Beltway express lanes offering drivers a free weekend


Beltway drivers continue to express confusion about how to use the 495 Express Lanes. (Robert Thomson – The Washington Post)

Transurban, the company that operates the new express lanes on the west side of the Beltway in Virginia, has decided for the first time to offer a free test to drivers who normally would pay a toll.

All drivers can use the lanes for free from 12:01 a.m. this Saturday through 11:59 p.m. Sunday. No E-ZPass will be required.

Before the express lanes opened in November, many drivers wrote in to ask whether the express lanes would have a free get-acquainted period to start, just as Maryland’s Intercounty Connector did.

Transurban officials said they wouldn’t be doing that. The Beltway system was more than a new set of lanes. They were selling a different type of travel experience, offering something extremely rare for drivers in the congested D.C. region: A reliable commute. Trips in the express lanes should take about the same amount of time from day to day.

The lanes are tolled so that Transurban can recoup its investment in building them. But the rate system is unique in the D.C. region: The tolls vary with the level of congestion, rising as the lanes get more crowded. The theory is that some drivers would then decide the price was too high for them and take the Beltway’s regular lanes instead, thereby reducing the congestion in the express lanes and providing that reliable trip.

So far, we haven’t seen much of a test of this dynamic tolling system, because the lanes haven’t been very crowded. Most of the questions I get about the lanes fall into two categories:

  • How could a driver make an instant cost-benefit analysis in deciding whether paying for a trip in the express lanes is better than riding free in the regular lanes?
  • How does a driver get in or out of the lanes to reach a particular destination?

The free test weekend won’t address the first question, but it might help with the second. The express lanes project rebuilt many of the interchanges along the 14 miles between Springfield and the area north of the Dulles Toll Road in Tysons. This provides commuters with some new opportunities, particularly if they are going to or from Tysons, but many have expressed only confusion about how to take advantage of them.

For example, I recently heard from a Virginia driver who asked if he could get into the eastbound HOV lane on Interstate 66 approaching the Beltway so he could take the left-side ramp leading to the express lanes. (Yes.)

A Maryland driver said she had heard the express lanes offered convenient access to Tysons, so she looked for that during a southbound drive on the Beltway. She expected to see some sign for the express lanes marked “Tysons” and didn’t realize that wasn’t going to happen till she had driven well past the Tysons exits. She had to loop around at the I-66 interchange and come back north.

(Transurban now has modified a message board in the southbound express lanes to indicate that Jones Branch Drive and Westpark Drive are Tysons exits.)

Now, just this sort of way-finding information is available on the express lanes Web site, at www.495expresslanes.com. There are big-view maps, zoomed in maps that focus on the access points and driver’s eye videos that show exactly what the approaches look like.

But I find commuters don’t make much use of the available resources on this or any other transportation system. They just get in their cars and go, figuring things will work out. But I’ve become convinced from the questions I’ve received that navigating the express lanes is the most complicated thing many commuters have done since they got their driver’s licenses.

The free weekend is part of a broader education campaign Transurban is launching to explain the lanes to potential customers.

“Just like any company with a new product, we’re looking at ways to encourage people to try that new product, which in this case is the express lanes,” said Pierce Coffee, director of marketing at Transurban.

“Now that Transurban knows more about how and when travelers use the express lanes, we think we can safely provide travelers an opportunity to test drive the road on the weekend without causing backups. So we’re opening up the express lanes for anyone to try them for the first time, or to enjoy a toll-free weekend on us.”

Drivers in the D.C. region don’t have much experience with toll roads, and many seem averse to spending extra money — any extra money — to drive on one. So I think there are plenty of drivers who have avoided exploring the new lanes purely out of toll fear.

This is a good chance for them to at least solve the navigation issue when traffic is likely to be light. That’s assuming they can stand being in their cars one more day on the Beltway.

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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