Dysfunction Junction Vol. 8 – Colesville Road/16th St/Portal Road


Dysfunction Junction chronicles the most forlorn, baffling, and wonderful crossroads of our fair city. The column is written by Ben Ball, a transportation nerd in his spare time. He lives in LeDroit Park. Ben previously wrote about 18th and Florida/U St, NW.


This intersection is like the DC equivalent of the River Styx – a grim passage between two worlds that is a test of character in and of itself.  (Now, would that put Hades in Maryland or the District?  You decide.)  The Washington Post recently called it “a treacherous test of patience” – one that officials on both sides of the border have whined about but failed to fix.

DC recorded twelve accidents in this intersection in 2012 (Montgomery County hasn’t released data for its side).  A pedestrian was killed here in 2009.  So why are we still waiting for this to be fixed after years of promises?


Overlapping jurisdictions are supposedly to blame.  Traffic engineers apparently agree that the problem is on the Maryland side – a signal is needed on Colesville Road.  Getting the funding and approvals to install that signal requires action not only from Montgomery County and the District, but also the Maryland State Highway Administration, and therein lies the rub.  The request for proposals on a series of traffic improvements just went out in January – five years after everyone agreed on what needed to be done.  (Hopefully they’ll keep an eye on any concrete…)


Approaching the circle, there’s an amazing glut of signage.  Arrows point the way to a bunch of numbered Maryland highways, a bizarre placard on the Maryland side demonstrates various ways you might try to go through, and the circle itself is full of stops and yields that confuse even veterans of DC’s many traffic circle models.  The bumper-level dent in the “welcome to Silver Spring” sign seems to sum it all up.

Trying to walk in this area?  Don’t.  The lack of crosswalks on the Maryland side certainly contributes to the Frogger-like feel.  But the part that really takes the cake is in the middle of the circle, where they’ve installed tactile paving for the blind…without a matching crosswalk.  This supposes that anyone (let alone the visually impaired) would even attempt to cross straight through the middle without a serious death wish.  And what is there to experience in the middle of that circle anyway?  Shrubs?

19 Comment

  • I just moved up to Silver Spring back in April and have had 3 near misses with people since then. Two because they didn’t even care to stop at Colesville and one because they decided to ignore a red light and almost rear-ended me. Thankfully my dad taught me defensive driving and I was watching all three cars.

  • The MD SHA has no freakin clue how to handle anything resembling a close-in “streetcar” suburb where multiple modes of travel are used. Their main desire is vehicular throughput and vehicle level of service (LOS). That there might be pedestrians or cyclists only makes them want to widen the road and lanes so that pedestrians and cyclists don’t want to go there anymore. Is your town/city/hamlet bisected by a 4 lane state highway “car sewer”? GOOD, that’s what we do at the MD State Highway Administration…says it right in our title. You other road users can pound sand.

  • The real problem here is just idiots on Colesville who block the box (unsurprisingly, this is usually done by buses). If the cops ever figure it out, they could probably make a couple grand in tickets every morning.

  • jim_ed

    I use 16th st when I drive to work in North Bethesda to avoid downtown SS. From a driving perspective, it’s fine if you’re going N/S, but god only knows how the E/W route works. Also, you couldn’t pay me enough money to approach this intersection as a cyclist or pedestrian.

  • I got T-boned at this intersection three years. I was going north on 16th. The other car was heading east and ran a red light on the southern side of the “circle.” I might have been able to avoid the crash, but, at the time, there were tall bushes obscuring, my view of the cars proceeding east. The good news is that those bushes are now gone.

  • I live and work in SS and i avoid this intersection at all costs. I will go further on Georgia and take Alaska to 16th and back and if cycling to Rock Creek park, i make a big circle and cross 16th further south. It’s just such a nightmare and all it takes is one person in a rush or new to the circle to have a near miss or actual collision.

  • Thanks for featuring this intersection- traversing this circle makes dupont seem like a walk in the park…

  • The vegetation in the center is also so tall that you can’t see the traffic coming that you’re yielding to.

  • The short, stubby little turn lanes created by the oval shape of the circle are pretty much hell on all the buses that have to go through there, since the buses can barely even fit in them. The southbound S4 and S9 have to go through two such segments (because they effectively are turning left from Colesville onto southbound 16th) while the southbound S2 has to go through three of the segments because it has to make its way most of the way around the circle to go from Colesville to Eastern Avenue.

  • Now granted I’ve only ever used this intersection to go up 16th to Colesville and back again, but I’ve never had any issues with it. Maybe it’s designed, perhaps wrongly, to facilitate traffic taking primarily those routes.

  • it’s only now dawned on me that the sculpture represents a spring.
    i assumed it was just decorative.

  • anyone else find it fascinating that a house is half in maryland and half in DC?

    • There are quite a few houses up there that are in DC, while their entire back yards are in Maryland.

  • I really hope they fix this “circle of death”. I used to live off Eastern, and still work in Silver Spring, so travel this route frequently. On more than one occasion, I have seen accidents where cars flipped or landed on their side as a result of impact. This circle does not cause fender-benders; it causes serious crashes. Something needs to be done.

  • I think of all the intersections featured so far in the Dysfunction Junction series this one is the most dangerous. True, it may not cause the longest traffic jams, or look the most bizarre, but I think it’s the one you’re most likely to get killed at.

  • We use this circle E/W to go to our vet and a couple of friends’ houses. I think I have seen or had a near death experience every time I go through here! It doesn’t help that the light to get to continue west from Blair lasts for about 2.5 seconds, so three extra cars run through the red light out of frustration and nearly cause an accident. And the Colesville merge just adds to the nightmare. Fixing this should be considered a life or death priority!

  • This is the worst intersection in the entire DMV. In fact, I can’t imagine anything they could do to make it any worse than it already is, other than put a cycle track through it. It should be avoided at all costs.

  • I too hate this intersection. It’s so confusing becaues it’s a circle. I seem to remember being really confused in the E/W direction because you think you have the right of way, and then there are some people going N/S barreling towards you at high speeds. I avoid it all costs.

  • I used to live in Rock Creek Apartments on Eastern just south of this intersection and now use it when I’m heading to the Beltway from Petworth. I agree with everyone else that this is a total mess. Coming N on 16th, the Colesville traffic blocks your route to 410, while coming S on 16th, cars turning onto Eastern can block at least one lane as well.

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