495 Express Lanes driver finds Tysons a tricky target

Robert Thomson
Columnist March 2, 2013

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I am generally a fan of E-ZPass, but ran into a major issue with the new E-ZPass express lanes in Northern Virginia. Aside from the fact that not all the Capital Beltway exits are available to the E-ZPass drivers, coming from the Maryland side, there is no sign indicating the exit to take for Tysons Corner.

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. View Archive

I only realized it as I was passing Tysons. To add anxiety over frustration, the next exit was Interstate 66 West. There is, by the way, a Tysons sign coming from the other direction.

— Alyse Steinborn, Rockville

I hear from many travelers who want to use the new 495 Express Lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia but aren’t sure how to do it or exactly what’s going to happen to them once they do enter the lanes.

Drivers are teaching me about the difficulties of adapting to this highway within a highway. There are plenty of user guides available. But most drivers aren’t going to track these down in The Post’s archives or the express lanes’ Web site before they set out. They’re just going to get in their cars and start watching for signs.

On most trips, that strategy works fine, but the express lanes introduce a couple of complications. While the new lanes parallel the Beltway, not all the express entrances and exits match those in the regular lanes.

The experience is about the same as going to a new city and trying to use a bus for the first time: How much is the fare? Do I need exact change? Where do I board the bus, and how will I know where my stop is? Transit experts have made careers out of simplifying those issues.

Steinborn makes a great point about signs for Tysons. Many drivers do know that from the regular lanes they can take the Route 123 or Route 7 exits to reach the shopping areas. The signs at those exits are marked for “Tysons Corner.” But an occasional visitor moving at highway speeds could get confused.

With all the billions being spent on converting Tysons into a modern urban area, a couple of highway signs listing “Tysons Exits Ahead” wouldn’t hurt.

Or would they? The new lanes complicate even this. They have three exits for Tysons, including two that don’t match up with the regular lanes. The express exits for Tysons are at Jones Branch Drive, Westpark Drive and Route 7. (Not at Route 123.)

For a shopper driving south from Maryland, the Westpark Drive exit is the best bet. The driver pays a small toll — it varies but is probably going to be around 35 cents — and gains a more direct route to the shopping areas while bypassing traffic at the regular lane exits.

But for shoppers who make only occasional trips to the malls, “Westpark Drive” and “Jones Branch Drive” don’t mean “Tysons.” It’s easy to imagine them looping around the I-66 interchange for another run at it.

I’ve got many more examples of driver confusion. Occasionally, I hear from people who have seen the “E-ZPass Express” signs near Beltway entrances. They want to know if they can still drive the Beltway without paying a toll. (Yes.)

Here’s a frequently asked question drawn from my online discussion Monday: “I’m concerned that I’ll get on the HOT lanes and not be able to get off where I want. The Web site [www.495expresslanes.com] is very confusing. Can you get off at every normal exit on the Beltway from the express lanes? Can you get back onto the regular lanes, and where?”

As I noted, the access points for the HOT lanes do not always correspond with the access points for the regular lanes. But the Web site does have a lot of very useful information, and Transurban, the lanes’ operator, has been adding to it.

Under the “Driving Express Lanes” menu, look for “Using the Lanes.” You will see every entrance and exit. Click on the name of an access point, like Jones Branch Drive or I-66, to see a more detailed map. Click on one of the pointers within that map to see a display showing the exact route for entry or exit. Look also for the link that says “Watch a video of this” to see a driver cam view of how to enter the lanes.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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