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Beltway Signs for Local Lanes

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
It appears that once again, the signage for the Wilson Bridge will be incomplete. Why are distances rarely included on our signs? It's annoying and unsafe to have to guess the distance to an exit.

In my experience, every other jurisdiction in the country includes distances to not only the next exit, but to to the next two or three exits. Do traffic officials in the D.C. metro area never travel outside the area?
Karen Nelson
Arlington

My readers often express their unhappiness with the number and type of signs displayed on the region's highways. Transportation officials tell me they try to avoid overloading drivers with information and instead to present that information at the spots it's most likely to be useful.

I think we'll be okay with the Beltway signs for the local lane exits at the Wilson Bridge. On our Sunday Commuter page about the newly opened Thru lanes, we displayed images of the signs that Beltway drivers will see announcing the upcoming split into Thru and Local lanes. But those aren't the only signs along the way.

Here's an image of the sign that describes the upcoming Local lane exits on the outer loop. See if this works for you.

Local lanes image.jpg

By Robert Thomson  |  December 8, 2008; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Wilson Bridge  
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Comments

I drove the new Outer Loop Lanes on Sunday, and I was very disappointed with the signage that was there. Dr. Gridlock showed a picture of a diagramatic overhead sign clearly showing the split between the express and local lanes. The signs were to be color coded for local and express lanes, with local lanes in white text on black, and express (thru) lanes in black text on white. Dr. Gridlock also showed a sign in this clip which shows "Local Lane Exits" and the distances to exits you will have to take the local lanes to get to.

This signage would be decent ***if any of it were actually installed this weekend!!*** I'd strongly suggest Dr. G take a ride down there if he hasn't already and see the crap that VDOT has posted for signs at this new traffic pattern and major split.

The two signs in advance of the split are not overhead signs like the ones shown in Dr. G's column last week, they are ground mounted signs, which in my opinion are way too small. If a truck is in the right lane, it is very likely that those signs could be completely blocked from view of approaching drivers. The signs are so small that they cannot even fit the words "Baltimore" and "Alexandria" in them...they have to be abbreviated "Balt." and "Alex."

At the split itself, there is an overhead sign. This sign does not have the color coding properly done...both the "thru" and "local" words are black text on yellow. If Wilson Bridge officials are going to highlight their color coding, they should at least ensure that all of the signs have the proper color coding!

Then there are no permanent signs which tell you which exits you have to use the local lanes to get to. None. Nada. The only signs warning drivers needing I-295, National Harbor, and Route 1 are portable electronic signs. One of them was done decently...it said "US 1 I-295 Natl Hrbr" and then scrolled to "Use local keep right". The other one tried jamming most of that info into one without scrolling and was nearly impossible to read. It was also ground mounted and could easily be missed by a car if a truck was in the right lane next to the sign.

And then there was at least one overhead changable electronic message sign approaching all of this. And it was completely dark. What a waste of resources.

I saw at least 1 car *each time* I drove through this area yesterday cutting across the striped area between the local and express lanes just after they split. Clearly the signs must have been very confusing or not providing enough information if drivers were taking such risky moves to get into their desired lane. Ironically, most of these cars were switching from the local to the express lanes, when the local lanes would have gotten them to their destination just fine.

Posted by: thetan | December 8, 2008 11:32 AM | Report abuse

I agree 100% with the issue of the poor signage on the Virginia approach of the Wilson Bridge. However, I am not surprised. Why??? This is VDOT; the same agency that placed the poor signage at the Springfield Interchange.

Granted the section of the Beltway between Eisenhower Avenue and Telegraph Road is a construction zone, VDOT still could have placed temporary overhead signs. The current ground mounted signs on the Outer Loop approaching the split can be easily missed, especially if there is a truck in the right lane.

In Maryland, we see how the signage is suppose to be done! There are overhead signs as far back as after the Branch Avenue exit (2 miles before the split) announcing the approaching Local/Express Lane Split. Then there are signs highlighting which exits to use for the Local Lanes: MD 210, I-295, US Route 1, and Telegraph Road. There are also signs highlighting the 3 next Express Lanes exits: Eisenhower Avenue, Van Dorn Street, and the Springfield Interchange. (These signs are all currently covered up until the Inner Loop Express Lanes open this weekend).

Come on Virginia, construction of a wonderful new road will never reach its full potential without good signing to go along with it.

Posted by: eyendis | December 8, 2008 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Why do you need signs. All the folks at VDOT know what goes where, so by this point, it should have seeped into the community and everyone should know where everything goes. If not, they'll adapt quickly.

I'm just waiting for the overhead signs to come out that simply say "ROAD" with an arrow pointing down.

Posted by: dj1123 | December 8, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I'm pretty sure the only reason the signs are ground-mounted right now is because there is ongoing construction to widen the beltway at that location. The overhead signs will likely be installed once all the lanes are built. I agree that the signs as they are at this point are sub-par. I also noticed that the sign at the actual split is hidden behind a ramp overpass until you are almost right at the split.
That said, I had a great commute this morning since all the thru traffic was off the local lanes. Can't wait until the inner loop is done.

Posted by: timandmelody | December 8, 2008 3:51 PM | Report abuse

The comment I tried to submit last night never showed up for some reason. Today I filmed the signs with a digital video camera while driving through the area and the video can be seen at this link (a portion has been removed between Eisenhower and Telegraph):

http://s31.photobucket.com/albums/c378/1995hoo/?action=view¤t=WilsonBridge.flv

The biggest things that are missing are, as I say near the end, something indicating "ALL LANES THRU" (similar to the signs in New Jersey at tollbooths with Express E-ZPass), anything at all of the sort shown in Dr. Gridlock's post showing distances to exits, and any arrows on the lone pull-thru signs. "KEEP LEFT" and "KEEP RIGHT" are stupid things to put on a sign that you encounter 30 seconds before you hit the gore point. By that time, lane-changing ought to be complete.

Yesterday, as I mention in the video, I saw a truck stopped on the gore area. Problem is, he couldn't go anywhere once he stopped because traffic wouldn't slow for him. I suppose at least his presence prevented cross-gore kamikaze stunts.

As "thetan" suggests, there ought to be signage making it abundantly clear that (1) all the lanes will go to the same place if you're not exiting and (2) all traffic seeking to exit should use the local lanes. (Of course there is an exit from the thru lanes at MD-210, which is another oddity--the sign says that you can go both north and south from the exit ramp, but I've read elsewhere that in fact you can't reach northbound MD-210 unless you make a U-turn.)

The proverbial bottom line seems to be that VDOT's signs are again designed for people who already know where they're going. On a brand-new road setup, this is dumb. There wasn't even a sign out there noting "NEW TRAFFIC PATTERN AHEAD--STAY ALERT" (something that's routinely posted in construction areas). All in all, I recognize that the Virginia Beltway is still a mess of construction starting at the Eisenhower Connector, and I recognize that this entails some compromises in terms of signage, but I think it's utterly foolish to assume that people already know where they're going and that small signs will do the job. Let's hope they improve things by Christmas week with the attendant long-distance travel. (As pointed out in my video, they at least posted one new sign since Monday.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 9, 2008 3:51 PM | Report abuse

1995hoo, if VDOT weren't giving pink slips to large portions of their staff, I'd suggest you apply for a job there. Though I suspect you might not like the compensation too much.

The "All lanes thru" sign is a great idea. I'm not sure why they opted for thru/local, instead of express/local like every other place in the country, but I suspect it is because they really really want through traffic to use the express lanes (I'd suggest the local lanes, since there seemed to be less traffic in them). However, I think safety concerns with people switching lanes at the last minute trump operational concerns of trying to coax people to use the express lanes. Just seeing a sign that says "local" vs. "thru" can make some people think that they have to be in the thru lanes unless they are exiting. If they signed it "express" and "local" with "all lanes thru", just like they do on I-270 in Rockville, then people would know that switching lanes isn't necessary to stay on I-95. And also, if any driver has any doubt that they might miss their exit, they can take the local lanes, knowing that if their exit is past the end of the local lanes, they can still get to it, and if it is on the local lanes, they won't miss it.

The exit for MD 210 stumped me at first, so I went to check it out. Signs from I-295 say "to 210, Indian Head" (doesn't specify a direction), signs from Express lanes say "210, Indian Head, Forest Hieghts"(implying you can go north or south), and local lane signs for that exit say "210 south, Indian Head" (implying south-only, but north has its own exit). Well, if you take those exits, the very first exit you come to on the connector to MD 210 says "to 210 north, Forest Heights". It is very well signed.

They absolutely need to have better signage. To start, use the resources you have....use the changable message signs on I-95 and the Outer Loop. You can fit a lot more text on those then on a portable sign. Say "Lanes Divide 3 miles, All Lanes Thru", and scroll back and forth to "I-295, Natl. Harbor, US 1, keep right". If you have to keep that sign on the Outer Loop turned on 24/7 until 2011 when Telegraph Road is done, then so be it. But on a road with a lot of trucks and more than 2 lanes each directions, overhead signs are almost a necessity.

The permanent "National Harbor, US 1, I-295, use local lanes" was a step in the right direction. And that deer warning sign is definitely new too!

Posted by: thetan | December 9, 2008 11:10 PM | Report abuse

Good point about the VMS. I meant to note that in my post and forgot; I also meant to note that nowhere do any of the signs in Virginia actually say "LANES DIVIDE" at the present time. I think most people would immediately recognize what "LANES DIVIDE" means because I think it's probably a safe bet that at least 75 percent of the people who drive on the Beltway (whether local or out-of-towners) have driven on the New Jersey Turnpike and seen the signs up there for the quad-carriageway split. Of course I also know VDOT will never take any cues from the Turnpike because VDOT tries to be slavish in following the MUTCD to the letter, whereas the Turnpike's sign standards generally predate it.

I haven't used the MD-210 exits yet. I found the comments on that ramp after a Google search....come to think of it, the thread from misc.transport.roads that turned up contained comments from one user that sounded a lot like they were probably written by one "thetan" or "Woodley Park" under a different name :-) I looked at Google Maps last night after posting here, though, and it looked as though it's a pretty easy connection back to MD-210 north by using Oxon Hill Road. Either way, that's one movement that I'm unlikely ever to use!

Final point--I don't think we should entirely blame VDOT for the "Thru/Local" terminology, since Maryland's signs are to use the same words. That means both states had a hand in the decision. It's probably fair to assume, though, that it was VDOT that objected to the term "Express" (given that Maryland uses it on I-270). I wonder whether the logic is similar to New Jersey's reason for not using the term "Fast E-ZPass" or "High-Speed E-ZPass" for open-road tolling lanes--they felt these terms encourage people to speed. "Express" connotes "high-speed" to a lot of people, so maybe it was thought that it might encourage people to go faster. (One might argue that the "Thru" lanes could have a higher speed limit due to the lack of exits, I suppose....although I noticed that the Inner Loop "Thru: lanes will have an on-ramp entering from the LEFT at US-1 when completed.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 10, 2008 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, the NJ Turnpike not only does not follow MUTCD signing standards, but they go so far as to replace MUTCD standard signs with NJ Turnpike standard signs (on the segment of I-95 between I-80 and the GW Bridge, which the NJ turnpike assumed control of more recently). I think part of the problem is that quad carriageway roads are still relatively rare, and there is no signage standard for them established anywhere, except for maybe NJ. The 2009 MUTCD will have some standards for "Managed Lanes" (HOT, HOV, Express Toll Lanes, Truck Only Lanes, etc), and some of that can probably be carried over to Express/Local setups.

Maryland's reluctance to use Express on future installations could be due to their planned "Express Toll Lanes" around the state. Right now they are studying the concept on I-95 north of Baltimore, but eventually I think they want to expand that to other roads if it is successful in Baltimore. So maybe they just want to get drivers used to those terms now without having the word Express having dual meanings in Maryland. Virginia is somewhat reluctant to use "Express" as well, since the HOV lanes on I-95 are referred to as "Restricted Lanes" on the signs where many other states would say "Express Lanes".

Posted by: thetan | December 10, 2008 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Something is wrong here....it keeps saying my posts are being "held for approval." I know there's been a real problem with trolls here, but the Post is making it awfully hard to use this feature of the site.

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 10, 2008 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm, so that post went through, yet the one I tried to submit with links to pictures of some highway signs in Toronto didn't work. I'll try this again without the links and instead I'll just say that if you look up Ontario 401 at onthighways.com you'll find ample pictures of what I describe below....if this post goes through!

What I tried to say was:

The only time Virginia uses the term "Express Lanes" these days is on the little auxiliary signs over the express lanes where they put "Express Lanes Only" (as though any rational driver out in the main carriageway will try to exit to the left at Seminary Road, for example).

Regarding signage standards, I rather like the convention adopted in Toronto on Ontario 401, which has a quad-carriageway system of "collector lanes" (access to all exits) and "express lanes" (access only to interchanges with other major highways such as the Don Valley Parkway, with occasional slip ramps back and forth similar to those on I-270 in Maryland). The road is a total of 18 lanes wide in a few places (typically a 5-4-4-5). Signs over the express lanes are in the standard North American "white-on-green" scheme, while signs over the collector lanes are in the "white-on-blue" scheme seen on European motorways. It seems like a better solution than using auxiliary signage, which is more expensive, adds more wording for the driver to read, and is subject to falling off or other damage.

Virginia used to use different-colored signs (white on a very dark, almost black, background) over the express lanes, but they did away with that sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Too bad. I guess the idea of anything other than white-on-green made too much sense.

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 10, 2008 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Follow-up....upon further reflection (as I drove home from the Caps game on I-395 tonight), I realized that the old signs in the Shirley Highway express lanes used a color scheme that was essentially what is now to be used for the "LOCAL" designators on the Wilson Bridge signs, the difference being that in the old days the WHOLE SIGN in the express lanes used that scheme. I rather liked it.

I've noticed where Maryland has had their signs up for quite some time now (covered over). If I get the chance on Monday or Tuesday I will shoot a follow-up video to compare the two states' signs, recognizing of course that Maryland's Beltway expansion project was done sooner than Virginia's for financial reasons. I think this time I might keep quiet in favor of some appropriate music....Bruce Springsteen's "Wreck on the Highway" keeps striking me as an appropriate song!

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 11, 2008 12:27 AM | Report abuse

One final comment for the night. I decided to try resubmitting a single URL of the links I wanted to post earlier. This picture gives a good sense of color-coding on the Toronto express/collector system; just bear in mind that Canadian signage uses somewhat different standards as to exit tabs (which appear to be absent) and a few other things than US signage does, as the Canadians delegate such matters to the provinces much more than the US does.

http://www.onthighways.com/hwy_401_images/401_cl_393_west.jpg

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 11, 2008 12:33 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 11, 2008 12:39 AM | Report abuse

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