Understanding tolls on Beltway express lanes

November 7, 2012

Gantries like this one in Tysons will monitor trips on the 495 Express Lanes and assess tolls. (Robert Thomson – The Washington Post.)

Monday’s online chat about transportation issues in the D.C. region included several exchanges with travelers about the upcoming opening of the 495 Express Lanes, those high-occupancy toll lanes scheduled to open Nov. 17 on the west side of the Capital Beltway in Virginia.

It’s the biggest new thing in the region’s transportation system in many years, so I want to spend some extra time on it. Here’s one key question I didn’t get to publish during Monday’s chat. (And I’ve got some more coming.)

Beltway express lanes tolling: Since the variable signs will not display the tolls for every exit along the length of the express lanes, how will drivers know what they will be charged?

Even the Express Lanes Web site says the toll will be between the two tolls displayed on the signs. For instance, if I get in the northbound lanes at the southern entry (I-95), and it says $2 for Route 29 [Lee Highway], $4 for Route 7 [Leesburg Pike], and $5 for Dulles Toll Road, how much am I going to be charged to exit at I-66? Will I always be charged something halfway between the toll for 29 and 7, or will it vary depending on the level of traffic between those two exits?

DG: This sort of toll question sure was easier to answer when we were talking about Maryland’s Intercounty Connector just before that toll highway opened. The message boards for the ICC also state the toll to three destinations, rather than for every exit along the way. But even though the ICC’s toll rate varies with the time of day, it varies in a predictable way.

A driver can look up what it will cost to go from Interstate 95 to, say, Layhill Road at 9:30 a.m. The dynamic tolling that will be used on the new Beltway lanes is the first of its kind in the D.C. region. There are no set prices. The more congested the lanes, the higher the tolls will be.The only thing set is that the lane operator has an obligation to keep drivers moving at a speed of at least 45 mph. If average speeds fall below that, tolls will rise until more drivers choose the regular lanes, which they still can use for free.

So in the scenario described by the commenter above, the driver entering the 495 Express Lanes at I-95 in Springfield wouldn’t know the exact toll to the I-66 interchange. The driver will know that it’s going to be more than the $2 to Route 29 and less than the $4 to Route 7, because I-66 is in between.

(In practice, I think the driver probably will know the toll to I-66. The first two lines on the message board will show the toll to popular destinations, and I-66 could well be one of those popular destinations. But the commenter’s point is valid in that many drivers won’t know the exact toll to their destination when they make their decisions about using the lanes. The third line is always going to be the toll to the very end of the lanes, the highest toll a driver could pay at that time.)

If you’re willing to follow me a little deeper into the weeds on this, consider another factor: The toll you pay won’t be based on the overall traffic conditions between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road. The express lanes operator will divide that 14-mile stretch into eight segments, assessing the level of congestion and setting a toll within each.

When you look at the message board posting the three prices, you will be seeing the sum of the tolls for the segments between you and each of those three destinations. At times, some segments may be moving more slowly than others. The Route 29 segment may be lighter than the I-66 segment and heavier than the Route 7 segment.

Just because the toll to Route 29 is $2 and the toll to Route 7 is $4, you can’t assume that your toll to I-66 is going to split the difference, just because it’s in between.

What you can assume is that you’re not going to pay more than $4. You’re locking in whatever the current rate is when you pass under the first toll gantry, and it reads your E-ZPass transponder.

Resources

Check my Commuter page guide to the entrances and exits, and the signs drivers will see along the way.

Here’s a link to a guide for the three Tysons access points along the express lanes.

The lane operator also has a great deal of information on its Web site: www.495expresslanes.com.

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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