Publisher note: This appeared in today’s Bellingham Herald. This addresses a hot issue for southside Bellingham vehicle drivers. A phone call to Doug Dahl gained us permission to also post it. We welcome comments from drivers who deal with this exit.
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.
Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, which is a project of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission Region 11. Doug’s articles regularly appear on The Wise Driver website. Readers are invited to ask questions of Mr. Dahl at the website.