Last-minute drill on rules for using Beltway express lanes

November 16, 2012

The 495 Express Lanes project has transformed the look of the Beltway in Tysons (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

With my job, the Capital Beltway is like a second home, so I was surprised how different it felt to be in the new Beltway express lanes when Pierce Coffee, a Transurban official, took me along for a test drive.

Since then, I’ve been obsessing on all the details that drivers should know before checking out the 495 Express Lanes. If you’re going to try the lanes, scheduled to open early Saturday morning, I strongly urge that you don’t just wing it, especially not during a regular commute. Check on exactly where the entrances and exits are, and know what to do if you have a problem.

Based on some recent questions from readers, I’d like to review two things: the rules for using the lanes and the safety features.

Road rules

This is what various vehicles need when they drive in the express lanes:

  • A solo driver needs a standard E-ZPass to pay the toll, which is collected electronically. There are no toll booths. An E-ZPass issued by any transportation agency will work fine.
  • A motorcycle goes toll free. There’s no need to have an E-ZPass.
  • A carpool of at least three people goes toll free, but the vehicle must have the new type of switchable transponder called an E-ZPass Flex, and the Flex must be set to the carpool mode. Same rules for a vanpool.
  • There’s no exemption for a person driving a hybrid, as there is for some who drive in Virginia’s High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. In the 495 Express Lanes, a solo hybrid driver needs an E-ZPass to pay the toll.
  • A taxi driver will want to have an E-ZPass Flex to flip to the carpool setting if there are at least three people aboard.
  • Buses don’t pay tolls, but they need to have the transponder.
  • A two-axle truck can drive in the express lanes with an E-ZPass, but tractor-trailers are banned.

 Safety

The best safety measure is to know the layout. For the most part, drivers won’t be slipping in and out of the new lanes. There are slip ramps linking with the regular Beltway lanes in Springfield and just north of the Dulles Toll Road, but in between, drives will connect with the new lanes via interchanges.

  • The interchange configurations vary. In fact, some are brand-new access points to the Beltway.
  • Exits and entrances are mostly on the left side. So when you join the lanes, you’ll usually be looking to your right to safely merge. And while you’re cruising in the lanes, watch for merging traffic on your left.
  • I found the exits from the express lanes to be well-marked, but along some stretches of the Beltway — Tysons, in particular — there sure are a lot of signs spread out across the entire highway. That’s another reason to have an idea what you’re looking for before you start.
  • Remember that you usually will move to the left lane to exit. Don’t wait too long to get in position.
  • Many of those left exits end in new traffic signals. So be prepared to stop as you drive up the exit ramp.
  • The speed limit on the express lanes is the same as it is on the regular lanes: 55 mph.

 Here are some links to previous stories and blog postings.

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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