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Navigating Wilson Bridge Thru Lanes

Some readers of the blog and The Post's Commuter page told me early this week they were disappointed in the quality of the signs guiding them through the new split between Thru and Local lanes that opened last weekend on the outer loop of the Wilson Bridge.

A frequent and reliable commenter who now uses "thetan" as a handle wrote:
"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!!"

Another commenter, 1995hoo, took the trouble of presenting a dashboard-view video.

The people at the Wilson Bridge project who have tried very hard for many years go make sure the construction work is understandable to drivers looked over the critiques for me and offered some responses, which I'll present here, with thanks to Johanna Spangenberg Jones for collecting the information.

Why Are Some Signs Temporary?
The construction at the Telegraph Road interchange construction will result in frequent lane shifts and constrictions in the area approaching the current Thru/Local lane split on the outer loop. In fact, the Telegraph Road construction in the next few years will extend the entrance and exit of the Thru lanes out to between the Eisenhower Avenue and Telegraph Road exits.

So it isn't feasible to put up large, permanent overhead signs to notify motorists of the lane split. Instead, the Wilson Bridge Project is limited to posting signs to the far-right side of the outer loop notifying motorists of the approaching split. Space constraints and wind conditions limit the size of these temporary signs.

How Temporary?
The adjustments on the outer loop will last at least through 2009 or 2010. The signs used on Dr. Gridlock's Commuter page in Sunday's Post were representative of what drivers will ultimately see both loops in advance of the divide between the Thru and Local lanes.

On the inner loop in Maryland approaching the lane split, nearly all the signs are permanent and in final location and will look similar to how the signs are displayed on the Web site, but there will be some modifications as additional ramps open in the spring.

What Changed This Week?
Additional signs were posted and modifications were made to the existing signs. Project managers also are reviewing the current signage and evaluating ways to improve drivers' understanding of the Thru/Local split on the outer loop.

What's Under Consideration?
-- Removing any excess signs.
-- Using VDOT's overhead message boards just before the Eisenhower Connector to provide additional guidance about lane split.
-- Reviewing the variable messages on the highway signs to make them as readable as possible for drivers.
-- Looking into enhanced signs and the best placement of these signs.

Jones added: "We appreciate getting feedback from the public, as no matter how much planning we do for traffic changes, day-to-day drivers interpretations and experiences are often much different, and we can try to make necessary changes."

She also urged drivers to look for alternative routes this weekend, while the inner loop lane split is prepared for opening. The work is scheduled to start at 9 o'clock tonight and continue through noon Sunday.

"We are expecting very heavy delays from Branch Avenue (MD-5) to Telegraph Road Interchange as the Beltway will be reduced to one lane," she said. "Our activities will be more extensive than this past weekend's activities, but we are expecting to have equally favorable results with the opening of the inner loop Thru lanes as we have seen on the outer loop Thru lanes this week."

Project managers were encouraged about the traffic flow on the outer loop during the afternoon periods when congestion is typical.

By Robert Thomson  |  December 12, 2008; 3:33 PM ET
Categories:  Wilson Bridge  
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Thank you, Dr. Gridlock, for drawing attention to this issue.

I think if the overhead changable message sign between Van Dorn and the Eisenhower Connector is utilized, this would dramatically improve the communication. Those signs are much larger, have room for more characters (letters and numbers), and are much easier to see from the center and left lanes than smaller signs off to the side.

My first choice would be to have the sign scroll (but not too fast...I noticed VDOT's signs on I-95 were only displaying each message for about 1 second this past summer when there was an outer loop detour). One message can say "LANES DIVIDE, THRU TRAFFIC, KEEP LEFT", and the other can say "LANES DIVIDE, US 1/I-295/Nat Harbor, KEEP RIGHT".

Notice I left "Express", "Local", "Baltimore", "Alexandria", etc. off my proposed messages, because messages should be as short and concise as possible, especially a scrolling message. The 2 main points that need to be communicated are: 1) Thru traffic should use the thru lanes on the left, and 2) in order to reach I-295, US 1, or National Harbor, you have to use the local lanes on the right.

Posted by: thetan | December 12, 2008 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and one more thing. It would be nice if this could be in effect by Dec 20. That weekend begins the Christmas travel season, and there will be many through travelers on I-95 that are not as familiar with the project. Perhaps to reach out to these drivers, the next changable message sign back from Van Dorn on I-95 (might be south of Springfield) and the one closest to the split on the Inner Loop in Maryland could display something such as: "New Traffic Pattern, I-95 north (south), Stay Alert". Fairly subtle, but at least it grabs people's attention so they are actually reading the signs when they get to the bridge.

Posted by: thetan | December 12, 2008 5:30 PM | Report abuse

I give up...I've tried three times to post a response and am having no luck. I copied-and-pasted the text to a Notepad file before attempting to post, so I guess I will try again later.

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 13, 2008 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Let's try this again split up into shorter posts.

I drove over the bridge again on Thursday (the day with all the rain) and the VMS between Van Dorn and Eisenhower was activated. I believe it said something along the lines of "US-1/I-295/NATL HARBOR USE LOCAL LANES." (I'm not 100% certain as there was more traffic than when I shot my video, plus it was raining, so I couldn't look as closely as I wanted because I was focused on the road.)

Still, it was good progress, and it does show that the Powers That Be are taking the issue seriously, so I respect that. There's little excuse for not using the VMS when it's available, so I'm glad they turned it on.

As I said in the earlier thread, I'm still surprised that there were no signs anywhere this week reading "NEW TRAFFIC PATTERN." Normally we ALWAYS see that wording somewhere when there's a significant change in the road. I agree with "thetan" that this would be beneficial all the way through the Christmas/New Year's travel period. There will be enough out-of-town people coming through who only use these roads once or twice a year that the message will help grab their attention and cause them to read the signs. (Hopefully it would also help grab the attention of the people who blindly adhere to a sat-nav, as no sat-nav will yet reflect the new setup at the bridge.) I'd think one possibility would be to use the portable VMS that's currently on the Outer Loop shoulder prior to the Van Dorn exit to say:

[it might actually be 4 miles, but you get the point]

and have that message as the sole message on the sign. It might be good to put another portable VMS with the same message on the LEFT shoulder, given that the majority of long-distance drivers at Christmastime will be coming off the flyover ramp at the Springfield Interchange and will thus be in the Beltway's two left lanes.

More to follow.

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 13, 2008 12:59 PM | Report abuse

The fact that my last comment went through suggests that there is a software filter in place to catch really long posts! Good to know!

Continuing where I left off, after using the portable VMS as stated before, I'd recommend using the VMS at Eisenhower to scroll between these two messages:



This VMS is the only overhead VMS on the Outer Loop between the Springfield Interchange and the Wilson Bridge, so it makes sense to use it to its fullest capability.

With all that said, I still think it would also help if there were a prominent notation on the signs that said "ALL LANES THRU." However, I recognize that this wording is a problem in that it's potentially ambiguous when the inner carriageways are termed "Thru" lanes, and I don't know what the ideal solution is short of rewording it to "Express" and "Local." I also understand the desire to direct people not exiting at US-1 or I-295 into the "Thru" lanes so as to reduce merging conflicts, and that's a worthwhile goal too. But the point of this suggestion, which I made in the video I uploaded, is to make it clear that there is no need to make a kamikaze last-second cross-gore lane change at the "Thru"/"Local" split because either carriageway lets you stay on the Beltway. In many ways, that's ultimately the most important thing--allowing people to sort themselves out in advance (recognizing that there will always be someone who wrongly thinks he's in a hurry and drives like a jerk, but you don't base your signage on that type of driver).

One example of an "ALL LANES THRU" sign would be the signs New Jersey uses for tollbooths where there are open-road tolling E-ZPass lanes:

Notice the "Toll Plaza" notation at the top, which is similar to the "Lanes Divide" notation to be used on the final signage for the Wilson Bridge.

BTW, one last comment--I agree with "thetan" that I appreciate Dr. Gridlock's continuing to focus on this issue.

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 13, 2008 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I was out there today to check out the new inner loop setup.

As for the outer loop, I think the use of the VMS near Eisenhower Ave. is a huge improvement. A scrolling VMS will always grab a driver's attention in this area (since they are not always on), and it plants the idea in people's brain that there is some kind of lane divide up ahead. It is enough to "perk up" people's attention so that they are actually looking for signs on the right. 1995hoo has good suggestions...though I feel like those messages he suggests for the VMS might be just a tad bit too long.

The inner loop signage was fine, I thought, as I expected it to be. Since there is no "option" lane leading to the split, I felt the local/express utilization was a little more even than on the outer loop, where it seems most people in the center lane go to the Thru lanes, leaving a slight traffic imbalance with more traffic in the Thru lanes. I thought they handled the 4 to 3 merge on the VA side well. I was hoping one of the Local lanes would not become an Exit Only lane, since DC area drivers seem to have problems with those.

The real test will be Monday morning rush hour. But I think things will be much better than they were before, regardless of if there is a minor backup at Telegraph. Looks like one of DC area's main bottlenecks is gone.

Posted by: thetan | December 13, 2008 9:17 PM | Report abuse

I made a roundtrip run over the Wilson Bridge this afternoon using the "Thru" lanes (Outer Loop from Van Dorn to Branch Avenue, then the Inner Loop from Branch Avenue to Springfield). Traffic was light, presumably due to it being during the fourth quarter of the Redskin game, but I didn't take the video camera this time because the light wasn't good for that. I made the following observations:

(1) The Outer Loop VMS just before the Eisenhower exit was on and alternating between the following two messages:


US-1 AND I-295

I thought this was very effective and easy to read. Huge improvement. Kudos to VDOT for taking feedback into account.

(2) The signs in Maryland were all very good (subject to one error noted below). The only thing missing was that there is no actual overhead pull-thru sign at or just before the gore point. I did notice that there is a pole in place for a sign gantry, so I assume this will go up in the future. If the signs in Virginia will eventually be like those in Maryland, then I think all will work out well. (As I've acknowledged before, the Maryland Beltway construction was much further along than in Virginia, so it's not 100% fair to compare the two states' signs straight-up at this point.)

More to follow in another post given my repeated problems with posting lately!

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 14, 2008 5:24 PM | Report abuse


(3) Maryland had portable VMS units on BOTH shoulders to the west of Branch Avenue advising drivers which lanes to use. I thought having them on both sides was a good idea. On Saturday night Virginia hadn't done this between Springfield and Van Dorn; hopefully they will within the next week.

(4) One of Maryland's signs listing the "THRU EXITS" contains an error, although a fairly minor one. The sign identifies Van Dorn Street as VA-401. It's actually VA-613 at its interchange with the Beltway (as can be seen on VDOT's signage at that interchange). VA-401 does not begin until Van Dorn crosses the Alexandria city limits (roughly between the railroad overpass and the Metrorail overpass just north of the used-car dealer). I suppose this is minor because I don't know of ANYONE who refers to Van Dorn by either number (and I live off Van Dorn, so I feel qualified to comment), but there's really no reason for there to be erroneous information on the signs.

(5) The only serious issue I saw was on the Inner Loop "Thru" lanes in Virginia. There's a ramp from US-1 that enters the "Thru" lanes on the left. But the yellow warning sign showing a merge from the left is on the right-hand side of the road. It really ought to go on the left, since it's the drivers in the left lane who are most immediately affected by it. In fairness, there's a very wide shoulder there because of the plans to expand the carriageway to three lanes, and thus a warning sign on the left would be set fairly far from the left lane. But it struck me as quite odd to see a sign on the right warning of a merge from the left.

(6) Finally, the white sign all the way at the current end of the Virginia part of the Inner Loop "Thru" lanes advising that drivers should not cross the double white line and that "Thru" lanes traffic has no access to Telegraph Road struck me as rather small and last-minute. Of course, I know it's to be temporary because the quad-carriageway is to be extended to the west, but I thought a slightly larger sign would be easier to read.

All in all, though, Maryland's signs were very good and as advertised, and I think VDOT deserves credit for tweaking things to make improvements over the past week based on public feedback. The signage I saw today, if maintained through Christmas and New Year's, should be helpful for the out-of-towners passing through.

I will be very interested in hearing how the traffic flows next Sunday (Dec. 21) to and from the Redskins v. Eagles game. That should be a very good test because a lot of the people making the drive won't be people who use the bridge on weekdays.

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 14, 2008 5:36 PM | Report abuse

One minor thing I noticed on my daylight trip to the bridge today where I drove the local lanes for the first time: There really isn't very much warning on the Maryland side of the local lanes on the inner loop that the right lane becomes an "Exit Only" lane at I-295. The exit direction sign (aka, the sign with the arrow on it) has an "Exit Only" pattern on the bottom. But the sign before it simply says "Next Right" on the bottom (in black on yellow), where it really should say "Exit V Only" (with V representing a down arrow). That, and perhaps a right turn arrow or two in the pavement of that lane.

Posted by: thetan | December 14, 2008 5:54 PM | Report abuse

I see Scott Kozel sent my video to the WWB project folks. It'd be interesting to know to what degree any of that factored into some of the improvements we've noticed. I didn't go near the bridge today, but I did get stuck in traffic on US-1 south of the Beltway and I found it amusing to hear Bob Marbourg state that the traffic over the bridge was moving so well that a bit of a backup was forming in Virginia as drivers adjusted to the merge from two carriageways back to one. No surprise there, but it's good to hear that the new setup is reducing the backups getting to the bridge.

Also no surprise to see the Outer Loop snarled when I passed under it on Van Dorn Street around midday....regardless of road improvements, DC-area drivers seem to have a deep-seated need to crash into things and tie up the Beltway.....

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 15, 2008 10:41 PM | Report abuse

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