The District’s 11th Street Bridge project opened a new ramp Thursday from I-295 onto the local bridge, one of three spans that make up the massive project. (Courtesy of 11th Street Bridge project)

You’d think after waiting decades for something to happen, commuters would take advantage when it does. That isn’t happening as quickly as planners hoped with the new freeway ramp from southbound D.C. 295 to the 11th Street Bridge.

Drivers unfamiliar with this area along the Anacostia River may wonder why a ramp opening is a big deal — historic, even. The reason is that before the ramp, this spot was one of the missing links in the D.C. region’s highway system.

Generations of commuters from Maryland heading for downtown Washington or jobs in Arlington County complained that they had to get off the freeway right where a connecting ramp would shorten their trips over the river and onto the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.

Residents of Anacostia and Capitol Hill also didn’t think much of the arrangement. It not only created commuting difficulties for them, but it also had those other travelers looking for shortcuts through their neighborhoods.

In 2010, the District started building three new spans to replace the two that made up the 11th Street Bridge. All the new spans — two for freeway traffic and one for local traffic — are now open. Much of this year’s work has involved building the ramps that will create new opportunities for commuters. Many more of them are scheduled to open this fall.

The opening of a ramp onto the 11th Street Bridge's local span is one of many changes this fall.
Partway there

The July 30 opening of the inbound freeway ramp began to ease the burden on commuter and community. In September, many commuters got an extra incentive — not that they should have needed it — to switch to this long-awaited route: The D.C. Department of Transportation shut one of the westbound lanes along the Southeast Freeway between Barney Circle and the main part of the freeway. The new construction will replace this part of the freeway with an urban boulevard.

Because of the recent lane closing, inbound commuters on Pennsylvania Avenue SE face a new problem at the Anacostia River, but they also have a new solution: Follow the detour signs up the ramp onto southbound D.C. 295, then take the new ramp onto the 11th Street Bridge.

“They’re not coming yet,” said Peter McDonough, construction manager for the 11th Street Bridge project. Commuting habits are hard to break, even when they’re unpleasant ones.

McDonough points out that many of those commuters will be forced into a change when the westbound lanes are completely shut later this year.

Other openings

While those commuters adjust, other new ramps are likely to benefit thousands more and go further toward easing the burden on local streets.

The main event for many will be the opening of the outbound freeway ramp from the bridge onto northbound D.C. 295, the freeway north of the bridge. That’s the other big missing link. McDonough expects it will open around Thanksgiving, an appropriate season for this event. Once the new ramp is in place, only a glutton for punishment will do what commuters do now: Drive from the Southeast Freeway onto Pennsylvania Avenue, cross the Sousa Bridge and wait at a traffic signal to make a left turn onto D.C. 295.

Here again, the boulevard project will be a factor. The eastbound lanes of that Southeast Freeway segment will close around the start of 2013, completing the shutdown, which will continue for about a year and a half or more while the roadway is raised about 20 feet.

More parts of the project are falling into place.

Just south of the 11th Street Bridge, a new ramp opened last week links northbound Interstate 295 with the new span known as the local bridge.

If you’re among the many morning commuters who come in on Suitland Parkway and then drive onto I-295 to reach the 11th Street Bridge, this could be the breakthrough you’ve been waiting for. In fact, it’s a break for all drivers in this very congested area, because it should eliminate a lot of lane changing.

Drivers using this new ramp need to keep in mind that it leads up to an intersection controlled by a new traffic signal. A left turn will take them across the river, toward the Navy Yard and Capitol Hill, and a right turn will take them into Anacostia.

A short distance away, work continues on the ramp that will help those Navy Yard/Capitol Hill drivers get home in the afternoon. It will go from the outbound local bridge onto southbound I-295 and should open in mid-October.

Also coming are ramps that will connect the local bridge with northbound and southbound D.C. 295. Across the river, a ramp from 11th Street SE onto the westbound Southeast-Southwest Freeway is scheduled to open in mid-November.

And more detours

If all this seems very complicated, you’re getting the right idea. Even McDonough thinks it’s complicated. He has been picking up pieces of old roadway and putting down new ones in a sequence intended to keep traffic flowing during construction.

Lest this forecast appear too rosy, commuters should note that they’re in for further dislocations as the next phase of the project develops along the north bank of the Anacostia River.

That phase will continue into 2015, thanks to $90 million in additional funding. McDonough describes the sequencing of demolition, detouring and construction on the north bank as even more complicated than some of the earlier work, but we’ll talk more about that as it develops and sets the stage for turning Barney Circle into a real traffic circle.