Among the many questions commuters ask as they consider a test drive this coming week, these are the essentials.
What are the 495 Express Lanes? Generically, they are know as high-occupancy toll, or HOT lanes. A private consortium picked up most of the cost to build them in exchange for the right to collect tolls.
Some drivers will pay a variable toll to use them. Motorcyclists will ride free. Drivers who assemble a carpool of three or more also can ride free. Buses ride free, too, creating an incentive for transit services. There’s no exemption for hybrids. These rules will be in effect around the clock and every day of the year.
Where are they? These four new lanes are in the middle of the Beltway between Springfield and just north of the Dulles Toll Road. That’s 14 miles from end to end. There are two lanes in each direction. They are separated from the Beltway’s regular lanes by white bollards set eight feet apart. Only at the ends can drivers slide in and out of the express lanes. The other access points are at interchanges.
What makes them different? The public-private partnership is an unusual way to finance public infrastructure. But for commuters, the essential difference is the tolling system.
The tolls will be used to manage traffic flow and guarantee a reliable trip. When the lanes are lightly used, the tolls will be low. As the lanes get more crowded, the tolls will rise. Some Beltway drivers will see those higher tolls appear on signs near the access points and decide it’s too pricey, so they’ll stick with the regular lanes.
The tolls will keep rising to ensure that the remaining users of the lanes are driving at least 45 mph.
What’s the toll, really? This is the most frequently asked question of all. Dynamic tolling is a new concept for the D.C. region’s drivers. They don’t like paying tolls, and they especially don’t like paying tolls that can change frequently based on sensors feeding traffic-flow data to computers.
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.
Most drivers won’t go the whole route. They will pay a total for the segments they use. Some segments may be more congested than others. The operators estimate the average cost of a trip at $1 or $2 off-peak and $3 to $6 during rush hours.
Will tolls rise while I’m driving? This isn’t like handing your teenager a cellphone and the next month staring at a $500 phone bill you didn’t see coming. Express lanes drivers will know the maximum toll up front, at the point where they are deciding whether to use the lanes.