Drivers: We need more information on Beltway express lanes


A jumble of roads and signs defines the Capital Beltway’s regular and express lanes looking north from Tysons. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

At the start of 2012, I made a resolution to write a lot about the Beltway express lanes, because using them would be such a different experience for the D.C. region’s drivers and I wanted them to be prepared. For a while, I felt okay about how that was going, but this week’s online discussion was a reminder that plenty of issues remain.

Here are a couple of comments that I didn’t get a chance to publish during the Monday chat, along with my responses.

Toll rates: “I’m STILL trying to figure out how I can determine the specific toll rate for a trip along the Beltway express lanes. The Web site has a ‘Historic Rates’ page that allows you to enter an entry point, exit point, date, and time to find out what the rate was.

“However, all that’s displayed is an image of what would have been displayed on the sign where you entered the lanes, not the actual toll rate for the trip. There doesn’t appear to be any way to figure out what the toll is between exits that are not displayed on the signs without physically driving in the lanes.

“I just want to figure out what the average difference is for the toll between the Springfield Interchange and Route 7 compared to what it shows on the signs to get from one end of the lanes to the other.”

DG: The most frequently asked question about the 495 Express Lanes is basically, “How do I know when to use them?” In fact, there is no place a driver can look to see the toll to every access point in real time.

A commuter could check the 495 Express Lanes Web site, click on the button that says, “ROADWAY INFO,” then select “On the Road Now” from the drop down menu, then click on one of the “i” icons to see an image of the toll sign at an access point. Or the commuter could just get on the road and eyeball the sign when approaching the access point.

Either way, the driver won’t see more than three toll rates. A driver approaching the express lanes at Springfield may rarely if ever see the toll rate to Route 7. As I look at the Web site late in the morning rush, I see that the tolls displayed at the Springfield access point are: $1.80 to I-66, $2.45 to Westpark Drive in Tysons and $2.90 to the north end of the express lanes.

If your everyday trip is to Route 7, then you could research the typical toll rates for your commuting time using the “Historic Rates” page on the Web site. But you’re still just going to see the rates that were on the signs at that time.

For now, I can just offer this practical suggestion: You see the rate for I-66 and you see the rate for Westpark. You know that Route 7 is the exit in between them. So your toll is going to be between $1.80 and $2.45. If you’re trying to make sure you get to your office in time for an important morning meeting, it’s unlikely that your greatest worry would be that range of 65 cents between the two exits.

Express lanes signage: “I noticed the other day that one of the variable signs on the express lanes (inner loop just past I-66) said, “Tysons Mall Use Westpark Exit.” Now that’s great for people who are already in the lanes, but pretty useless to someone not already in the express lanes.

“Everything about these lanes really seems to be reactionary, from the signage to the lack of proper lane markings, to the slow trickle of information about their operation leading up to the opening. When is Transurban going to get ahead of the curve? As far as I can tell, the opening of these lanes has been nothing but a disaster, aside from the end of five years of construction that made a mess of my daily commute.”

DG: I disagree on a couple of points. The Virginia Department of Transportation and Transurban, the operator of the lanes, mounted a year-long publicity and education campaign about the lanes and how to use them.

One of the fascinating things about the project is that we have a highway that’s being marketed as a product. Think of that in terms of the Westpark Drive access point. Transurban has been spotlighting Westpark as a convenient way in and out of the Tysons shopping area.

Seems like really smart marketing. Most users of the new lanes are going to be commuters. But a smaller slice of the customer base could be midday shoppers just looking for an easier way to get in and out of Tysons.

The publicity about the express lanes connection to the Westpark Drive bridge looks to me like a case of enlightened self-interest on the part of Transurban. But as I drove south on the outer loop at noon on Tuesday, it also looked like the new exit would be in the interest of many drivers.

The long line of cars on the ramp to Route 123 was at a standstill. Meanwhile, there was almost no traffic on the express lanes ramp to the Westpark Drive bridge. The toll would have been about 30 cents, maybe a little higher. If I were making a lunchtime shopping trip to Tysons Corner Center, and I saw the line of traffic on the Route 123 ramp was going to cost me 20 minutes, I’d have paid a few bucks to beat by using the Westpark exit from the 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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Maggie Fazeli Fard · December 19, 2012

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