Which exit is mine?

I’m furious about federally mandated renumbering of highway exits.

Way back in 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHA) required all interstate and U.S. highway exits to be numbered using a mile-based system, or else they would lose federal funding to maintain those roads. 

This means each exit number corresponds to the closest whole-number milepost of the highway it occupies, instead of a consecutive numbering system where each exit number is one higher than the previous.

Massachusetts is one of a handful of states yet to comply with the new rule.

The first new signs go up on Monday.

Our tax dollars should not be spent on this waste of a re-signage program.

The FHA published requirements for highway exit signs in a 2009 document titled “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways.” 

A section of that manual states, “Interchange exit numbering shall use the reference location [mile-based] sign exit numbering method. The consecutive exit numbering method shall not be used.”

The manual includes three reasons why the mile-based exit numbering system is better than consecutive numbering. 

Reason one is mile-based exit numbering helps drivers calculate how far until their exit and how far they have already driven.

Nobody I know would do that.

In the age of GPS-guided travel, knowing the distance between two highway exits is irrelevant to most drivers. 

When I use the highway, I spend half my time and distance on backroads getting to the highway. A mile-based exit numbering system would only account for half my trip.

People don’t count the miles they drive on the highway. They count exits. 

If a lost tourist asks for directions, “Go down three exits” is the advice they will likely receive. 

The manual’s second reason supporting mile-based exit numbering is this system helps first responders reach an accident more quickly.

For the same reasons as before, consecutive numbering works better.

Distressed 911 callers will likely provide the last exit they passed as a reference point. 

Additionally, local first responders still need to get onto the highway. If they know which exit an accident is near, then they know exactly which exit to use in order to reach the scene. 

The manual’s third reason supporting mile-based exit numbering is this system makes adding a new interchange easier because it prevents the need to change all the exit signs numerically after it.

In practice, however, this has not been a problem for the consecutive-numbering system.

In 2000, an exit was added to I-495 at Simarano Drive on the Westborough-Marlborough town line. Since this interchange came after exits 23A and 23B for Route 9, the new exit was designated 23C.

Another example is the addition of exit 19A along I-95 in Needham. The new exit bumped two other exits up from 19A and 19B to 19B and 19C, respectively. None of the following exits were impacted.

Since adding a highway interchange is an infrequent affair, it should be designated an edge case which is unlikely to cause any problems. If a new interchange is added, a letter suffix is sufficient.

Motorists, first responders, and highway maintainers all benefit from a consecutive numbering system. 

If the system ain’t broken, don’t fix it!

But, if change is afoot, we should ditch the numbering system altogether.

I propose replacing exit numbers with exit names. Names are more useful than arbitrary numbers.

If a name system works for public transportation systems, it might also work for our freeways.

The MBTA commuter rail system usually names stations after the town or neighborhood they occupy. 

A named exit would help drivers know where they are and where they are going. 

When multiple exits are in one town, local landmarks can be used to name exits.

Bostonians know where the Aquarium station is on the Blue Line, Fenway on the Green Line, and Downtown Crossing on the Red and Orange lines. 

Those names are helpful for people trying to get to the New England Aquarium, Fenway Park, or Downtown Boston.

The same system would work for highway exits.

Whether it’s a name or a number, highway exits are markers of identity for many people.

Cape Codders expressed their dislike of renumbering exits along U.S. Route 6.

I feel the same way. My summer house in Yarmouth is off exit seven … or exit eight – either one works. If these became exits 72 and 75, respectively, my drive down to the Cape wouldn’t feel right.

Functionality aside, roads are identifying markers of where home and other special locations are for many people. Those arbitrary numbers, just like the name of the street where you live, are meaningful.

Exit 21B on I-495 has always meant I am 20 minutes from home. I’m not excited to take exit 54B in a few years’ time.

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