Beltway express lanes: First report on usage

January 11, 2013

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)

The new express lanes on the Capital Beltway, the ones that look so empty during rush hours compared to the regular lanes, averaged 23,308 workday users in the first six weeks after they opened, according to data made public today by Transurban, the operator of the lanes.

The toll revenue grew from a daily average of $12,212 in the first week of operations during mid-November to an average of $24,317 in the week before the Christmas and New Year holidays, according to the data. During that period before the holidays, traffic in the lanes increased from an average of 15,201 daily trips to 23,903 daily trips.

The average use for the entire time period — seven days a week from the lanes’ opening in November through the end of December — was 18,594 vehicles a day. Total revenue for the entire time period was $828,000. Revenue in the week before Christmas was about double that of the opening week, the report said.

On average, the report said, almost 93 percent of trips are tolled trips. The rest are high-occupancy vehicles using the E-ZPass Flex transponder, buses and other exempt vehicles, such as motorcycles and emergency vehicles.

To travel the full 14-mile length of the express lanes, the minimum toll for the period was $1.65 and the maximum was $3.70. Many drivers don’t go the entire way. The average toll per trip thus far has been $1.07.

I hope the number of carpoolers will grow. Carpooling represents a very small share of commuting in the D.C. region. Carpooling in the express lanes requires drivers to take the extra step of getting the E-ZPass Flex from either Virginia or Maryland so they can get the free ride.

Commuter buses should be another growth area. Omniride’s Tysons Express began using the new lanes in November for its route from Woodbridge to Tysons Corner, and the  Fairfax Connector is set to begin express service to Tysons from Burke on Monday, with more routes coming in the spring.

Even if daily use by toll payers grows, the lanes won’t realize their true potential unless more commuters choose to leave their own cars at home by joining carpools or taking express buses.

I’ve heard from many travelers who are either confused about when and where to use the new lanes or are worried that they will wander into them accidentally. I will have some letters about these issues in my Sunday column in The Post’s Metro section.

Transurban has a customer care service, available either by calling 855-495-9777, or by clicking on this link to the 495 Express Lanes Web site. The company reports that top topics include “Missed a toll” inquiries, disputes of toll invoices, questions about E-ZPass and questions about using 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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Mark Berman · January 10, 2013