The Trouble With Exit 250

Q: Who has the right of way when exiting northbound from I-5 at Old Fairhaven Parkway; the turning lane trying to get on the on-ramp or the vehicles at the stop sign up the road on the off-ramp?

A: Based on the emails I’ve received about this location, lots of people have opinions about who has the right of way, and they don’t all agree. These emails include stories of angry honking, excessive hand and finger gestures, near-crashes, and a general sense of confusion by people trying to do the right thing, but not knowing for sure what that is.

For those who are unfamiliar with this location, allow me to describe the situation. At exit 250 on I-5 the northbound off-ramp and on-ramp don’t quite line up. Because of this misalignment, when coming off the freeway some drivers interpret the approach to Old Fairhaven Parkway as a three-way intersection (T junction) while drivers on Old Fairhaven Parkway intending to turn left onto the on-ramp think it’s a four-way intersection (crossroads).

If the off-ramp and Old Fairhaven Parkway form a T junction, then once a driver turns left from the off-ramp to the parkway, any oncoming traffic wanting to turn left to the on-ramp would have to yield. But if it’s a crossroads intersection, the car stopped at the end of the off-ramp would have to yield to drivers turning from the parkway onto the on-ramp. This creates a situation where both drivers might think they have the right of way.

Confused yet? Take a look at the map and satellite image.

 

If you look at a map of the interchange, it seems obvious; the off-ramp and the on-ramp appear to be perfectly aligned. Traffic coming off the freeway, then, should yield to eastbound drivers on Old Fairhaven Parkway who want to turn onto the on-ramp.

But if you look at a satellite view the answer is not quite as clear. The off-ramp and on-ramp don’t align as well in real life as they do on a map. (The premise of every road trip gone wrong.) And if you’ve ever taken the northbound off-ramp at exit 250, you know that it feels as much like a T junction as a crossroad intersection.

This perception is partly because of road alignment and partly an optical illusion. Typically, a crossroad intersection has two straight roads that intersect. In a freeway interchange, the off-ramp and on-ramp are often not straight, because they’re coming at an angle off the freeway. The end result is that a driver at the end of the off-ramp isn’t facing exactly straight ahead toward the on-ramp. That angled view, compounded with a bit of offset in the ramps, creates the impression of a T junction.

So what is it? A T junction? A crossroads? Before committing to an answer, I talked with a traffic engineer who is all too familiar with the location. Here’s the bottom line: despite the misalignment, that freeway interchange is a four-way intersection; anyone at the off-ramp stop sign must yield to traffic on Old Fairhaven Parkway, whether that traffic is continuing east or turning onto the I-5 on-ramp. Don’t be misled by a poorly implemented freeway interchange.

About now you might have two more questions:

  1. How do we fix it? We’re talking about road construction so it must be expensive, right? Turn signals or round-abouts or some other fancy plan. Actually, probably not. The simplest fix would involve adding ten to twelve feet of pavement to the west side of the off-ramp and painting some stripes to align it with the on-ramp. That should, for the most part, eliminate the confusion.
  2. Who is responsible for fixing it? The interchange is part of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) right-of-way. It turns out that in 2008 WSDOT determined that the exit 250 interchange needed improvements. In their master plan they recommended that the off-ramp/on-ramp be upgraded to meet design standards (implying that it currently does not meet standards).

Even though I can confidently say that the exit 250 interchange is a four-way intersection, I’ll still advise extra caution. Just because you know you have the right-of-way doesn’t mean that other drivers know it too. Whenever there is an element of confusion in a driving situation, leave some room for mistakes and misunderstandings. It’s much easier to tolerate another driver’s failure to yield when it doesn’t involve the transfer of paint.

TheWiseDrive

9 Comments

  1. I’m confused about the Aug. 7 article. Cars at the end of the off ramp are at a stop sign. Correct? Cars traveling along Fairhaven Parkway do not have a stop sign. Doesn’t the car at the stop sign always need to yield?

  2. Thank you for addressing the Old Fairhaven off ramp problem. I anticipate someone making the mistake of “taking his turn” whenever I drive there. Wouldn’t a clearly worded sign help them realize that they must yield to all traffic at that intersection?

  3. As a frequent driver onto the exit 250 on ramp, I share the confusion of whether it is a crossroads or T-junction. However, I believe your conclusion contradicts that of your predecessor when this issue has been addressed in the past.

  4. A clearly worded sign that is posted where those using the off ramp might make it more clear to them that they are the only ones required to stop.

  5. great article!
    this is a place that even highly traffic aware people get wrong.
    i think that a solution to end the confusion would be to place one “yield to all traffic” sign at the end of the I-5 northbound exit ramp.
    this would alert all drivers at that point to their proper role at that intersection.

  6. Have you actually taken this exit? I drive it every day and I dont think you have it right at all.
    The driver in the northbound exit has to wait for a gap in traffic, then make a left onto the westbound lane. The cars in the east bound left turn lane then must cross the west bound lane to get onto the north bound on-ramp. In doing so they must also yeild to any car in the west bound lane. Its very obvious to west bound drivers but not so with some east bound drivers trying to get onto the northbound I-5 on ramp. I always yeild when trying to get onto I-5 north at this location.

    • Also the Hearld printed a Traffic story a while back that contradicts your assessment of this intersection.

  7. A yellow “Cross Traffic Does Not Stop” sign affixed beneath the two stop signs at Exit 250 would help, I think.

    • I think you may be missing the point. The issue is, once a car has entered the west bound lane it now has the rightaway over the cars that are turning left to get on to the north bound I-5 on ramp.

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