Bad weather, accidents inflate the price of time for drivers on Beltway’s express lanes

Robert Thomson
Columnist April 23

Turned out that Toyotas and Hondas were the vehicles most likely to be found in what had been billed by some drivers as the “Lexus lanes” on the Capital Beltway. Most days, you might as well call them the Starbucks lanes, because the toll is closer to the price of a fancy coffee.

But there are some mornings when you’d have to drink a lot of joe to match the cost of a trip all the way through the 495 Express Lanes. Early this month, the top toll surpassed $11.

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

Under the system called “dynamic tolling,” their is no upper limit on the charges for using the lanes. The tolls rise and fall depending on the demand for the reliable travel times the express lanes provide.

Since the lanes opened in November 2012, both the top toll and the average toll have been rising along with the traffic volume. On April 3, the toll reached $11.55 for the 14-mile trip from the lanes’ southern end at Springfield to the exit on the north side of Tysons Corner.

I noticed another peak on April 15, when the toll for that same trip was $11 during the morning rush. Traffic volumes in the opposite direction, north to south, don’t produce such Himalayan peaks. At the same time the drivers from the south were paying $11 for the full trip, the drivers entering from the north were paying $3.15.


(Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Michael McGurk, spokesman for the 495 Express Lanes, said the toll peaks usually tie in with extraordinary circumstances along the Beltway. “Weather, accidents or incidents are main drivers of really bad congestion from what we’ve seen,” he said in an e-mail. “If it’s a clear, sunny day, the regular congestion alone won’t push us to new highs.”

Indeed, the tolls for a more typical April morning peak are $8 from the south and $2.55 from the north.

On April 3, when the northbound toll reached $11.55, a tractor-trailer crashed at the American Legion Bridge, backing up traffic on the inner loop to Springfield.

The April 15 morning peak was almost certainly influenced by the day’s heavy rain, McGurk said. “We also had a couple of accidents in the Express Lanes network that drove up the density (we were still operating) and, therefore, toll prices. Southbound, there was an overturned vehicle in the general purpose lanes, but that didn’t drive congestion to the levels we saw in the northbound Express Lanes.”

For both the regular lanes and the express lanes, the morning rush traffic is almost always heavier northbound than southbound, he said.

Many drivers don’t go the full 14 miles, instead using the access points at interchanges along the way. During the first quarter of this year, the average toll paid increased from $2.32 in the last quarter of 2013 to $2.38, according to a report from Transurban, the company that operates the express lanes.

The average number of workday trips during the January-March period was 37,969, according to the report. That was an increase of about 44 percent over the same period last year.

While carpoolers can use the lanes for free as long as they have at least three people aboard and use the E-ZPass Flex transponder, about 91 percent of the trips taken during the past quarter were by toll payers.

Break for E-ZPass users

In what may be the best news for Virginia’s interstate travelers since Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s (R) administration reopened the roadside bathrooms closed during the Timothy M. Kaine (D) administration, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed a bill this month that will eliminate the monthly fee the state charges for maintaining E-ZPass accounts.

Now, the Virginia Department of Transportation has to figure out how to do that. The deadline for ending the fee is Sept. 1.

Virginia imposed the fee of 50 cents a month in September 2012 on drivers who got new transponders. Drivers who got the E-ZPass Flex transponder for the free carpooler ride in the high-occupancy toll lanes were charged $1 a month. But they could get the fee waived if they used the Flex exclusively for carpooling in the 495 Express Lanes.

VDOT said at the time that the annual operating cost of the E-ZPass customer service center was $10 million, just part of the cost of running the system of transponders and accounts. Many agencies that issue E-ZPass transponders and maintain the accounts charge maintenance fees. Maryland charges $1.50 a month, but waives it for accounts used to pay at least three tolls during the previous month in Maryland.

The costs of the back office operations haven’t gone away. Over the next four months, VDOT has to figure out how to deal with that while ending the account charge.

“We are exploring a number of options for eliminating the monthly E-ZPass transponder fee. However, a final decision (on a plan/options) has not been made,” VDOT spokeswoman Shannon Nicole Marshall said in an e-mail.

While elimination of the fee is especially good news for drivers subject to what is now all-electronic tolling on two tunnels in Hampton Roads, it’s also somewhat of an incentive for Northern Virginia drivers to get E-ZPasses for the 495 Express Lanes and the 95 Express Lanes scheduled to open early next year on Interstate 95.

Good news for Transurban, too.

“Our research has shown that the monthly fee can be a barrier for folks considering getting an E-ZPass,” McGurk said. “We hope that eliminating the fee will encourage more drivers to get an E-ZPass so that they’re able to take the express lanes.”

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