They say you can't get there from here, and if you believe the mileage signs on I-95 going north from Washington to Baltimore, that old saying may be true.

In a series of optical surprises, the familiar green-and-white highway signs, some of which have been there more than a decade, appear to elasticize distance, compressing 13 miles into 6 1/2 at one point, stretching 1 to almost 7 at another, and cutting the bewildered driver adrift in a mystifying distance-time warp. It is not a comfortable place to be for anyone who is insecure or has an accurate odometer.

As you go north on I-95 after leaving the Capital Beltway, three of the standard highway signs appear at intervals along the road, telling you how far it is supposed to be to Baltimore and New York. None of the signs, however, bears any helpful relation to the others or to the actual distances to Baltimore or New York.

The first, about three miles north of the beltway, announces that Baltimore is 28 miles away and New York 212. So far, so good.

Then, 6.5 miles farther along, a second sign indicates that the distance to Baltimore has suddenly shrunk to 15 miles (even though your odometer says it should be 21.5), while New York is still supposed to be about the same distance away: 211 miles.

Finally, another 6.7 miles up the road, a third sign says Baltimore is now 14 miles away, indicating that you have progressed only 1 mile since the last sign.

In the same interval, New York has leaped 13 miles closer and is now only 198 miles away.

In fact, from this last sign, it is only 10 miles by the most direct route to City Hall in downtown Baltimore, the customary point for measuring city-to-city mileages.

The actual distance to New York is anyone's guess.

For the record, the actual distance from the 28-mile sign on I-95 to downtown Baltimore, as measured by three different automobile odometers, is 23.2 miles, and the distance from the 15-mile sign is 16.7 miles.

"That last one's pretty close," said Tom Hicks of the Maryland Highway Administration. "The distances are only supposed to be approximate."

Hicks was puzzled by some of the larger discrepancies, but suggested at least a partial explanation: The 28-mile and 14-mile signs were erected more than 10 years ago, he said, when I-95 first opened between Baltimore and Washington. The north-bound driver, however, had to get off at the Baltimore Beltway, detour to the parallel Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and then drive into town -- a three-to-four-mile greater distance than the now extended I-95 route that goes directly into center city via Russell Street.

The signs haven't changed in the intervening decade, Hicks acknowledged, but the direct distance has.

As for the 15-mile sign on I-95, Hicks said that it was erected only about a year ago and more closely reflects the new direct distance to downtown Baltimore. He said there are no immediate plans to change any of the signs