Beltway express lanes to open before Thanksgiving, operators say

October 31, 2012

This image shows one of the gantries under construction this year along the new lanes on the Beltway in Virginia. (Courtesy of Fluor-Lane company)

The 495 Express Lanes on the Capital Beltway between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road area could open as early as Nov. 17, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation and the lane operators.

The operators said recently they expected the opening would come in the middle of a weekend, though until Wednesday, they weren’t prepared to say which weekend that would be. If the schedule holds, most commuters’ first experience with the new lanes would be on Monday, Nov. 19.

There will be no free get-acquainted period as there was when Maryland’s Intercounty Connector opened. As soon as these four new lanes in the middle of the Beltway open, they will operate as designed: Cars will need E-ZPass transponders. Drivers who have at least three people aboard and have the new-style transponder called an E-ZPass Flex can set the Flex to carpool mode and get a free ride. Other drivers will pay a toll that varies with the level of traffic congestion.

While high-occupancy toll lanes have opened around the world, this will be the D.C. region’s first experience with them. For commuters who want to use the lanes, now is the time to prepare by getting an E-ZPass and studying up on how to use the lanes to best advantage.

 “This facility will have a regional impact on all travelers,” VDOT Commissioner Greg Whirley said in a statement. “We need drivers to be prepared for the changes in traffic patterns and new rules of the road.”

The Post has published a lot of information about the new lanes, and we’ll have a lot more guidance to offer in November. Once the road opens, we’ll review the travel conditions, both for the drivers using the new lanes and for those who still take the regular lanes.

Last Sunday, we had some very basic guidance on the Post’s Commuter page about how to get in and out of the express lanes and what types of signs to look for. The operators also have a Web site with a lot of useful information about the 495 Express Lanes.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Mark Berman | October 31, 2012