At Tuesday’s pre-opening ceremony in Tysons — a bipartisan lovefest with a ribbon cutting and balloon drop presided over by Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) — Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez noted that “government resources are very limited in today’s world.” The express lanes project, he said, “is a model for what can happen throughout the nation.”
Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton described it as “a high-tech wonder.” Then added, “hopefully, this weekend it will work.”
He was teasing. Virginia is confident enough in the project’s success to have signed a deal with the same private partners to replace the I-95 High Occupancy Vehicle lanes with HOT lanes and extend them farther south in 2014.
Still, many things new things have to go right.
Few highways in the D.C. area are tolled, and none is tolled like the 495 Express Lanes.
Maryland’s Intercounty Connector, the region’s first new highway of the 21st century, also uses electronic tolling, but the style is known as variable tolling. The rates, highest at rush hour and lowest off-peak, are set.
The 495 Express Lanes will use dynamic tolling. At any time of day, the toll will be based on supply and demand. Sensors along the lanes will feed traffic information to an operations center near the Springfield interchange.
A computer will calculate whether there’s too much demand for the supply of lanes. To maintain the guaranteed speed of 45 mph, it will raise the price of using the lanes. Approaching drivers will see the new rates on overhead messages boards, and some will decide it’s too pricey. They will stick with the regular lanes, easing congestion in the express lanes.
To claim the free ride for a carpool in the express lanes, a driver must not only have at least three people aboard, but also obtain a new type of transponder called an E-ZPass Flex.
The Flex has a switch the driver can toggle between the regular toll-paying setting and another that tells the toll-reading equipment it’s a carpool. State police looking for cheaters also can read that signal.
Nowhere in the D.C. region will the benefits of sharing rides be so obvious. A carpooler need only look up at the message board displaying the toll rates. The average driver probably will pay $3 to $6 for a rush-hour ride, Transurban estimated.
At those prices, the lane operators don’t expect the same drivers to use them every day. But they do expect that when time equals money, drivers will make a calculation in their favor.
To read previous Dr. Gridlock columns, go to washingtonpost.com/drgridlock.