‘I-695’ is still an unfamiliar sign on D.C. highways

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 22, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I am in town visiting family and am very familiar with the area. There is a sign [nearing the 11th Street bridge] labeled “I-695 to I-395.” The last time I checked, Interstate 695 is the Baltimore Beltway, which most certainly does not connect to Interstate 395. I know the sign should say Interstate 295, but a tourist or out-of-towner might not.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Donella Oleston, Seattle

DG: Let your visitors from out of town know about the relatively new appearance of the I-695 label in the District. Even people familiar with the area are unlikely to know that we’ve had an I-695 for many years, although it didn’t appear on highway signs.

The story behind this is bookended by half-century-old plans for the interstate highway system and by the reconstruction of the 11th Street bridge during the past several years.

The District’s I-695 was supposed to link with Interstate 95, back when planners thought it would be a swell idea to send north-south drivers through the middle of the city. Community opposition and the alternative of building the Metrorail system helped put a stop to that. But the official designation of 695 remained for the Southeast Freeway, despite the lack of signs.

I think the first time I heard of it was during the announcement of the 11th Street bridge reconstruction in 2009, when Kathleen Penney, who was then the District’s chief engineer, noted that we would eventually see the 695 signs to help guide drivers through the new highway links created by the bridge project.

But the plan was more complicated than just posting the red, white and blue interstate shields along the original portion of 695. The District Department of Transportation received federal permission to extend the designation from the Southeast Freeway across the 11th Street bridge.

Oleston saw the numbers on an orange sign that tells drivers that the left lanes of the Anacostia Freeway will lead them to the 11th Street bridge and Capitol Hill, taking I-695 across the bridge to I-395. Drivers on the right can take Exit 4A to continue on D.C. 295 north and reach Route 50.

Even knowledgeable drivers such as Oleston might think they’ve discovered some interstate wormhole that’s about to deposit them on the Baltimore Beltway, another I-695 that’s 35 miles to the north.

A driver from New York might look at the I-695 sign and think of a highway spur in the Bronx. The Federal Highway Administration uses the three digits to mark spurs or loops that connect with the main route. I-95’s route is so long that three-digit numbers repeat themselves. Southbound drivers looping around Boston via Interstate 495 might think they’ve saved a lot of time and gas reaching the Capital Beltway.

And don’t think those unsigned interstates are so weird, either. A driver leaving 295 for eastbound Route 50 in Prince George’s County might be aware that it’s also known as the John Hanson Highway but might not know its stealth designation: Interstate 595.

ON SAME WAVELENGTH

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I read your article about drivers not waving when they want to get into a line of cars. I was really surprised, as I wave all the time and have been waved at a lot when I let someone in.

I will also say that having driven in Massachusetts, Connecticut and North Carolina recently, tailgating is in style. I once thought that Massachusetts and Connecticut headed the list, but North Carolina beats them out. Although I always leave room behind the car in front of me, I wonder why these drivers behind me do not realize that I am left with no room to maneuver in case of a quick stop for some reason.

Sheila Faulkner, Falls Church

DG: During my July 16 online chat, a traveler who lived outside the Washington region for six years commented that no one around here gives a thank-you wave when another driver has made room to change lanes.

Summer driving season gives many of us a chance to study the behavior of drivers from other regions. They might show us some things we’d like to see more of — or not, as Faulkner’s letter illustrates.

Whose driving performance raised your consciousness about traffic safety this summer?

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