Dysfunction Junction Vol. 4: Dave Thomas Circle

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Dysfunction Junction chronicles the most forlorn, baffling, and wonderful crossroads of our fair city. Ben Ball is a transportation nerd in his spare time. He lives in LeDroit Park. Ben previously wrote about L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station.

I love Wendy’s as much as the next guy, but this is ridiculous.  Everybody seems to know this area as “Dave Thomas Circle” – a moniker that was actually coined by DDOT itself in a study. The original link is dead now…maybe that name got a frosty reception.  (Zing!)

DDOT “fixed” this intersection in June 2010 at a cost of three million dollars, and ever since it’s become infamous for nonsensical routing, baffling inaccessibility, and traffic pileups.  They did succeed in one thing:  if you happen to be heading west on Florida Avenue or east on New York Avenue in a car, it’s not bad at all – you can drive-thru.  (Zing again!)

Every other direction is a challenge.  Going east on Florida requires a near-circumnavigation of Wendy’s.  You’d think that one of the main thoroughfares between the U St corridor and the H St area would require a quicker and easier connection, even if it meant using the powers of eminent domain against “the world’s third largest quick-service hamburger company”.  (In case you’re wondering, the assessed value of that property is just over five million dollars.)

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On the east end of the intersection, reconstruction of the New York Avenue bridge has backed up traffic for nigh on two years now.  (Thanks, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009!)  How bad does it get?  Someone actually delivered a baby at that intersection because they couldn’t extricate themselves from a traffic snarl.  Here’s hoping that kid was named either Wendy or Dave.

At this weekend’s Mid-City East planning meeting, just about everyone mentioned that getting through this area on a bus or a bike is far more difficult than it should be.  If you’re on a bike, get ready for narrow or non-existent sidewalks, confused drivers, and lots of potholes.  Buses have to take a time-consuming, inefficient detour down First St to avoid the Wendy’s.

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Traffic aside, the architectural aesthetics of the area also leave much to be desired.  I’m definitely tired of seeing the same building type all over DC, but when I look at that awful ATF complex I wonder what special security purpose that semi-circular concrete exoskeleton could possibly serve.  (Setback?  Perhaps, but the other side of the building is practically right next to the street.)

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The current triangular hole in the ground will eventually become the Washington Gateway, a complex of several buildings that promises a “European plaza” and “hanging gardens”.  The surround sound effect from traffic and the Metro will come gratis with all the offices and residences, thankfully.  It’s going to be really interesting to see how they’re going to deal with pedestrian access.  Hopefully it will involve a pathway around the Wendy’s in some way.  Clearly, that’s what’s important here.

58 Comment

  • I once got such severe food poisoning from that Wendy’s that I couldn’t leave the house or over a month. I reported it to the Dept.of public health and was told, via a recording, that they take claims of food poisoning very seriously and would respond to my call within 48 hours. You think I ever received a call back? M stomach is churning just thinking about it.

  • I wonder what was supposedly “wrong” with the intersection the way it was before. I didn’t drive through this area all that often, so I don’t have a clear memory of what it used to be like… but the fact that I can’t remember anything unusual suggests that it couldn’t have been all that bad.

    Unlike this memorably awful clusterf***.

    • It was pretty terrible before. This was meant to address the volume of left turn traffic from NY to FL and versa visa, but it seems to have made things worse. Or it could be a covert attempt to make the neighborhood so nightmarish that people avoid it. If that’s the intention, in my case, it’s a rousing success.

    • The only issue was the right lane jug handle turn going east on Florida in order to turn northeast onto NY Ave (there is no left turn onto NY Ave, so you had to do a kind of reverse “New Jersey left” to go that direction). That would back up the eastbound right lane on Florida during rush hour. That was it. That was the only problem with this intersection other than the volume it normally sees. There are several ways to solve that issue (probably the easiest being to allow turns with a dedicated left turn lane extending two blocks west to where the gas station is; extended left turn signal onto NY Ave during the evening rush). Now the folks trying to get to NY Ave at the *very* short light just block all lanes in BOTH directions because of the light timing.

    • Thanks for the background, monkeyrotica and anony.

  • One of the worst intersections in DC! And to think, they just “fixed” it in 2010 but in reality, I think DOT made it worse. Whatever civil engineers designed this mess should find a new profession. Squid.

  • I live just north of the intersection in Eckington and frequently walk through there. It is horrible – and completely unsafe – for pedestrians. Drivers always get frustrated with the traffic buildup and run red lights, so I’m amazed there aren’t more accidents or hit pedestrians. It would be a horrible intersection if every driver followed the rules and didn’t make illegal rights on red, turn into the wrong lane, or run red lights. But those things happen everytime I’m there, so it’s a complete clusterf*#k. When some pedestrian does get killed, I hope their estate sues the hell out of the city for designing such an unsafe and obviously flawed intersection. Then they’ll realize buying the Wendy’s for $5 million and doing it right would have been the cheap option.

  • I’ve passed that on a bike twice a day for some years. It was pretty bad before, and I can’t really say if it’s actually worse now. However, one thing definitely has improved for biking: the Metropolitan Branch Trail opened just about as construction began, and ever since I’ve sailed over the congestion.

  • I’m not usually a fan of Eminent Domain, but D.C. badly needs to eminent domain the Wendys and reconnect the street grid. It’ll pay for itself in the first year by sheer efficiency improvements.

    • “It’ll pay for itself in the first year by sheer efficiency improvements.”

      …huh?

      • Well, if you put a value on efficient flow of transportation with a minimum of back ups and user delays, then improvements will pay for themselves. If you don’t put a value on infrastructure efficiency then every cent spent on roadway construction and upkeep is waste of money. Not everything of value can be counted in dollars.

        • True, but when the benefits you’re talking about are not measurable in dollars, you shouldn’t use the phrase “it pays for itself.” More like “it’s worth the cost.” The lottery ticket I bought last week paid for itself because it cost $1 and I won $1. The vacation I took the week before was worth it, but it didn’t pay for itself.

  • When PoP started this series this is the intersection that immediately came to mind. Unfortunately, eastbound Florida Ave is part of the most direct driving route from most of MD to where I live in DC. When friends or family from out of town that are not used to city driving come to visit my directions must include, “When you see the Wendy’s, stay in the middle lane and DON’T PANIC,” or they will get lost.

    On the plus side, when I’m running late I know I can always count on this intersection to give me a few extra minutes to catch my bus.

  • Awful intersection. Just move the damn Wendy’s!

  • DC needs to put a huge “I’m sorry for what you’re about to experience” sign at every entrance to that intersection!

  • As someone who occasionally needs to approach the circle from Eckington Place and then head south down 1st Street NE I can assure everyone that this circle makes no sense. For instance, the signage on Eckington Place doesn’t really take into account that someone might want to end up on 1st St NE (you have a choice of getting into lanes for Florida Ave heading West or NY Ave heading East – that’s it). Also the timing of the lights is just way too advantageous to the traffic on NY Ave – every other street gets backed up.

    • Agreed! I’ve tried to continue onto 1st St NE and the only way possible is to make several others drivers extremely mad when you have to cut in front of them and over a couple lanes usually after the light turns red. Poor planning.

      • Actually, the problem with southbound cars on Eckington Place is the people in the right lane are only supposed to turn right onto Florida westbound. The problem occurs when these people in the right lane turn onto 1st St and cause both Eckington Place lanes to merge into one lane mid-turn. The people in the left lane are the only ones who should go onto 1st St, thus they then have the option of staying on 1st or turning on NY.

        Of course, when you raise this or any other problem at this intersection with the police, their response is, “yes, we know that’s a problem, but if we pull people over in that intersection it only makes traffic worse.” So apparently you can do whatever you want and the police will do nothing.

        • I get caught up in this exact situation often while driving south on Eckington Place to 1st Street NE. I’m supposed to be in the left lane, and the cars to my right are supposed to turn right onto Florida Ave Eastbound… but they never do. I get cut off, squeezed out, cursed at, honked at, given the finger, etc. for doing the right thing. I recently got a flash of the lights and a buzz of the siren-horn from an MPD officer (who was illegally going straight from the right lane) while doing the right thing.

          Then again, many cars moving westbound on Florida fail to stop when they have a red light there, too. They’ll just slow to 5 MPH or so and roll right through, completely disregarding traffic approaching from their left.

          It’s total chaos. I’ve requested that DDoT send some traffic control personnel there during rush hours to help guide the traffic correctly (like I often see near the convention center) to no avail.

  • Its worse off than before

    not to mention the tons of peole who just dont know how to take the circle

  • When I’m headed eastward out of town on Route 50, I’ll go a mile or two out of my way to avoid this intersection.

  • Got to hand it to those brave souls who actually reach the Wendy’s in the center of the circle. They must really want their Wendy’s fix to go through all that congestion.

    • After being stuck in traffic for 30 min on NY Ave on Sunday I actually tried going to this Wendy’s but never made it because I couldn’t figure out how to get to the entrance! I just gave up.

    • The redesign is a secret plan to cut off the Wendy’s, drive it out of business, then seize the lot by eminent domain for a lot less than the previously assessed value.

      Gridlock + No More Trans Fats = Profits!!!

      Nice work dDot

  • I cycle this twice a day. When going from 1st NE to westbound on Florida Ave I (and all other cyclists) use the crosswalk to avoid the extra distance and time from the circle and additional stoplights.

    This couldn’t have been the intention? Generally, I try to avoid biking on sidewalks, but this is an exception.

    • I don’t know where you’re coming from onto 1st NE and going to on westbound Florida, but I once did essentially that and now take the Metropolitan Branch Trail from L (stairs) or M (ramps) up across Florida to R, a very reasonable bike street which takes me back to Florida between 1st and 2nd NW. Aside from not having to hassle with Dave Thomas Circle, I get to watch the trains.

      • Forgot to enter my handle.

        • Thanks! I’m trying the new route today after work.

        • Ditto the thanks. Jumping on the MBT is a nice alternative to cycling the wrong way to wait endlessly on the sidewalk in front of McDonalds and up the sidewalk to Florida every evening. Been doing the latter every day for a few years now.

  • As with most traffic issues in the metro area, this intersection seems to invite a lot of hyperbole. I used to work in NoMa. I’ve driven through the intersection from several approaches, and its odd at first, but not that big a deal. I’ve walked across it, via Florida, and First, and also biked through it. Not much different than any other intersection across a wide state-named street in DC. For peds especially, its got better sidewalks and better crosswalks. I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.

  • The interesting part is that the intersection was “reworked” but the Wendy’s was preserved. A six-way intersection involving two busy diagonals is going to be tough but I am confident taking the Wendy’s out of Dave Thomas Circle would make matters simpler. Eminent Domain power exists to deal with situations like this, I hope it get used.

  • I was once Mayor of Dave Thomas Circle on Foursquare.

    Yeah, I’m easily entertained.

    • i was once accused of stiffing the “pharmacist” of Dave thomas Circle.
      i swear it wasn’t me. almost got jumped because of mistaken identity.

  • I traverse this junction on a near-daily basis and there are three main problems that still need to be solved.

    Going from NY Ave East to FL Ave West is one of the most infuriating experiences I’ve had driving in DC. The light for the turn lane only turns green for about 10 seconds, but you also have to make the light to cross NY Ave within 5 seconds, or have the red-light camera snap you. However, like clockwork MD and VA drivers don’t make the connection between the pedestrian walk sign countdown and the number of seconds the light turns green, so they usually don’t move right when the light turns green and only a car or two can make the “turn”. Furthermore, pedestrians who otherwise have 50 seconds to make the crossing (or wait 10 seconds for the traffic to pass, THEN cross) will often block the intersection at inopportune times.

    Trying to make a turn from Eckington Place (by XM-Sirius) onto NY Ave West is also a crapshoot… There are confusing and conflicting signs saying both “Turns onto FL Ave ONLY” and a sign telling drivers which lane to choose for either NY or FL Aves. However, NO ONE pays attention to those signs anyway and drivers will cut each other off to cross the lanes necessary to get to NY Ave West. I’ve seen many a near-accident on that stretch.

    Lastly, the line of cars over the NY Ave bridge is always slow as molasses – even at Midnight! Although the roadwork is necessary, DDOT always manages to choose the worst possible time to single-lane that bridge. I’ve seen traffic jams at 12 AM due to that closure, which seems to be taking the better part of 1.5 years to complete.

    TL;DR: DC should eminent domain the Wendy’s, fix the intersection.

  • This is a horrendous intersection – and an assault on the the neighborhood. I walk through it every day to catch NoMa metro, or I bike through it. On Saturday, I sat in my car for more than 15 minutes because it was totally clogged up — and because its in NE, there is NEVER, EVER a traffic cop. Why Florida doesn’t simply go straight through is beyond me — and how in the world did that damn Wendy’s island end up there. Whoever thought up the $3million fix should be fired — or be forced to go through that hot mess every morning and evening as punishment.

  • The real problem isn’t the intersection — though it’s a mess — it’s that 395 dumps on New York 4 blocks away sending way too much traffic on New York.

    The real solution is expensive: a Boston-style Big Dig to take 395 and connect it — underground — to New York where the 295-50 split is.

    • People really should now be taking the non-stop connection on the 11th street bridge to DC-295 instead of taking 395 to New York Ave.

      • Yes, true, but that only makes sense depending on your point of origin and destination.

        The termination point of 395 on New York is a fundamental mistake.

        Highways shouldn’t terminate on local streets.

  • Big Dig is the only solution. I live on a horribly busy street (Florida) and I still can’t imagine what those poor folks on NY Ave have to live with.

    • Actually, if you live near the stretch of New York Avenue from Dave Thomas Circle to the Third Street Tunnel, you just get to know every back road and workaround. There are actually a lot of decent alternatives to dealing with that nightmare. If you’re heading west into the city on New York Avenue there are several good bail-out points before you hit Florida Avenue.

      • “backroads”

        ha! that’s funny. i just call them streets, since this is a city and all, not some small town with one main street.

  • Show me an interesection / mess like this in NW…

  • I think one solution is the eminent domain the Wendy’s and make a true circle. Then, they should prioritize local traffic, ie. 1st St NE and Eckington Place. As http://charlesallendc.com/2013/04/24/noma-transit-planning-conversation-part-1/ points out, the current prioritization of New York Ave and Florida Ave Eastbound serves the purpose of only improving property values in Maryland, not the immediate neighborhood. As NoMa, Eckington, and Bloomingdale grow, it is important to build the transportation resources for these neighborhoods first, not for PG county.

    Once there is a circle, I feel that one of the two state avenues needs to be sunk, and as NY Ave already goes up a steep bridge eastbound, I think this would mean Florida should go down. Sink Florida like Connecticut in Dupont Circle. Then, give New York Ave an inside lane for the circle. However, prioritize Eckington and 1st St NE entries into the circle, as this is the worst problem with Dupont is that P and 19th are almost impossible to enter the circle from.

    Additionally, Florida ave needs to go on a diet. The traffic is too fast through there and as we have recently and sadly seen, highly unsafe for pedestrians.

    The current scenario is unsustainable, and the city really needs to do something to push drivers from MD and VA out of old habits and onto the new 11th St bridge. If that takes making New York Ave terribly frustrating to drive on, I can live with it.

    The neighborhood deserves better.

  • Also, just up the street on North Cap, the city should really look into something like the Cap in Columbus, OH. https://sites.google.com/site/freewaycaps/what-portland-cn-learn-from-florence-italy-and-columbus-ohio

  • Does anyone know if, historically, there once was a real circle located here? Seems like there should have been at one time.

    • There was not. There was a huge train yard there once, then a trolley. Never a circle.

    • The area where these roads come together was just off the edge of the L’enfant plan, I believe. Eh, let ‘em figure it out later…

  • I travel through here semi-regularly, and it seems many of the problems are caused by people intentionally not complying with the design. Like, people using the wrong lane to try to pass people and then turning on the NYA from a lane that is supposed to go through to FLA. Running lights. Or simply grid-locking the intersection.

    Which goes to show you cannot design a complicated intersection assuming people are going to comply with the law. Got to factor in how it will work with standard jerk driving behavior. This one falls apart.

    • Agreed while this area is terrible if you follow the street signs you should be able to make it. it’s when people make up their own rules is when it gets horrible.

  • This is one of the worst intersections anywhere! Dangerous. No one follows the arrows. Can take 15 mins to navigate this and that’s not even during rush hour. C’mon DDOT – is this the best you can do? Get the fast food crap out of there and make this an attractive and easy to navigate cross roads for walkers, bikes, and cars.

  • I cross this intersection every day to get to the metro – it adds at least 10 minutes to my walk… but leave ATF alone! It’s an interesting modern building and the circular columns have greenery growing from the top into the outdoor plaza.

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