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Dr. Gridlock
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Posted at 10:38 AM ET, 05/09/2012

Beltway drivers ask whether 495 Express Lanes will suit them

Many drivers know the basic idea of the high-occupancy toll lanes: When they open late this year on the Capital Beltway under the name 495 Express Lanes, motorists will pay a variable toll, unless they have three people in the vehicle or they’re driving motorcycles.

But the experience is near enough that many drivers are starting to think about the details. Several questions came up during my online chat Monday. Here are a couple that I didn’t get a chance to publish for that discussion.

Q. HOT lanes for motorcycles

Dr. Gridlock, The HOT lanes Web page says motorcycles will be allowed on the HOT lanes for free with no E-ZPass required. But my trip includes the Dulles Toll Road where E-ZPass is required and a toll charged. Will I need to get a new switchable E-ZPass transponder that can be shut off when I access the HOT lanes to ensure I am charged only on the Dulles Toll Road and not also the HOT lanes?

DG: No. Transurban, the company that will operate the 495 Express Lanes, says you can leave your current transponder where it is for your entire trip.

Motorcyclists won’t need an E-ZPass of any sort to drive in the express lanes. But if they do have one already, they don’t have to hide it to avoid being charged a toll. The express lanes’ vehicle detection system will recognize that it’s a motorcycle and override the E-ZPass signal, so the operator will not be charged a toll, Transurban says.

Another chat participant had a follow-up comment to an exchange we had during the chat about using the express lanes at off-peak hours.

Before I show you the follow-up, here’s the exchange that preceded it.

Q. Express Lanes

Will the speed limit in the Beltway express lanes be the same as the normal lanes (55 mph)? I’m trying to figure out why anyone would drive in them when there’s no traffic. Even a 25 cent toll is not going to get drivers to drive in lanes that offer the same resistance as the normal lanes. Aside from a couple of unique exits (Route 29 in Merrifield and the two in Tysons), what will Transurban do to encourage non-rush hour use of the lanes?

A. Speed limit is the same. I’ve asked Transurban officials about that sort of thing, the overnight travel. My sense is they don’t expect drivers to use their lanes unless the drivers see some time-is-money benefit. They’ll make their money when the Beltway is congested.

As I think will become obvious to you as this year develops, Transurban will have a very good marketing campaign for the new lanes, explaining when and where the benefits are. I’d expect any smart company with a product to sell to do the same. A particular focus will be on travel to and from Tysons Corner, where there will be three exits on the 495 Express Lanes.

Here’s the follow up comment that I didn’t get a chance to publish.

Q. “I’m trying to figure out why anyone would drive in them when there’s no traffic.”

One reason might simply be a calmer, more relaxed ride, or direct access to one of the new exits (such as the Route 29 one, say if you were going to the golf course just east of there). I drove in Miami’s HOT lanes when the toll was low (25 cents) and the traffic was light simply because Miami has enough nutty drivers that going in there reduced the odds of encountering them. I suspect some people may do the same on the Beltway. Also, I could see someone who’s getting reimbursed using the lanes since it’s not costing him anything. His employer presumably gets to write it off as a business expense, too.

DG: Good thinking. Post reporter Katherine Shaver found that many drivers experience high anxiety when driving the Beltway. Some might be willing to pay a low toll just to be separated from large trucks, which will be barred from the express lanes.

A driver might also be willing to pay for access to one of those new exit ramps. For example, the new ramp for Westpark Drive could prove useful for shoppers heading to and from Tysons Corner.

Pierce Coffee, an official with Transurban, suggested another motivation for using the lanes at less congested times: travel insurance.

Drivers will be paying the tolls in exchange for the promise of a smooth trip, whether it’s at rush hour or off-peak. The 495 Express Lanes will have around-the-clock video coverage and automatic incident detection, Coffee said. Safety patrols can be sent to the scene of a problem, providing such services as a tire change or some gas to get going.

If the price seems right, that may be enough incentive to push some drivers into the new lanes, even when the regular lanes don’t appear congested.

Do you have other questions about how the 495 Express Lanes will work? Let me know at drgridlock@washpost.com.

By  |  10:38 AM ET, 05/09/2012

Categories:  Capital Beltway, Driving, Northern Virginia | Tags:  DC transportation, Virginia Department of Transportation, 495 Express Lanes

 
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