based coalition that led to building the Metro is one of the reasons that the city’s rail system was denied sufficient capital funds to overhaul the system as it aged while multi-billion dollar projects like Beltway widening, a new Wilson Bridge, a new Springfield interchange and other major highway projects moved forward in recent decades.


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The photographer is unknown. The image is an Associated Press photo obtained via an Internet sale.

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Taken on August 9, 1969