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Early experience yields tips for using Beltway express lanes

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The people using those new Lexus Lanes on the Capital Beltway may be among the 1 percent, but watch out: They drive like the rest of us.

It has been just three weeks since the 495 Express Lanes opened, and it’s certainly too early to reach any conclusions about them. But some early experiences driving the lanes and using the new features on the lane operator’s Web site may prove useful to commuters and Tysons shoppers. So here are some tips on how to get the most out of the lanes and avoid problems.

Safety first

Although much of the opening day attention was focused on whether drivers were getting confused at the entry points, I think the long-term issue will be getting them more familiar with the interior of the system.

The express lanes’ early adopters pay attention to driving, signal their intentions and observe the 55 mph speed limit about as often as other motorists. When you mix such common misbehavior with an uncommon situation, you get these results:

Some drivers are going too fast in an unfamiliar space. It’s not just that motorists haven’t gotten used to the lanes’ characteristics. The drivers around them also are encountering new conditions.

Drivers do a lot of weaving. You may ask how bad that can be since they only have two lanes to play with.

The project created two through lanes in each direction in the middle of the Beltway. But for some short stretches, there may be as many as four lanes available, to allow for traffic to merge in and out.

In sections, particularly in Tysons, the on ramps and offramps are close together. A driver in the left through-lane may have an entering vehicle on the left-side ramp while another vehicle is moving from the right into his lane to prepare for an exit.

Drivers in this mix may be confused about which are the exit lanes and which are the through lanes. Approaching a spot where lanes go left to exit or right to continue, these drivers may brake, sometimes hard, and make sudden lane changes, occasionally changing back again just as quickly.

Taking the plunge

Rush hour after rush hour, I see drivers crawling along the regular lanes while a happy few roll by in the express lanes. There are moments, even at rush hour, when the new lanes are empty. Then a cluster of cars will appear. Perhaps this is because the cars have been waiting at one of the traffic signals that control most of the access points.

So far, the traffic hasn’t really tested the dynamic tolling system, in which the price of a ride rises with the level of congestion, so the lanes will not become too crowded. The cost has been fairly consistent from rush hour to rush hour.

Tuesday morning’s scenario was typical: At the northern entry point approaching the Dulles Toll Road, the prices display on the overhead sign will be 30 cents for the short trip to the Jones Branch Drive exit, 95 cents to Interstate 66 and $1.80 to the southern exit approaching Springfield, 14 miles away.

At the Gallows Road entry point, a driver about to head north would see the toll is 60 cents to I-66, $1.10 to Westpark Drive in Tysons and $1.55 to the exit point north of the Dulles Toll Road.

Entering the lanes at the southern access point, a driver commonly sees tolls of $1.80 to I-66, $2.30 to Westpark Drive and $2.75 for the full 14-mile trip to the northern exit. Those prices do vary, but they have been nowhere near a level that would induce price shock among drivers. These are not Lexus Lane prices.

So why aren’t more motorists taking test drives? I think it’s because so many can’t see the value of the express lanes at the points where they would have to decide to use them.

The Beltway traffic may be manageable at the express lanes entries at Springfield or Gallows Road. Why pay a toll? Drivers can’t see the jams that await them when they reach Tysons.

Checking the Web site

I think it won’t be too long before drivers stuck in regular lanes figure out how to judge the express lanes’ value.

But this difficulty in making on-the-go assessments emphasizes the potential value of the operator’s Web site, www.495ExpressLanes.com, where travelers can find information about the tolls and road conditions before leaving their home or office.

The Web site’s traffic-camera views provide clearest video images of any in the D.C. region, but they can be slow to load. A traveler might find them loading a bit faster if the office has a higher speed connection than home’s.

Also appearing as part of the traffic map for the site’s “On the Road” page are “i” icons that when clicked will display the toll rates for an access point. It’s possible that if an emergency arises in the lanes, a traveler might discover another useful message, such as “Incident Ahead, Use Regular Beltway Lanes.”

Ideally, a driver would need to look at only one map as a guide. But until Google updates its technology to show the completed express lanes, a driver needs another map to get oriented. Click the site’s button marked “Using the Lanes” for guidance on where to find the access points and what movements are possible.

The Beltway entries at Route 29, Westpark Drive and Jones Branch Drive are new. At some entry points, a driver can go one way but not another. For example, at Gallows Road, drivers can go north in the lanes but not south.

When the lanes first opened, the Google map displayed helpful color coding — black, red, yellow, green — to indicate the speed of traffic in the lanes. The problem: During a short period when no vehicle is moving in a segment, the sensors indicate a traffic speed of zero. The line on the map segment turned black, suggesting that traffic had come to a standstill in an area that was wide open. So, no more colors until that issue is resolved.

Drivers with questions about the E-ZPass electronic toll-paying system or their E-ZPass account should contact the E-ZPass agency that maintains the account. But if they have questions about traveling on the 495 Express Lanes or about a bill for using the lanes, they should go to the Web site’s customer-care page.

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