HomeHistory of DDOT

History of DDOT

DDOT’s foundations lie in Pierre L'Enfant's vision for the city, and over the course of two centuries the city's Engineer Commissioners, mayors, and councils all contributed to the modern system. Transportation in the District developed from dirt roads and canals and streetcars in the 19th century to the advent of the automobile and Metro service in the 20th century. From 1878 until the 1973 Home Rule Act, the Board of Commissioners, including an Engineer Commissioner responsible for all infrastructure projects, oversaw daily affairs of the District. Since 1973, an elected mayor and city council have administered the city, including DDOT.

The 1888 electric streetcar was the first major development in transportation in Washington, DC following canals and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Underground streetcars connected the city to Columbia Heights, Cleveland Park, Brookland, and Anacostia. The streetcar served as the primary mode of transportation in the District until the 1920s, when automobiles and buses gradually replaced streetcars. The District endeavored to accommodate increased traffic on its roads between the 1920s and the 1930s. The 19 divisions under the Engineer Commissioner reorganized into the Department of Highways. In 1938, the Board of Commissioners secured the amendment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act, making the federal city eligible for Federal-Aid Highway Program funding. With this funding, the agency and transportation system rapidly expanded.

According to the Library of Congress authority records, “The Department of Vehicles and Traffic was established in 1931 to assume the functions of the Director of Traffic. The name of the Highway Department was changed in 1932 to Department of Highways. In 1959 when the Department of Highways assumed some of the functions of the Department of Vehicles and Traffic, the two departments were renamed the Department of Highways and Traffic and the Department of Motor Vehicles respectively.” The first District Department of Transportation, another predecessor to the current District Department of Transportation, operated only between 1974 and 1984. This department assumed responsibilities for planning, developing, and maintaining roadways as well as coordinating transportation activities with Metro, inspecting and registering vehicles, licensing motorists, enforcing parking regulations, and planning and implementing a bicycle network.

In 1984, the Department of Transportation became the Transportation Systems Administration under the Department of Public Works (DPW), reporting to the Deputy Director for Operations. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Transportation Systems Administration oversaw traffic controls, parking, driver’s licenses and related permits, and removal of abandoned vehicles, in addition to its research functions. By the late 1990s, the renamed Division of Transportation under DPW, the agency struggled to coordinate major repairs of potholes and road cuts for telecommunications cables.

In 2001, driven by this crisis, the Division of Transportation began the process of separating itself from the Department of Public Works in order to become its own department. The reorganized department intended to focus on leadership in transportation services and increase accountability for services. The District Department of Transportation Establishment Act of 2002 created the District Department of Transportation as a cabinet-level agency responsible for the management of transportation infrastructure and operations (D.C. Law 14-137 [2002]). Mayor Anthony Williams, Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, Dan Tangherlini, and Emeka Moneme, respectively the first and third directors of DDOT, all played pivotal roles in the creation of the agency with independent funding authority. Within six years, the new agency defied Congress’ low expectations and repaved more than half of the city’s roads as the District experienced its first sustained population increase since the 1940s.

Through programs such as the Capital Bikeshare, DC Circulator, Great Streets, and the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, DDOT addressed the needs of burgeoning residential and business districts. The District Department of Transportation reports directly to the Mayor and the City Council and is a national leader in innovative transportation programs.

(History of DDOT compiled and written by Library intern, Jennifer Wachtel).