Before entering 495 Express Lanes, drivers want to be informed buyers

Robert Thomson
Columnist April 24, 2013

Leo Wetzel of McLean suggested in my April 7 column that the 495 Express Lanes Web site add a printable map of the lane access points, and now it’s there. Pierce Coffee, the director of marketing at Transurban, the operator of the lanes, told me that a .pdf map has been added to several pages on the Web site, www.495expresslanes.com.

As Wetzel pointed out, the map is something travelers can take with them for any time they need to check where they can get on or off the new lanes — although I strongly recommend they refrain from doing so while driving.

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

A great deal of information about the lanes was already available on the operator’s site. In the section called “Using the Lanes,” a small but clickable map leads to overviews of all the access points. Click again to see a little car follow the ramps onto and off the express lanes. Short videos give driver’s-eye views of each entrance and exit.

But drivers such as Wetzel wanted a plain old map on a piece of paper. It’s very interesting — and educational — to follow along as travelers try to figure out how to navigate the new lanes and whether they will benefit from them.

Managed lanes could well be the way of the future in highway transportation. But theory is one thing, and practice, as it turns out, might be another. To use the lanes, drivers must learn some new things about navigation and electronic tolling.

Having a Web site with lots of information is great, but many drivers are used to getting in their cars and driving rather than taking an online study course.

Express lanes report

Meanwhile, Transurban has released data on the express lanes’ use during the first three months of this year.

The company reported that average daily traffic grew 13 percent during this past quarter, compared with the 2012 period following the opening, in November. In the past quarter, use of the lanes built up, the Transurban numbers show. Average daily use increased by 15 percent from the first full week in January until Easter. The average number of trips on weekdays was 26,294.

Toll revenue also grew, increasing by 49 percent during the first three months of this year, compared with the 2012 period after the opening. The average toll also went up, increasing by a third. Last year, the average was $1.07. For the first quarter of 2013, it was $1.43.

Tolls in the express lanes vary with the level of congestion and with the length of the trip in this 14-mile zone. The peak toll for this past quarter was $6.35, compared with $3.70 in 2012.

High-occupancy vehicles and exempt vehicles, including motorcycles, make up 8 percent of the lanes’ usage, Transurban said. I hope that will increase over time, because the lanes won’t really be successful as a people-moving concept unless they move a lot of people in carpools and buses.

Solo drivers who pay tolls need a regular E-ZPass, and carpoolers need an E-ZPass Flex so they can ride at no charge. Transurban reports an increase in the number of Beltway drivers who have E-ZPasses over the past 15 months, but it says its survey found that slightly less than half of Beltway drivers don’t have the devices.

The new numbers are interesting, but we don’t really have a trend yet. This is going to take years.

In a report for the quarter, Transurban chief executive Scott Charlton said, “It remains too early to determine any reliable traffic trends for the 495 Express Lanes, however, traffic continues to grow from the initial levels observed when the road opened late in 2012. We are focused on ensuring that community education and engagement remains strong.”

Although Transurban was smart to do a free weekend and to renew its driver education campaign recently, there’s still no solution to another major issue among drivers: How do you make the instant cost-benefit analysis on whether to take the express lanes when you don’t know how bad the traffic is in the regular lanes?

Transurban is selling a service: the promise of a more reliable trip than you’re likely to get using the regular lanes of the Beltway, which is the alternative product.

Consumers don’t get many chances to directly compare the performance of their purchase with that of the competition. They do on the Beltway. All they have to do is look right or left to see what’s happening with the traffic in the other set of lanes.

Many of those who write to me about their express lanes experiences define themselves as winners or losers based on the traffic they saw in the regular lanes. If they don’t see much traffic in the regular lanes, they think they wasted money by paying the toll.

What these lane consumers want is to make an informed choice before they buy. They want to see some indication of the level of congestion in the regular lanes, such as a miles vs. travel time message board, before they choose to buy the express trip.

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