Move over, I-395: Southeast Freeway, 3rd Street Tunnel to be renumbered

The District Department of Transportation is taking big steps in an effort to improve safety on one of D.C.’s busiest and most vexing roads: the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.

Last year, DDOT submitted a formal proposal to designate the entire freeway system from the 14th Street Bridge to the 11th Street Bridge as Interstate 395, and renumber the 3rd Street Tunnel as Interstate 195.

Citing a need to “reduce motorist confusion and improve safety,” the District’s application was recently approved by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Pending federal approval, I-395 would override the portion of the freeway through Southeast D.C. currently signed at I-695. Essentially, I-395 would connect directly to I-295, and the 3rd Street Tunnel would be assigned its own number.

In the proposal, DDOT notes that “motorists are often surprised and confused by the atypical conditions presented by the termination of the I-395 and the beginning of the I-695 … and safety studies indicate that over 100 crashes annually are associated with weaving activity as a result of the unexpected exit condition.”

Currently, eastbound drivers from Virginia who want to stay on the freeway must use three lanes to the left of the exit for the 3rd Street Tunnel, where the freeway suddenly becomes I-695. More than half of the drivers who transitioned to I-695 didn’t know what road they were on, according to a WTOP survey in 2016.

“Origin-destination studies have determined that approximately two-thirds of eastbound I-395 motorists travel through the I-395/I-695 interchange continuing onto I-695, which supports the continuation of I-395 along the existing mainline of I-695,” the proposal reads.

The renumbering would allow for sequential or mileage-based exit numbers and mile markers from the Potomac to the Anacostia river.

The three sets of low exit numbers on both freeways and I-295 are a common source of confusion for drivers and call-takers at the District’s Office of Unified Communications. Miscommunication sometimes results in paramedics and firefighters responding to crashes and other incidents on the wrong road, prolonging emergency response times.

A separate application seeks to renumber the 3rd Street Tunnel as I-195. The exits to Federal Center, Capitol Hill, Washington Avenue Southwest, Massachusetts Avenue Northwest and New York Avenue Northwest would be renumbered as well.

Drivers of large commercial trucks sometimes inadvertently follow I-395 toward the tunnel despite the posted height and hazardous materials restrictions.

The applications were reviewed by the AASHTO Special Committee on U.S. Route Numbering and the Standing Committee. The Council on Highways and Streets and the Federal Highway Administration are expected to sign off on the final approval soon.

With the effort to reroute I-395 forthcoming, some physical changes on the freeway have already taken effect.

In late December, DDOT unveiled a new traffic pattern near the notorious left merge at the 9th Street Tunnel. Eastbound drivers emerging from the 9th Street Tunnel now have their own dedicated acceleration lane on the freeway.

The antiquated and abrupt left merge had been the scene of countless crashes since the freeway’s opening in the late 1960s. DDOT officials hope the new configuration will reduce the frequency of collisions between Maine Avenue Southwest and the 3rd Street Tunnel.

The new merge was created by narrowing the upstream double lane ramp from Maine Avenue Southwest to a single lane that gradually tapers onto the freeway.

The agency said it will monitor traffic conditions over the next six months and make adjustments as needed to finalize the revised merge design.

Additionally, the I-395 Signage Improvement Project is all but complete. This project entailed the removal and replacement of seven sign structures, and the repair of eight existing sign panels and structures.

Several new signs for Capitol Hill and the 3rd Street Tunnel were installed late last year. The northbound exit for 12th Street Expressway remains exit 3, while the southbound exit for the same destination is now labeled exit 4B.

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Dave Dildine

A native to the Washington area, Dave Dildine is no stranger to the region's complex traffic and weather patterns. Dave joined WTOP in 2010 when the station launched its very own in-house traffic service. You can hear him "on the 8s and when it breaks" from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.

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