Beltway express lanes causing a learning curve for drivers

December 13, 2012

The express lanes, on the left, of southbound Interstate 495 near Tysons Corner awaited traffic on opening day last month . (Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Washington region’s transportation system underwent some significant changes this year, but none was bigger than the opening of the 495 Express Lanes on the west side of the Capital Beltway in Virginia.

Want to know whether they’re a success? Ask me in three years. I want to see how solo drivers and carpoolers adapt to to the lanes, how many commuter buses use them, how the traffic patterns in Tysons evolve and shift with the anticipated opening next year of the Metro Silver Line and how the opening of the 95 Express Lanes in 2014 affects traffic on the Beltway.

Just because I can’t come to a quick conclusion doesn’t mean we can’t talk about how the high-occupancy toll lanes are being used — or not — and what practical issues drivers are encountering. Here are some examples.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Since the day they opened, the “express” — or rather, “empty” — lanes have been virtually unused. I travel most days to Virginia, where I hear repeatedly that these lanes have become the laughingstock of the business community. Most think they will remain unused.

Your column has suggested that the opening was preceded by a year-long education campaign by the Virginia Department of Transportation and its private partners. Was this to all Americans or just locals? The Beltway is not merely a local road.

Perhaps more traffic goes along Interstate 95, but out-of-state plates are pervasive, and so is truck traffic, so it is obviously serving the western side of Maryland. Out-of-towners, those from the western and northern parts of Maryland and locals all come to a standstill in front of the confusing signs with different dollar amounts for entry.

Are the lanes actually an impediment to faster traffic? At 55 or so miles an hour, even one out-of-town or out-of-area vehicle slowing to read the signs causes a horrendous backup.

Local drivers have lamented that they have no clue where to enter or exit the lanes. Because their Global Positioning System devices still fail to recognize the new configuration, how will they find where they need to get to?

Mark my words, our new hopeless HOT lanes will remain empty. What a waste.

Hilary Fordwich, Potomac

DG: Safety issues, especially in a project this big, are extremely important. Most attention has been focused on the southern entrance to the express lanes, where some drivers have managed to miss four overhead signs advising them that the express lanes are off to the left. The VDOT made some quick adjustments, particularly with the lane markings.

Fordwich sees drivers slowing near the northern entrance. I don’t doubt it. Traffic engineers who work on any project, from the installation of a traffic signal to the opening of a highway, tell me that it takes a while for drivers to adjust, and I think that’s what we’re seeing with the express lanes.

In these first few weeks, the lanes have been pretty wide open. We don’t have traffic statistics yet from Transurban, the operator of the lanes. But based on driving the lanes, seeing the traffic cameras and watching the changing toll rates, I think more motorists are checking them out. Still, some people just don’t like to pay tolls, and others haven’t figured how they can take advantage of the lanes.

Transurban is happy to have anybody’s toll money, whether they are locals or long-distance travelers, but the lanes are designed largely for the benefit of local travelers. The entrance and exit system reflects that.

The Tysons area business and civic leaders with whom I’ve talked express optimism about the lanes and seem hopeful about the two new access points at Westpark Drive and Jones Branch Drive.

At this early stage, the most vexing thing about the lanes is figuring how, when and where to use them.

QUICK DECISIONS

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

How is one supposed to know whether to consider using these lanes for a given trip? Where I enter the Capital Beltway, at Gallows Road, I must commit either to main lanes or express lanes without being able to see the traffic in the main lanes, which is obviously what motivates the decision.

Signs display only tolls, not main-lane travel time to any exit. The VDOT suggests checking online or calling 511 to learn how traffic is moving, but that’s not something most people will do for every trip.

And with no chance to transition between the express lanes and the regular, most people, I think, won’t use the new lanes, although on some trips we all might wish we had.

Gabriel Goldberg,

Falls Church

DG: This sort of cost-benefit analysis over lane choices is completely new to drivers in the Washington region, and so far, we’re not very good at it. But we’ll learn.

I’d like to hear from drivers about how they’re making picks. Here are some thoughts:

  • Even though there are many sources of traffic information on-air and online, most drivers I talk to just get in the car and go. Successful commuting will become more about good planning, so we might as well get in practice.
  • The operator’s Web site, www.495expresslanes.com, has helpful information for planning. Still, there are also some old-fashioned techniques that regular commuters can fall back on. For example, a driver who commutes from Gallows Road to Tysons at about the same time every morning has a pretty good idea what traffic on the inner loop is like at that hour. It might not be too bad at Gallows Road, but it might be considerably worse around routes 7 and 123.
  • On certain mornings, when you’re running a bit late or you’ve got a crucial meeting to attend, you’ll make an educated guess that it’s worth a buck to travel in congestion-free lanes to an exit closer to your office.

Dr. Gridlock’s column runs every Thursday in Local Living.

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 · December 13, 2012