Express Lanes driving, tolls, continued to rise in late 2013


The combination of express lanes and regular lanes on the Capital Beltway in Tysons can confuse some drivers. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Average workday use of the Capital Beltway’s 495 Express Lanes rose slightly in the last three months of 2013, according to the operating company’s latest quarterly report.

The biggest day was Dec. 19, the Thursday before Christmas, when 46,975 trips were taken along the 14 miles of high-occupancy toll lanes between Springfield and the area just north of Tysons Corner. This may have been a combination of holiday shopping, some long-distance travel and regular commuting. The toll revenue for the day also was a record, at $123,604.

For the final quarter, average workday trips totaled 37,969, compared with 37,574 in the July-September quarter. Transurban’s financial report noted that commuter traffic was down because of the 16-day federal government shutdown in October.

Still, the daily revenue grew from a daily average of $51,736 in the July-September quarter to an average of $64,277 for the October-December period.

High occupancy vehicles and other vehicles exempt from tolls, such as motorcycles, continue to make up about 9 percent of the express lane users.

The express lanes opened on Nov. 17, 2012. So the results for the last quarter of 2013 provide the first year to year comparison, but it’s not an ideal one. The lanes were open for only part of the last quarter in 2012, and that’s a disrupted time period anyway, because of the holidays and because of 2013′s government shutdown. The Transurban numbers show that average daily trips for the final quarter of 2013 were 63.6 percent higher than in the last quarter of 2012.

The average toll charged in last year’s final quarter was $2.32. The maximum toll during the quarter was $9.75. That’s for travel on the full, 14-mile route. At 8:50 Tuesday morning, drivers entering the express lanes in Springfield would have paid $9.65 to drive the entire route. It would have cost them $5.35 for the shorter trip to the Interstate 66 exit and $7.65 to go farther north to the Westpark Drive exit in Tysons Corner. Southbound travel during the morning rush tends to be less expensive. The comparable rates this morning when entering the lanes north of Tysons Corner were $2.65 for the entire trip, $1.15 to I-66 and 50 cents for the short trip to the Jones Branch Drive exit in Tysons.

Driver characteristics
The lane operator issued a separate report on the first year’s operation, which reviewed some of the characteristics of the customers.

The three most popular trips in the express lanes are from I-66 to the northern end just beyond Tysons, where they rejoin the Beltway’s regular lanes; Springfield to Route 267, and Springfield to the northern end. In a November interview for the lanes’ first anniversary, Jennifer Aument, head of Transurban’s business in North America, said the company hoped to encourage drivers to use some of the other access points. The three most popular trips listed in the first-year report connect major highways with major highways.

They are among the simplest routes to use. But most of the access points to the express lanes are at interchanges connected to lesser commuter routes, such as Lee Highway, Braddock Road and Gallows Road. The access points at Lee Highway in Merrifield and at Westpark Drive and Jones Branch Drive in Tysons did not exist before construction of the express lanes. Using such routes involves more of a learning process than slipping from interstate lane to interstate lane.

An online survey done for the express lanes in the D.C. region in September found that 58 percent of lane users are women and that 60 percent are younger than 45. The top reason survey respondents gave for using the lanes was the need to reach a destination on time, with 68 percent citing that as a motive. The respondents could pick multiple reasons, so 44 percent cited congestion in the Beltway’s regular lanes, 30 percent said they were interested in a reliable trip and another 30 percent said they wanted a less stressful trip.

Travelers who use the lanes have cited all those reasons in writing to me. In fact, they all could apply to one rush hour commute in the Beltway corridor. When travelers write in to say they do not use the express lanes, they usually cite the cost, confusion about the best route, or a lack of information about conditions in the regular Beltway lanes compared with the express lanes. (In other words, they can’t tell if the price of congestion relief is worth it for a particular trip.)

In the company’s regional survey, 59 percent of express lanes users were from Virginia — with Fairfax County accounting for about a quarter of the users. Maryland accounted for 29 percent of users — 17 percent from Montgomery County and 12 percent from Prince George’s — and the District for 12 percent.

I sometimes get letters from travelers reflecting a problem with an individual trip. Some drivers are confused by the lanes. Several told me that they were steered into them by Google Map directions. That’s something I have been unable to duplicate. When I ask Google Maps about routes that could feature express lane use, Google Maps doesn’t include the lanes in the results. In other cases, drivers have various problems with E-ZPass. They may not have known that lane use requires E-ZPass transponders or they may have had a problem with their transponder.

The express lanes’ first-year report notes that top issues for its customer service center include: Missing a toll, disputing an invoice received after using the lanes, how to properly use an E-ZPass and how best to use the express lanes. Travelers can reach customer service by calling 855-495-XPRS (9777). Or use this link to the “Contact Us” form on the express lanes’ Web site.

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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