Dust Settled, Drivers Still Get Dizzy in Mixing Bowl

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 25, 2007

After eight years and $676 million, all of the swirling ramps and bridges are open at the Springfield interchange, and traffic is flowing freely through one of the busiest crossroads on the East Coast, where interstates 95 and 395 hit the Capital Beltway.

But there is growing concern that navigating the new Mixing Bowl's 50 ramps and 24 lanes is confusing and could be creating different safety problems. Drivers complain of counterintuitive highway splits where they must head to the left to ultimately go right and head to the right to go left. They worry about staying in the left lane of the Beltway and winding up heading to Richmond.

"It's doing the opposite of what people expect," said John Ulaszek of Arlington County, who commutes daily through the interchange and reports plenty of close calls. He sometimes takes his camera to record the skid marks on the pavement and the last-minute lane changes.

"It's like putting the hot and cold knobs on the opposite side of the sink, and people can't understand why they just got scalded," he said.

Virginia Department of Transportation officials say that the new interchange is a vast safety improvement over the old configuration and that traffic will be smoother as soon as drivers get used to it. Traffic engineers will continue to tweak the design and study better signage to smooth traffic flow before the project officially is finished next month.

"If we can make it more user-friendly, you bet we will do our best to accommodate that," VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris said.

The worst accident at the new interchange occurred June 14, when four young women died in a collision with a tractor-trailer at a point where two left lanes of the Capital Beltway's inner loop split off and head to I-95 south, Virginia State Police said.

Still, the number of accidents at the interchange is far lower than in the old configuration, when many crashes were caused by cars approaching stopped traffic, said state police Sgt. Terry Licklider.

But Licklider also knows personally how tricky the new interchange can be. Two years ago, a driver sideswiped his police cruiser in the Mixing Bowl. "He wanted to get over three lanes to take I-395 north," said Licklider, who was not injured. The other driver was ticketed for an improper lane change.

Commuters and safety leaders are calling for more and better signage and are urging drivers to slow down and pay attention.

"More work needs to be done by the engineers and VDOT to make sure that advice given is clear, understandable and in time enough for drivers to make decisions," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

"I confess to being victimized by it," Anderson said. Several weeks ago, he was on the inner loop of the Beltway and found himself on a ramp to I-95 toward Richmond. "I was like, 'Whoa! This is the Springfield exit. How did we get here?' " Anderson recalled.

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