Dysfunction Junction Vol. 10: I-395, Exit Six


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 Florida/U St and 7th St/Georgia Ave.

This stretch of highway is proof positive that the inner loop was a terrible idea.  Not only does it slice poor old Southeast in two, but the signage when you come in from Virginia is atrociously misleading.  If you’ve made it to exit six, you’ve already had to make several rapid fire decisions with little or no warning.  (Left exit to 14th St!  Right exit to 12th St!)  Then the fun begins.

At exit six, you have a hugely complex and counterintuitive decision to make.  Option one is C Street SW/The House/US Capitol.  C Street SW and the House of Representatives are of course on opposite sides of the Capitol building.  It might make sense if that was the only option.  But then there’s option two – 395 North/D Street NW/US Senate.  D Street NW and the Senate are also on opposite sides of the Capitol building.  Shouldn’t C Street SW and the Senate be on the same exit?  And shouldn’t D Street NW and the House be on the other exit?  It just doesn’t make sense.  Before my head explodes, let me also point out that the House, Senate, and Capitol all refer to the same building.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the C Street SW/The House/US Capitol sign is marked as exit only.  But it’s not the far right lane.  The 395 North/D Street NW/US Senate sign is in the far right lane, but it’s not an exit only sign.  How does that work exactly?  Oh, and there’s something about Union Station and Metro, but a big tree handily blocks any useful information on that sign. (One final nitpick:  Why is it the US Senate, but just “the” House?)

Then there’s what the signs don’t tell you.  The actual end point of the 395 tunnel is 4th Street and New York Avenue NW.  Exit six is actually the last practical exit for any point in northwest DC.  If you miss that one off-ramp, it’s going to take you forever to get to Washington’s largest quadrant.  Your terrible options will include either a detour to Nationals Park (good luck turning around!) or a trip across the Anacostia River.  Having accidentally done the Anacostia River version of this trip on several occasions by mistake, I can tell you that it adds a good twenty minutes to any trip.  Welcome to DC!  Now get out.

It’s probably taken you about a minute and twenty seconds to read up to this point.  Judging by this video of someone driving 395, the actual time you’d have to perform the mental calculus for exit six is about ten seconds.  That’s a lot to process, particularly for out of town visitors.  We’ve got such a miniscule highway “system” – you’d think we’d be able to keep it simple.  But this is DC.  Not so much.

44 Comment

  • Even better, just a bit earlier, the signs tell you you need to be two lanes to the left for C Street/the House. I pity the no doubt innumerable people who, unaware that the signs are lying, find themselves unable to get over in time to make the exit when it becomes clear that it was a cruel trick.

  • This post is rife with mistakes and lack of understanding about our city. No, the House and Senate aren’t the same as the Capitol Building. There are many House and Senate office buildings outside of the Capitol. The “House side” is actually in SW. The “Senate side” is actually in NW. No mind explosion needed, just a map.

    • ah

      +1, Although most of the Senate buildings are in NE). But point remains –

      the Senate is north of the Capitol, as is D Street NW.
      the House is south of the Capitol, as is C Street SW

  • Seems pretty straightforward to me but I guess I can see how a tourist might be confused

  • Yeah. This post is more incorrect than what he’s complaining about. The signs are correct: D St NW is close to the Senate buildings and C St SW is by the House offices.

  • yes, totally agreed. it is confusing if you don’t know what you’re doing. and it does get crowded with folks getting to work in the morning. but the signs are correct, and will take you to the appropriate sides of the Capitol building.

  • Agree with Lisa – the biggest issue about this intersection isn’t even mentioned. There is a clear sign saying that the C street exit is a left exit when in fact it’s not. Other than that, I think it’s pretty straight forward. One exit spits you out closer to the house buildings, one closer to the senate.

  • If the C street exit is not on the left, which it is, where is it? there is no exit on the right until you get to Senate exit. So any other options?

    I would say the biggest issue is the on right right before this exit and drivers failure to yield to on coming traffic. They speed along like it ain’t no thang butta chicken wing.

  • I used to take this exit on a daily basis and I can’t remember how many stupid moves drivers would make at Exit 6. However, it is pretty confusing. Depending on traffic, you pretty much have to select the correct lane on the 14th St Bridge that won’t take you onto US 1/14th St, 12th St, and that will allow you to cut across two lanes to make the Right exit onto I-395. I can understand why people from out of the DC/MD/VA area would make that mistake, but I saw MANY supposedly local drivers get stuck on the median by the exit, trying to merge back into speeding rush-hour traffic.

    Google Maps is pretty good about telling you what’s up at this intersection.

  • They totally do this on purpose to confuse the terrorists!

  • I take this exit to go to my house pretty regularly. Moved from NW about a year ago and in 17 years of DC living probably had never had cause to be on this stretch of highway at all. My first trip, I found the signage confusing only with regards to what Lisa mentions. But otherwise, fairly straightforward if you know where you are going. If you don’t, no highway signs ever give you enough information to know which exit to choose except perhaps “Airport” or “Hospital” or maybe the little food and gas signs. Who is driving and hoping to figure out where to get off the highway by reading the signs?

    I remember years and years ago being told the signs in DC were intentionally confusing to discourage tourists from driving.

  • “Having accidentally done the Anacostia River version of this trip…. Welcome to DC! Now get out.” Does the author not know that both banks of the Anacostia are in DC?

  • The post states: “Before my head explodes, let me also point out that the House, Senate, and Capitol all refer to the same building.”

    The statement is made in the context of the signage, which would lead drivers to believe that the each of the House, Senate, and Capitol are the same building. Of course this is wrong. That’s the point being made.

  • OK, this is true. I’m an idiot. Mea culpa.

  • In my view the worst aspect of this roadway is that when you’ve managed to get over the 4 lanes of traffic and have taken Exit 6 toward New York Avenue, and you go through the tunnel, you then face the roadway dividing while you’re in the tunnel and the signage indicating which half is for New York Ave and which half is for Massachusetts ave are located right outside the tunnel and are not visible from in the tunnel until after the roads have divided. Who put that sign there without checking the lines of sight from within the tunnel??

    • Whoops you posted this as I was typing the same thing. I made that mistake a couple times before committing it to memory. Such a stupid signage design.

  • “otherwise, fairly straightforward if you know where you are going”?

    Isn’t that such a DC thing though? The point of signs is to let you get places when you do NOT already know where they are and how to get there. The fact that these signs don’t accomplish that purpose, combined with the decent share of out-of-towners on that stretch of road at any give time, is dangerous. I know where I’m going but have almost been run over many a time there by people who do not. Also the fact that the sign for Mass Ave is not visible until AFTER it’s really too late to change lanes coming north out of the tunnel bears mentioning.

  • I think what’s worse is that if you take the exit to the right to continue on 395 N, there are no signs within the tunnel to tell drivers what the first exit outside of the tunnel is (Mass Ave). By the time you can see the sign for the Mass Ave exit, the exit has already split off and you either have to illegally cut across the striped median or continue on 395 to NY Ave. If you had never done it before and thought the exit might be NY Ave, you have to dart back into 395 traffic across the same median or continue onto Mass Ave. How hard could it be to put a sign up in the tunnel?

  • No. The signage would imply they’re all different buildings. If they were all the same buildings, why would they be seperate listings on the sign? Thanks for defending the writer, but I’m pretty sure he meant how the rest of us are reading his post.

  • Two different signs that list 3 separate places imply that they’re all the same thing? I think it’s pretty clear that based on the signs they are not. The author is claiming that they are all the same thing, which of course is wrong.

  • “C Street SW and the House of Representatives are of course on opposite sides of the Capitol building. It might make sense if that was the only option. But then there’s option two – 395 North/D Street NW/US Senate. D Street NW and the Senate are also on opposite sides of the Capitol building. Shouldn’t C Street SW and the Senate be on the same exit? And shouldn’t D Street NW and the House be on the other exit? It just doesn’t make sense. Before my head explodes, let me also point out that the House, Senate, and Capitol all refer to the same building.”

    Wow. Just wow.

    Here’s a helpful little thing called a map: http://www.visitthecapitol.gov/plan-visit/us-capitol-map

  • It’s a kind of a pain in the ass part of the highway but it’s not hard or confusing. Was this your first time there?

  • Yes. This. The sign for the Mass Ave exit is well beyond the division for the exit. I see drivers nearly crash all the time trying to swerve over to try to catch it at the last second and several have hit the barrier. The other signs are correct but the Mass Ave sign is a downright hazard!

  • Agree. Or the plethora of Maryland drivers on this stretch.

  • Is it possible that the C Street exit is properly described as a “left” exit when you consider that the D Street lane, to the right, is 395 North? So technically, if 395 North continues on the far right, and the C Street exit is a left exit off of that… then C Street is properly labeled, although it seems counter-intuitive.

  • brookland_rez

    While I don’t agree with all the original proposed interstates (like the 95 coming through the middle of Brookland), I don’t think dumping all the 395 traffic off at NY Ave helps anyone. They should go ahead and upgrade NY Ave to interstate standards and entrench it like they planned to, and let it continue on and join up with 295 to the east. This way Florida Ave and N Capitol have bridges over NY Ave, and we can eliminate all those bottlenecks through there. NY Ave is mostly an industrial corridor but they could keep a service road at grade to service the businesses through there.

  • The biggest problem for visitors to my place on Hill East is the mystery of I-695. Mapquest will tell you to continue straight here for 695 but there is no mention of 695 at all from on this signage. I-695 is now the official designation of the what remains of the Southeast Freeway but no one has bothered to update the signs.

  • It’s a right exit immediately after the D street exit. The signs are super confusing.

  • works just fine for me, get on your game

  • Where exactly do you think the “inner loop” is since you think it was such a bad idea?

    “The actual end point of the 395 tunnel is 4th Street and New York Avenue NW. Exit six is actually the last practical exit for any point in northwest DC.”

    The last practical exit for NW, except you know all the other exits between exit 6 and the the end of the tunnel (which as you note and therefore MUST know is actually physically located in Northwest)

    If you want to get to the area colloquially known as “northwest”, i.e. upper NW, you would gone straight onto 14th street, taken 12th street, or even better, not taken the 14th street bridge at all.

    • brookland_rez

      395 was supposed to be part of a loop that would have continued north from its current terminus at PA Ave and would have continued north past RFK stadium and the Arboretum and would have connected with NY Ave, which would have been upgraded to interstate standards.

  • I think the sheer number of signs is incredibly confusing. Seems to me they could simplify it by just signing the right-hand exit for “395 North / C Street / D Street” and eliminate the House/Senate from the signs entirely.

    Also, I can say from personal experience that I’ve gotten lost here before trying to drive from Virginia through DC on my way to Delaware. On a map, it sure seems like you could take I-395 North into the City, follow that same highway until it hits DC 295, and then get on DC 295 North towards the B-W Parkway. I think Google maps will even tell you to do that (as opposed to taking the Outer Loop and staying on the Beltway, or taking the WW Bridge to I-295 North past Bolling AFB.

    But someone can easily get extremely confused, follow signs for 395 North, and then have to take NY Ave through the NE part of the City.

    I would really like a sign saying “To I-295/DC 295 Baltimore” so people know which lanes to stay in if they are going towards points north.

    While we’re at it, I would prefer to have one Interstate 295 instead of this very confusing transition from I-295 to DC 295 to BW Parkway to Maryland 295.

  • – The left two signs are good for advance information.

    – The right two directional signs could be combined with a vertical divider, a dual yellow Exit Only beneath them; or at least put another Exit Only under the D St sign.

    – The House offices are indeed on C St; Senate offices are indeed D St. Lots of visitors go to those but not necessarily the Capitol (which is most directly accessed via C St).

    – The “US” is a little odd… I’d think “US House” and “Senate” would be more suitable than “The House” and “US Senate”. There are only so many senates… but the house? What house? The little blue one midway down the block with the white picket fence covered in rose bushes?

    – The alignments on the interstate icons & directionalities could use some adjustment, but by and large they’re OK.

    – The Union Station does need a trim and the tiny directional placard above it probably isn’t necessary, but otherwise this is fine.

    – Keep in mind that approaching this point there’s been a constant stream of signs bearing these exact same messages. Yes, it IS a lot of info, and there is a lot going on… but you’re given many opportunities to review this information.

  • “The statement is made in the context of the signage, which would lead drivers to believe that the each of the House, Senate, and Capitol are the same building. ”

    Look at the signs again. If one sign says “C St SW/US Capitol/The House” and another sign says “D St NW/The Senate”, why would anyone think, after reading those two signs, that the House, Senate and “Capitol” (LOL!) are the same building? They’re not and no one who can read English would read those two signs and come to that conclusion. You should be banned from commenting.

  • There are a number of details in this article that are incorrect. I’ll leave discussion about which parts of the legislature are where to the other commentators. I think the reason for confusion here is that this is really a freeway split. All of the exit numbers are exits from I-395. At this intersection, the three lanes to the left are actually branching onto a different freeway, I-695, which leads to the 11th Street Bridge. I-695 does not have numbered exits (South Capitol St, 6th St SE, etc.).

    The two lanes to the right are I-395 continuing toward the 3rd Street Tunnel. Exit 6 is NOT the freeway that splits off to the left from I-695. It is actually only the left exit on I-395 for C St SW that immediately follows the split from I-695. It is marked as Exit Only because, for a brief duration after the split, I-395 drops down to only one lane–the rightmost lane in the photo accompanying this article–with the second lane from the right exiting toward C St SW.

    All of that said, I think the signage could definitely be clarified to indicate that this is a freeway split (I-695 to the left and I-395 to the right) and show which lanes lead where. Perhaps one of those large arrow split signs with tick marks for lanes would be helpful.

  • “Exit 6 is NOT the freeway that splits off to the left from I-695” should say “splits off to the right”. Apologies.

  • What the signs should do a better job of telling you is that to stay on 395, you have to get all the way over to the right. This is why the sign for 395 is not Exit Only; it’s a continuation of the road you’re on.

    The fact that the junction for I-295 South is 1.25 miles away from here means that there’s a very wide stretch of highway going unsigned. I don’t know what the federal standards are, but it seems to me it should say “To I-295 South,” instead of “Junction.”

    The House and the Senate have different exits because they are on opposite sides of the Capitol building. I imagine “The House” is grouped with the Capitol because that’s where visitors are allowed, but I’m just guessing.

    The speed limit through here is 40 miles per hour for a reason … there’s a lot to digest. You’re right they might as well have left it a regular street grid. But I do like that this section of freeway can serve as a backup for the Wilson Bridge when traveling from Maryland.

    The sign for 395 North should be more clear that you can get to New York Avenue (or NoMa, since the Metro stop was stupidly renamed), but I like that the shortcut is a secret only locals know. There isn’t really a need for it to be more than that. Tourists belong on Metro anyway. 🙂

  • Ok, but thats not the inner loop…

  • As I recall, this same situation got mentioned on JDLand a couple years ago. She posted a follow-up from me with some sign corrections I’d created at the time, accessible here:



  • “Not only does it slice poor old Southeast in two…” it’s Southwest, not Southeast.

  • It’s the ORIGINAL “Inner Loop”, before the rest of it got cancelled in the 1970s.

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