Freeway frenzy on I-395 persists amid yearslong delay in updating DC signs

In the District, an interstate numbering discrepancy is contributing to a daily derby of swerving, crashing and even drivers throwing their vehicles into reverse on the Southeast/Southwest Freeway.

Now, the Federal Highway Administration is getting involved.

It has been nearly three years since the District Department of Transportation began the process of renumbering the Southeast/Southwest Freeway and 3rd Street Tunnel.

In mid-2021, the Federal Highway Administration signed off on a DDOT request to redesignate the 3rd Street Tunnel as Interstate 195 and extend Interstate 395 across the entire length of the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.

Some apps and maps, including the Lyft ridesharing app and the 2024 edition of the Rand McNally road atlas, label the tunnel and freeway by their new route numbers. However, the city’s overhead signs show the opposite.

A side-by-side collage of a paper map from the Rand McNally Road Atlas and a digital map. (WTOP/Dave Dildine, left) (Screenshot via Lyft App, right)

Apple and Google Maps, along with the app Waze, follow the older numbering scheme.

Officials at the Federal Highway Administration are concerned about the numbering discrepancies and said they have encouraged District officials to fix the problem.

“FHWA has discussed concerns with regard to inconsistencies with road signage with DDOT – and DDOT is working on a solution. DDOT is estimated to begin work on the updated signage later this year and FHWA will work with DDOT to ensure signage on the roadway is aligned with paper and digital maps,” a spokesperson told WTOP on Monday.

While the Federal Highway Administration did not specify a timeline for the execution of a route renumbering, the spokesperson made clear that local transportation departments should “implement a route renumbering through a coordinated plan to minimize any conflicting information that the public would use for navigational purposes.”

Most of the confusion arises when northbound drivers on I-395 approach the 3rd Street Tunnel. “Exit 5” was classified an exit but is also a continuation of the Southeast/Southwest Freeway. The redesign of I-395 eliminated this left exit, but the overhead signs were never changed.

Camera surveillance shows northbound vehicles suddenly weaving across multiple lanes of traffic several times a minute at the 3rd Street Tunnel ramp. Frequently, big trucks can be seen stopped on the ramp, impeding northbound traffic, or even backing up on the Interstate, attempting to reconnect with the Southeast/Southwest Freeway in reverse.

There have been at least 164 crashes on the Southeast/Southwest Freeway within a half mile of the 3rd Street Tunnel interchange so far this year, according to WTOP Traffic Incident Management records. WTOP records and archives all known crashes on area interstates in an internal database. The crashes are verified using a proprietary traffic camera set up to monitor conditions on the Southeast/Southwest Freeway.

The renumbering process began when the District’s department of transportation sent a request to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in late 2020. To support its request, the city pointed out 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.”

Both the association and the Federal Highway Administration approved the city’s request the following spring to renumber the freeway and the tunnel. While the changes were intended to improve clarity for drivers and road safety, the delay in updating overhead signs to match the new route numbers shown by maps and digital navigators have increased driver confusion and worsened safety.

There is a long history of confusing road signs along this stretch of freeway in Southwest D.C. In 2015, the wrong exit signs were posted in the same area. It took nearly a year to resolve the error.

WTOP has reached out to DDOT officials several times in the last year for information regarding the discrepancy but has not received a response.

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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