Some drivers still uncomfortable with year-old HOT lanes

November 1, 2013

The 496 Express Lanes opened new access points in Tysons, including this ramp at Westpark Drive. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

The 495 Express Lanes will be a year old in the middle of November. While some drivers have learned how to take advantage of the more reliable rides, or the new access points the lanes offer, others are still uncomfortable with the concept of the variable tolls or with the practicalities of using them.

I had to cancel my online chat for this coming Monday, and in doing so, I noticed a comment for the chat that had arrived at 10:27 a.m. Wednesday.

The commenter wrote: How can VDOT continue to raise daily fees on the E-ZPass area between Springfield and Tysons Corner and no one complains? Today (Wednesday), they reached the tipping point. $9.70. Price gouging! Shame on VDOT. Aren’t others disturbed by this gradual and steady increase in “dynamic” pricing?

In the chat format, I can’t send a message back to a commenter to get more details. But here are a few thoughts based on what was said.

Express lanes sign
Transurban image shows variable message board with tolls to three destinations.

While the Virginia government is responsible for the type of tolling system used on the express lanes, the Virginia Department of Transportation doesn’t set the tolls. The tolls are set by Transurban, the private company that operates the lanes under a long-term lease with Virginia. The toll system was set up to do two basic things: allow the private consortium of the Transurban and Fluor companies to get a return on their investment in building and operating the lanes, and regulate the flow of traffic onto the lanes to avoid congestion, making the trip in the tolled lanes more reliable than the trip in the regular lanes.

What Virginia gets out of this are four new lanes along 14 congested miles of the Capital Beltway, open to drivers willing to pay whatever the current toll is — and it has no limit — or for free to carpoolers using the E-ZPass Flex transponder.

The average tolls and the highest tolls have been rising since the opening, as has use of the lanes, according to Transurban’s quarterly reports. Using the feature called “Historic Rates” on the 495 Express Lanes Web site, I can see that the toll at 9 a.m. Wednesday for the 14-mile trip from Springfield to north of Tysons was $9.70. That’s higher than the record set in September of $8.90.

That’s pretty steep, especially in a region where most drivers don’t pay tolls for highway access. Is it “price gouging”?

First, let’s look back at what we expected drivers would be paying to use the express lanes. I wrote this in a user’s guide just before the lanes opened last November: “The lane operators say they expect the toll at quiet times could be about 20 cents a mile, rising to about $1.25 per mile in some segments during rush hour.” On the high end, that would be $17.50 for the full 14-mile trip. Maybe some day, as use of the lanes increases, but we’re nowhere near that yet.

Also, most drivers don’t use the lanes for their full length. In fact, the system is designed to accommodate drivers who use the Beltway to go just a few exits, from one intersecting roadway to another. For example, a driver using the express lanes to get from I-66 to Route 7 in Tysons at 9 a.m. Wednesday would have paid $1.10.

So it would be difficult to argue that we’ve been blind-sided by the HOT lanes toll rates. See also Eric Weiss’s Post article from 2007 headlined  “Steep Prices Projected for HOT Lanes.”

But then, there’s also the definition of “price gouging” to consider. It means charging an abnormally high price at a time when many people have no alternative but to pay it.

On the Beltway, a driver always has the choice of using the four regular lanes rather than the two tolled lanes. Drivers who think the tolls posted on the message boards at the express lanes’ access points are too high will most likely opt for the free lanes, even if they anticipate the trip will be slower than in the express lanes.

In fact, this is a very competitive marketplace. Drivers in the toll lanes and drivers in the free lanes can usually assess the result of their decision by looking left or right into the other lanes.

Consider another benefit of this travel marketplace: Transurban has a deal to operate these lanes for most of the 21st century. The express lanes are set up to serve daily commuters rather than long-distance drivers who might pass through the D.C. region once in a season. The company’s success depends on local repeat customers. Customers who sense they’re being gouged are less likely to come back. Bad for Transurban.

Your view?
I plan to write a fuller report on the express lanes’ first year as we approach the Nov. 17 anniversary, and would like to get your views on their operation, whether you use them or avoid them. Comments on the blog are always welcome, but I’d also like to get your experiences and observations into my story. If you’re up for that, please write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com, and include your full name, home community and a phone number where I can contact you.

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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