Use of express lanes continues to rise, operator says

October 15, 2013
495 Express Lanes near Gallows Road
The 495 Express Lanes, seen here near Gallows Road, are taking in more toll revenue, despite some drivers’ perceptions that they’re empty. (Dayna Smith/The Washington Post.)

Traffic and tolls along the 495 Express Lanes were up a bit in the year’s third quarter, according to the company that operates the high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway.

Average daily trips increased 5.6 percent over the three months ending in June, the Transurban report said. The latest period included the July-August vacation season, when commuting drops throughout the D.C. region, but September was a particularly good month for the lanes operator. On Sept. 12, 47,303 trips were recorded, the highest daily total in any of the usage reports since the lanes opened in November. The revenue for the day also was a record: $108,493.

Average weekday revenue for September was $79,210, an increase of 28.8 percent over the average for July and August, Transurban said. The top toll during the quarter was $8.90 to travel the full 14 miles of the express lanes between Springfield and north of Tysons. The top toll for the previous quarter was $7.55.

Most drivers don’t go the full length. The average toll was $1.86, compared to $1.71 for the previous quarter.

I hear from some drivers who look at these quarterly reports — or just look at how many cars they see in the express lanes — and try to assess whether the lanes are a success or a failure. The numbers are meaningless for that purpose, and the question about whether the HOT lanes succeeded won’t be answered for years.

One figure I wish could be higher: Transurban said the number of high occupancy vehicles and other vehicles exempt from tolls, such as emergency vehicles or motorcycles, was 9 percent of all users for the quarter. It’s early yet, but the express lanes won’t fulfill their promise until more people are taking advantage of the free trip for those willing to share a ride, either in a carpool, vanpool or a bus.

My own quarterly report: Commuters remain very interested in the express lanes, whether they’re for them or against them. Among the pros are people who use them regularly because they find it worth paying the variable toll for a trip that’s quicker and more consistent than what they get in the Beltway’s regular lanes. Among the cons are people chagrined that they “guessed wrong” by picking the express lanes when they can see that traffic on the regular lanes turned out to be free-flowing.

Tops on their wishlist — and this has been consistent through the year — is an instant way of determining the time of trips in the regular lanes vs. the express lanes at the point where they must choose.

The most frequently asked question is some version of, “Can I use the express lanes if I don’t have an E-ZPass?” Yes, you can, but the lanes were set up as E-ZPass lanes, and the drivers who have the transponders do indeed have it easy. Go through without an E-ZPass, and you’re going to pay a surcharge of $1.50 — if you use the “Missed a Toll” feature on the express lanes Web site at 495expresslanes.com and pay online. If you wait more than five days after your trip, that will be unavailable, and you will be mailed a toll invoice. The mailed invoice will include an administrative fee of $12.50 per trip.

Ideas campaign

Through Oct. 25, Transurban is asking Beltway travelers to submit their ideas on how to improve the lane operations. “The idea could be about lane striping or it could be about marketing and communications,” said Pierce Coffee, Transurban’s director of marketing. “We’re going to review the ideas and see if any of them can be implemented to improve the express lanes customer experience.”

To add your suggestions, go to 495expresslanes.com/ideas. No prizes, but Transurban might actually use your idea and publicize it.

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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Robert Thomson | October 15, 2013