Mixing Bowl
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  Wild Ride Through the Mixing Bowl

Ready to Rebuild
Photo shows Springfield interchange.
I-395, I-495 and I-95 come together at Springfield. (Gerald Martineau – The Post)

Also in This Report
Untangling the Interchange
Businesses Also Bear Burden
Commutes Likely to Lengthen
Rebuilding Done by Night
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 1999; Page A19

Clutch the steering wheel, crane your neck forward and, after making a quick mental note that your insurance is paid up, hit the gas.

No route through the Springfield interchange is more treacherous, say highway collision analysts, than the spot where drivers exit from the inner loop of the Capital Beltway, which also carries Interstate 95 traffic from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, to continue south on I-95. There, all southbound traffic on I-95, a main East Coast artery, is squeezed onto a two-lane ramp.

About once every three weeks, a vehicle trying to make this maneuver crashes, according to a federal study. That is a large part of the reason Virginia decided to spend at least $350 million on a new interchange.

But the experience of braving the interchange known as the Mixing Bowl provides more compelling evidence than any statistics.

Map shows interchange.

When you enter the bow-shaped exit ramp, the sudden flash of red taillights and the repeated pounding of brakes begin to boost the blood pressure. Impatient drivers dart between lanes on the ramp, bent on shaving a few seconds from their trip. Truckers sometimes seem to ignore warning signs for the 35 mph speed limit, intended to keep them from capsizing, and hurtle past, often at well over 50. A van skirts by on the shoulder and, with a start, you grasp the wheel that much tighter, knuckles growing whiter.

Then you curve down onto the main throat of I-95 southbound, where traffic from the outer loop is merging from the right, contributing to the sense of chaos. Suddenly you're dropped into the middle of six lanes of southbound traffic, with cars rushing by on both sides.

Ahead, a set of fast-approaching signs orders drivers who want to remain on southbound I-95 into the left lanes. Drivers continuing south toward Woodbridge and Richmond must quickly move across two or three lanes to ensure that they aren't forced into the exit lanes. At the same time, cars in the left lanes are moving right to exit at Springfield.

This can work easily when traffic is light. But now a purple 18-wheeler is bearing down menacingly in your rearview mirror, not leaving you room to switch lanes in front of it. The truck is closing fast on the left, looming ever larger in the mirror. The exit lanes are approaching rapidly. What to do?

The groan of the rumbling rig grows louder. Your fingers tighten around the wheel. In an adrenaline-impelled moment of indecision, you wonder: Do I slam the brakes to let the truck pass (and risk being pulverized from behind) or dare to cut in front of the semi (and risk being sandwiched in steel)? Squeeze the brakes and pray the truck is fast.

And indeed it is, fortunately. It races past you traveling at far above the speed limit, blowing by just before you reach the exits. The stylized lettering along the truck's trailer, plugging some Minnesota shipping company, is a blur.

Quickly, you veer over into the lane cleared by the truck's passing, and just before the highway divides, you're finally where you want to be: southbound on I-95 heading past Springfield.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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