This has become a frequently asked question about the District’s commute-reshaping 11th Street Bridge project: What’s “Interstate 695”? The formerly obscure designation now appearing on highway signs illustrates why the new bridge will be such a big deal.

“Interstate 695” goes back more than half a century as the unsigned designation for the Southeast Freeway. In that car-centric era, plans called for paving over much of the District. Bits of the original network were built, but large parts were shelved. Neighborhoods were preserved, and Metrorail was built.

Metrorail couldn’t take everyone everywhere. Many drivers had to piece together routes. This created problems for commuters and residents alike, because commonly used routes got drivers off highways and into neighborhoods.

The three new spans of the 11th Street Bridge over the Anacostia River will link highways for long-distance drivers and link neighborhoods for local travelers. In creating the connections, the District Department of Transportation received federal permission to extend the “I-695” designation from the freeway east across the river via the new bridge.

Now that the two-mile long interstate plays a bigger role in linking Interstate 395 and Interstate 295/D.C. 295, its three digits finally appear on highway signs. But the unfamiliar emblems of progress also confused some drivers after the first span opened in mid-December. That’s not the only instance in which some temporary confusion is likely to precede the convenience. Here’s what’s coming up.

Freeway spans

By Monday, if weekend work goes as scheduled, commuters will travel on a new outbound span.

The opening of the inbound span last month created a new traffic pattern near its entrance at I-295. Drivers heading for the bridge now stay left, rather than move to the right lanes. That should eliminate some difficult weaving among lanes, because this is also where drivers come up a heavily used ramp on the right that leads back to Firth Sterling Avenue, Howard Road and Suitland Parkway.

But Alan L. Seltzer, a commuter from Beltsville, wrote on the Dr. Gridlock blog that some drivers will have a problem until other elements of the project open. Because of the still-missing highway links, drivers coming down D.C. 295 from the north bypass the bridge, make a U-turn and come back up that northbound ramp. They now have to move left in a hurry to reach the lanes for the inbound span.

Outbound route

Opening the new outbound span also will create temporary issues for Southeast Freeway drivers heading to neighborhoods just east of the river. This span is designed mainly to serve through traffic. Local drivers should consider these options:

●Exit the freeway at the Sixth Street SE ramp, continue east on Virginia Avenue SE, turn right on Eighth Street SE, then left on M Street SE and then right on 11th Street SE and onto the old outbound bridge. On the east side, drivers will use new bridges over I-295 and the railroad tracks to reach Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

●Exit the freeway at South Capitol Street, take the Douglass Bridge over the river, continue to Suitland Parkway, turn left on Firth Sterling Avenue SE, turn right on Howard Road SE.

●Continue on the new outbound freeway river bridge to southbound I-295 and exit at Howard Road SE.

●Continue eastbound on the freeway to Pennsylvania Avenue and take the Sousa Bridge to Minnesota Avenue.

13th Street ramp

The ramp from 13th Street SE in Anacostia to the inbound bridge is scheduled to close permanently in March. That helps clear the way for construction of the new ramps for the bridge, but it’s also likely to increase travel times for drivers who have to detour and will increase congestion on the alternative routes.

These are some options heading west across the river:

●Take Suitland Parkway or Howard Road to the Douglass Bridge or to the inbound 11th Street Bridge via northbound I-295.

●From Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, take Malcolm X Avenue to I-295 north to the 11th Street Bridge.

●Take Pennsylvania Avenue SE to the Sousa Bridge.

New links

The ramp from southbound D.C. 295 to the new inbound span is scheduled to open this spring. The ramp from the new outbound span to northbound D.C. 295 is scheduled to open this summer.

That’s the jackpot for the long-distance commuters, because it will fill in the missing links between the highways. It also will benefit the neighborhoods by eliminating a lot of that U-turning traffic on local roads.

Local bridge opening

The third new span, the one for local traffic, is scheduled to open this summer. That will restore direct local access across the river via the 11th Street Bridge. But, as with the freeway spans, it won’t initially provide all the good stuff it’s meant to have.

At first, it will have two lanes for inbound traffic and one for outbound traffic. One lane on the outbound side and the pedestrian/bike path still will still be under construction.

Also, inbound traffic initially won’t have direct access to M Street. After crossing the river, drivers will be detoured right on O Street and then left on 12th Street to reach M Street.

The final configuration should be in place during the fall.