[This post has been updated.]
I didn’t see anyone swerving across lanes, I didn’t see anyone slamming the brakes, I didn’t see anyone driving through the white bollards — in fact, during my first experience with the 495 Express Lanes, I hardly saw anyone at all.
During the Monday morning rush, the Capital Beltway’s regular lanes were generally free-flowing, and the new high-occupancy toll lanes in the middle of them were virtually empty.
I made three trips in the new lanes: Driving south, entering from the outer loop and getting off at Gallows Road; driving from Gallows Road to Tysons, with me in the express lanes and my colleague Mark Berman in the regular lanes for a test; and finally Route 7 from Tysons south to where the express lanes end in Springfield.
Starting north of the Dulles Toll Road, I counted four signs leading me into the left-side entrance to the express lanes. I had heard that some drivers were getting confused at the Beltway entrance points and either swerving or backing up. From the north entrance, it’s difficult to see how a driver could get confused while paying even minimal attention to the roadway.
The trip south through Tysons was uneventful. There were times when I saw no other cars in the lanes. When other vehicles appeared, they seemed to move in clusters of three, as though huddling for comfort in the new environment.
And being in these new, relatively untraveled lanes did produce a strange feeling: Are they really open? Are drivers really allowed to be here? How can I be on the Beltway, where a quarter million vehicle travel each day, and feel so alone?
Gallows Road to Tysons
Berman and I launched our test trips at 7:50 a.m. from Gallows Road near the Woodburn School, just east of the Beltway. Our target was a parking garage on the south end of the Westpark Drive bridge on the west side of the Beltway in Tysons.
I wanted to test whether a driver would benefit from the new lanes and from the new exit into Tysons at Westpark Drive. The combination of the light traffic in the new lanes and the new exit point got me to the rendezvous three minutes before Mark, who arrived at 8:02 a.m. My ride cost me a 65-cent toll, collected via E-ZPass.
Berman got a free ride, but had to slow for the heavy traffic near I-66, and then had to take the exit at Route 123 and loop around Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive to reach Westpark Drive. From the express lanes, I took the left-side ramp up to the traffic signal, then turned left to reach another new signal on the Westpark Drive bridge, a more direct route.
With so little traffic along the express lanes, I had no trouble going at the speed limit of 55 mph. The only activity I saw was south of Tysons, where a state police car had pulled over an 18-wheeler, which had somehow gotten onto the new lanes. (Two-axle trucks are okay, but not tractor-trailers.)
At both the Gallows Road and Route 7 interchanges, I had to pay close attention to the entry points, or I would have wound up in the regular lanes.
On this trip starting at Route 7 in Tysons, southbound traffic flowed just fine in the regular lanes. So I didn’t see the contrast in speed I had seen earlier when heading north near the I-66 interchange. There was no difficulty moving from the express lanes into the right side of the regular lanes at the southern merge point.
But it would have been a challenge if I had wanted to reach southbound I-95, as many drivers would. In that case, I would have needed to move quickly across many lanes of traffic to the right.
These trips reinforced my view that drivers should do a little studying before taking the express lanes. Above all, don’t panic and make a stupid move just to dodge a toll. If you have a problem with the lanes, go to the operator’s Web site at www.495expresslanes.com, and click on the Customer Care button.