I-95 HOT lanes halfway done as Beltway counterpart approaches first anniversary

Robert Thomson
Columnist October 23, 2013

The Interstate 95 Express Lanes, a 29-mile road work zone in Northern Virginia, is the major highway construction project in the Washington region and among the longest in the nation, but it’s now half done and on schedule to be finished by late next year, Virginia officials say.

The high-occupancy toll lanes in the middle of I-95 should open to traffic in early 2015.

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

Meanwhile, the region’s first set of high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway is approaching its first anniversary of operation. Traffic and the variable tolls on the 495 Express Lanes were up a bit in the year’s third quarter, said Transurban, the company that operates them.

Average daily trips increased 5.6 percent over the previous three months ending in June, the Transurban report said. The latest period included the July-August vacation season, when commuting drops throughout the region, but September was a particularly good month for the operator. On Sept. 12, 47,303 trips were recorded, the highest daily total in any of the usage reports since the lanes opened, in November. The revenue for the day also was a record: $108,493.

The top toll of the quarter was $8.90 to travel the full 14 miles of the express lanes between Springfield and north of Tysons. The top toll for the previous quarter was $7.55.


A year old: Seen on the debut weekday of the express toll lanes, in November, a jumble of roads and signs defines the Capital Beltway looking north from Tysons Corner. Traffic and the variable tolls on the lanes rose slightly in the third quarter, reports Transurban, the lane operator. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)

Most drivers don’t go the full length. A commuter from Rockville who works in Tysons might use the express lanes as a shortcut to offices on Jones Branch Drive, paying a morning rush-hour toll of about 40 cents.

I hear from some drivers who look at these quarterly reports — or just at how many cars they see in the express lanes — and try to assess whether the lanes are a success or failure. The numbers are meaningless for that purpose, and the question about whether the HOT lanes succeeded won’t be answered for years.

One number I wish could be higher in the future: Transurban said the amount of carpoolers, along with other vehicles exempt from tolls such as emergency vehicles or motorcycles, was 9 percent of all users. It’s early yet, but the express lanes won’t fulfill their promise until more people are taking advantage of the free trip for those willing to share a ride, either in a carpool, vanpool or a bus.

Ideas campaign

Friday is the last day of Transurban’s “Ideas” campaign, in which the company asks Beltway travelers to submit proposals on how to improve the lane operation. “The idea could be about lane striping or it could be about marketing and communications,” said Pierce Coffee, Transurban’s director of marketing. “We’re going to review the ideas and see if any of them can be implemented to improve the express lanes customer experience.”

To add your suggestions, go to www.495expresslanes.com/ideas. In the past few weeks of the campaign, the ideas submitted have included: opening a drive-through coffee shop in the lanes; having message boards display the exact toll to all destinations rather than just three; and advising other drivers to stay to the right unless they are passing.

I understand that last one and agree that drivers should keep right whenever possible. But one issue with the express lanes is that almost all the exits are on the left side.

I-95 is different

I’ve made a distinction in previous postings between tolling new lanes, such as the 495 Express Lanes, and tolling existing lanes. That’s the sort of thing that Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation has proposed to finance the rebuilding and upgrading of our entire interstate system.

Drivers hate to pay tolls, but they’re more accepting of them if they’re for something new, an element that Poole takes into account in his proposal.

I’ve said that our region has yet to cross the threshold of tolling existing lanes, but travelers have been noting their concerns about the 95 Express Lanes. The southern part of the project will add a set of lanes, but the northern part will convert the two high-occupancy vehicle lanes into three HOT lanes.

Will that push us over the threshold? No and yes. It is an upgrade to add a lane and open the system to solo drivers willing to pay a toll as well as to carpoolers driving at no cost. That will add capacity and expand choices for commuters.

But it’s the impending situation at off-peak hours and on weekends that generates the most concern among the drivers I hear from. Right now, the reversible HOV lanes are open to all traffic outside of commuting times — as long as the driver is going in the right direction. The new system will impose a restriction: If there aren’t at least three people in the vehicle, the driver must pay the toll.

So for drivers who see the HOV system only as extra lanes for off-peak travel — say, on weekend getaways — this is the dreaded threshold. They will have to pay for something they now use free. You can look at that in terms of transportation politics: Is highway tolling going to substitute for gas tax increases? But there’s also a practical issue. I-95 in Northern Virginia is a notorious bottleneck on weekends, and that’s with free access to the HOV lanes in one direction or the other. How bad will it be if weekenders who hate to pay anything extra to travel avoid the HOT lanes and travel only in the regular lanes?

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