Some commuters think rebuilt bridge over Anacostia River does them no favors

Robert Thomson
Columnist March 20, 2013

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I travel to the Pentagon area each day. I take Route 4 to Suitland Parkway, make a right on Firth Sterling Avenue, merge onto Interstate 295 and then the 11th Street bridge to go onto the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. Are they going to keep the entrance onto I-295 from Firth Sterling to the 11th Street bridge like this forever?

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

It is 10 times worse now! Before construction, there was a two-lane ramp to I-295. I would stay in the right of the two lanes and go straight onto the flyover to the 11th Street bridge. Now there is one lane onto 295 from Firth Sterling, and to get onto the 11th Street bridge, drivers must traverse four lanes of traffic that is barely moving. An intersection that used to take less than five minutes now takes up to 20. Please tell me how this construction has improved anything.

Joelyn Meyer, Calvert County

DG: Meyer’s letter illustrates why the District’s reconstruction of the 11th Street bridge is such a big deal for the region’s transportation system. Thousands of morning commuters are following similar routes as they go from Maryland into the middle of the District, or across the 14th Street bridge into Virginia.

Rebuilding the bridge to better accommodate the freeway and the local traffic changed the patterns for drivers coming up Interstate 295, Firth Sterling Avenue SE and Suitland Parkway, as well as for those approaching from other directions. The changes will help many commuters, although others feel slighted.

I know Meyer isn’t describing one or two bad days at this bottleneck. Morning after morning, that zone shows up on traffic maps and in traffic camera views as having some of the worst congestion in the Washington region.

Traffic patterns won’t go back to the way they were. But they aren’t quite in their final alignment yet, and I might be able to offer a few words of encouragement, based on talking to the project managers.

A lot of the slow traffic that Meyer sees south of the bridge stems from the new traffic pattern on the bridge itself. A span was built to serve freeway drivers. On this span, many inbound drivers who take a ramp from southbound D.C. 295, the freeway north of the bridge, meet up on the bridge with many other inbound drivers coming from Interstate 295, south of the bridge.

Many of those drivers immediately begin jockeying for position based on where they want to go when they get past the bridge span. And they’re not always friendly about it.

The drivers who came up I-295 are in pretty good shape for continuing through to the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, the center of the District and Virginia. But the ones who entered from the north need to move left if they want to do the same thing.

The lane-shifting slows everyone down, and that ripples far back, to the point Meyer and others see it when they’re approaching the bridge.

The upside is that the bridge reconstruction remains a work in progress, and drivers eventually will have three through lanes on this span, rather than the current two, which will reduce the lane-changing. The downside is that the extra lane can’t be added until next year.

When that extra lane does come online, I think it will make it somewhat easier for drivers coming up Firth Sterling to move left into the I-295 lanes bound for the freeway span. If they really don’t like moving left in that relatively short distance, there is another option: If they stay to the far right, they can go up a ramp onto the 11th Street bridge’s new local span. They’ll come to a traffic signal at the top of the ramp and turn left to cross over the Anacostia River.

Once across, they can follow signs leading them to the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, but this does involve traveling local streets for a few blocks, something that will become much easier in late spring, when the local span goes into its final alignment.

After too many years of neglect, the District is lavishing a lot of attention on travel and development issues on both banks of the Anacostia River. The new attention is bringing many benefits, but many disruptions as well.

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