Keep your E-ZPass
. For many years, the region’s tolls were limited to the Dulles Toll Road in Virginia and some major bridges and tunnels in Maryland, but that is changing. North of the Beltway in Maryland, an east-west toll road called the Intercounty Connector opened in 2011. Virginia plans to open high-occupancy toll lanes on the west side of the Beltway and on Interstate 95. They will be free for vehicles with at least three people aboard, and others will pay a variable toll.
All users of those new Virginia lanes, except motorcyclists, will need to have an E-ZPass. Those planning to carpool will need an E-ZPass Flex, a switchable transponder with a carpool setting.
7. What does ‘HOV’ mean?
It stands for High Occupancy Vehicle. You will see that designation on signs marking carpool lanes in Maryland and Virginia. Diamond shapes on the pavement mark those lanes.
The rules vary. For example, on I-270 and Route 50 in Maryland, at least two people must be in a car to use the lanes. But the I-270 carpool requirement is for weekday rush hours only, while the Route 50 requirement is in effect 24 hours a day.
In Virginia, the HOV lanes are rush-hour only. On I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road, at least two people must be in a car. On I-95, the minimum is three people.
8. Am I better off taking transit?
The answer used to be “absolutely,” because the Washington region has one of the nation’s most extensive transit systems. But our primary transit asset, Metrorail, is now very crowded — especially on the western sides of the Orange and Red lines — and the equipment is showing its age. Metro’s rehab program is intensive and almost always disrupts the weekend rail service.
If you’re lucky enough to find a working escalator, remember to stand to the right so others can walk by you on the left. When riding the trains, notice that the Metrorail doors are not like elevator doors. They don’t bounce back when pushed; they either keep closing or break, forcing the operator to take the train out of service.
If you become a frequent rider of Metrorail, Metrobus or the suburban bus systems, buy a plastic SmarTrip card for $5 and add fare value to it at a station vending machine, aboard a bus or online.
Other transit alternatives to driving include the Virginia Railway Express commuter trains and Maryland’s MARC trains.
9. What could cut my costs?
Many employers participate in programs designed to limit the number of solo drivers at rush hour. Federal workers can receive a monthly transit benefit that pays for Metro rides and for parking at Metro stations. Other workers can take advantage of a pre-tax deduction from their salaries to pay for transit use. Programs such as NuRide and ’Pool Rewards offer incentives to workers who avoid solo driving. Services such as Commuter Connections help link up people who want to share rides.
To save money on commuting, it’s not necessary to radically alter your lifestyle. Try telecommuting several days a month. Leave the car at home one day and walk to a Metrorail station or a Metrobus stop. Join the Capital Bikeshare program — you can do it for one day — and cycle from bike station to bike station.
10. After I’m settled, will commutes improve?
They’re more likely to get worse. With the exception of the high-occupancy toll lanes and Metro’s Silver Line across Northern Virginia and the rebuilding of the 11th Street bridge in the District, there are few grand-scale projects underway or in development. Some prominent projects, such as Maryland’s Purple Line transitway, which will connect Bethesda to New Carrollton, are as yet unfunded for construction.
Even if you take my advice and live near work, consider how long you might keep that job. One of the benefits and curses of a decent job market is that Washingtonians change workplaces for new opportunities. They don’t move every time they switch jobs, and the jobs may be less accessible.
Dave Wiskochil of Franconia put it to me this way: “Since 1976, I have worked in Rosslyn, Essex, Md., Scaggsville, Tysons, Springfield, Crystal City, Pax River, Alexandria, Philadelphia, Northwest Washington, Southwest Washington, Crystal City, Southwest Washington, Tysons, Southeast Washington and Southwest Washington.”
At such rates, he said, “It doesn’t make sense to unpack.”
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