The 16th Street Circle, at the D.C.-Montgomery County line, is a busy traffic spot in the area, and it is also a site of many traffic accidents. A plan for new traffic signals in the Silver Spring side has been approved, but there is no clear timetable for it and it is unclear who will pay for the project. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The 16th Street traffic circle on the Silver Spring-District line can be a treacherous test of patience.

Coming south on Colesville Road to the not-very-circular circle, drivers are supposed to yield to traffic heading north on 16th Street. But that’s easier said than done because the roundabout’s design does little to actually slow down that 16th Street traffic. And that can leave the southbound Colesville Road drivers waiting for what seems like forever for an opening.

Eventually, some just chance it and dart through the traffic speeding up 16th Street.

It’s a study in traffic confusion. For years, residents, drivers, planners and elected officials have been talking about fixing the circle.

Traffic accidents are common, officials say. Pedestrians and cyclists say they dread the circle. Some drivers say they can’t make sense of it.

Circular problems

And with Silver Spring adding hundreds of new apartments and new residents in the coming years, the many critics of the circle say they fear it will only become more of a hazard.

“It is not your imagination that there are a lot of accidents there,” D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said at a recent community meeting. “We know that it is only going to get worse as the area is more developed, and it is not just cars we are worried about.”

D.C. police recorded 12 traffic crashes in 2012 at the circle, which the D.C. Department of Transportation says is used by almost 32,000 vehicles a day. Montgomery County and Maryland transportation officials would not provide accident data. But city and county residents and officials say that incidents occur regularly. A pedestrian was killed at the circle in 2009.

The solution, everyone agrees, would be a traffic signal in Maryland where Colesville Road intersects with 16th Street.

But four years after Maryland endorsed such a plan, the signal hasn’t moved off the drawing board, its fate mired in a cross-
jurisdictional morass.

Installing a signal requires the coordination of the District, Montgomery County and the state of Maryland. Each jurisdiction controls or maintains a portion of the roadways or signals on or near the circle, and they have yet to settle on the funding, the design and construction, and the maintenance of the traffic light.

“It has been five years, but I don’t hear a deadline, I don’t even hear a milestone and . . . it is like every week we see an accident,” said Rick Toye, a resident of Shepherd Park, a Northwest Washington neighborhood that borders Silver Spring and the traffic circle. “I am just trying to figure out what is going on.”

Sitting on the border between the District and Montgomery County, the circle takes traffic from two roads under Maryland State Highway Administration control and three District roads. Montgomery maintains the traffic lights in the Maryland side.

This multi-jurisdictional reality has delayed fixes that officials on both sides of the border say are crucial to improving safety.

D.C. and Montgomery officials say Maryland has sat too long on the plan to add the signal. The State Highway Administration, asked to explain the slow pace, said that coordination with the District has slowed a process that would otherwise take less than two years.

“When we first started looking into it, we knew it would be a long affair,” said Anyesha Mookherjee, an assistant district engineer who is overseeing the project for the State Highway Administration. “It is taking a little longer than anticipated. . . . I don’t have any deadlines right now as to when we will see construction on that project, but hopefully soon.”

The District shares 24 miles of road border with Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, but Mookherjee said the 16th Street circle is unlike any other state transportation project in that any decisions need to be made in consultation with the District and Montgomery.

Since the state approved a concept plan to to put a signal on the Maryland side of the circle, some short-term improvements have been made. The county has built a new sidewalk on the west and north sides of the circle. The state upgraded pavement markings in 2011 and last year installed four bicycle lane signs near the circle. And the District has put in traffic-control signs and markings.

What remains up in the air is the traffic signal planned at the intersection of Colesville Road and 16th Street. Montgomery County estimated it would cost $250,000. Although the state approved the concept four years ago, Mookherjee said, nothing is in writing, including who will pay for it.

Maryland and city officials say it makes sense for the District, which already has traffic signals on its side of the circle, to maintain and operate any new signals in the Maryland side so that all are synchronized.

The three jurisdictions are to meet next week to come up with some answers and a clearer plan of action.

“Looking back, we can’t speak as to why there weren’t conversations about the signal, but we are moving forward,” said Christopher S. Bishop, the State Highway Administration’s Montgomery County liaison.

The traffic, combined with the growing number of cyclists and pedestrians in the area, makes the circle a bigger priority, said Salvador Lopez, a Silver Spring resident who crosses the circle on foot to go from his home on 16th Street to a bus stop on Eastern Avenue NW.

Better traffic signals and a greater police presence could ease the concerns and encourage drivers to be more cautious, Lopez said as he walked to catch the S2 bus.

“As a pedestrian, it is really hard when you are trying to compete with 3,000 cars,” Ashley Southall, 26, said as she waited to cross Colesville Road from the District side to the Silver Spring side.

For two years, Southall has managed to cross the road to get to the bus stop, but she said she finds it difficult each time. Northbound 16th Street traffic drives from the District into Montgomery, some cars turning right at Colesville Road and ignoring the white pedestrian crossing marks on the pavement.

“They should yield to pedestrians,” she said. “But they don’t.”

Bowser and Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who represent the area, said at a recent joint community meeting that they are frustrated after five years of pressing their local transportation agencies and the state to make improvements.

In a letter they sent last week to the three transportation agencies, Bowser and Ervin urged the jurisdictions “to work together expeditiously.”

“While we recognize the inherent complexity of the project, we remain extremely frustrated that it is not near completion after almost five years,” the letter said. “The individuals living in this area, as well as the drivers traveling through it, have waited far too long for positive change.”

Evan Glass, chairman of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, said even with the pedestrian enhancements, those who drive and live in the area know how dangerous the circle remains.

“I am not sure how many more accidents the Maryland State Highway Administration needs recorded before they decide to fix this traffic circle,” he said. “How many more pedestrians are going to be hit before they fix this situation?”