Drivers offer tips for users, and operators, of Beltway Express Lanes

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Dear Dr. Gridlock:

You asked for input from drivers as to how they decide to use the new high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway. I have been using them morning and evening and find that they cut at least a half-hour off my 28-mile commute.

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

That’s an hour a day that I can use productively! As noted by Gabriel Goldberg, there isn’t any way to tell in advance whether the toll lanes will make a difference for a given trip. One Friday last month, they were no better than the free lanes. But, on average, the HOT lanes avoid the normal rush-hour backups and are worth it, given the current relatively modest tolls.

While Hilary Fordwich’s observations about lack of use may have been valid early on, traffic on the HOT lanes is definitely increasing, as borne out by rising tolls. Fordwich might consider the long view: [The private consortium that built and operates the lanes] made a calculated business decision that it could recover the cost over the duration of the deal with the state and end up with a profit.

During that time, population will continue to increase, traffic will continue to increase and the HOT lanes will see plenty of use — eventually even during non-peak hours.

The rest of us, Washingtonians and others who use the Beltway, get a brand-new road, including new sound walls, retaining walls, median barriers, bridges — even the asphalt, with four additional lanes thrown in. What’s to complain about?

— Clive Carpi, Kingstowne

Thanks to Carpi and other travelers who have been sharing their early experience with the 495 Express Lanes on the west side of the Beltway in Virginia. Carpi’s letter contains both practical advice and perspective.

He notes what so many of you have observed: A driver approaching the decision point on using the lanes can’t see far enough ahead on the Beltway to know if the congestion in the regular lanes justifies the cost of using the express lanes.

But Carpi was willing to pay the price of the experiment, and so far it hasn’t been that big a price. What he learned was that the travel time in the express lanes tended to beat the time he had been spending in the regular lanes. It wasn’t worth it on every trip, but on average, he saved enough time to make the investment worthwhile.

I think his long view is probably right, too. Over the next few decades, the express lanes will prove their worth not only to the investors but also to commuters.

But travelers, please address his question: “What’s to complain about?”

Adding signs

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

In reference to your “Tips for using Beltway express lanes,” I believe that two additions to the Beltway from each direction would assist drivers in making their decisions about using them.

Add signage at each end stating what the travel time is in the regular lanes. This way, when drivers don’t see a backup at the beginning of the lanes, they can still make an early decision about whether to use the express lanes based on travel-time estimates.

A mile or two before the express lanes’ entrance, add signage listing the exits, just as one would see when approaching an airport listing the terminals for each airline. Even though there has been a lot of publicity about the express lanes, not everyone has learned where the exits are.

The signage I am describing does not need the updated toll — just the list of exits to help make the decision about using the express lanes.

— Carl Levin, Falls Church

The lane operators have made no decisions about adding signs. That’s a complicated process involving lots of reviews, as it should be. I like many of the ideas travelers have submitted. But I also think about those airport terminal signs and how grateful I am when a passenger can watch them so I can keep my eyes on the road.

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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