In Beltway express lanes, longer trips prove popular despite tolls that rose during 2013

The express lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia have 11 access points between Springfield and the Tysons Corner area, which means there are many routing options for commuters. The three most popular trips are: Interstate 66 to the northern end, where the 495 Express Lanes merge with the Beltway’s regular lanes; the express lanes’ entrance at Springfield, to Route 267; and the Springfield entrance to the northern end.

Those are long trips on lanes where distance is a factor in the toll paid. But they’re also among the simplest trips a driver can make when using the most complicated transportation system in the Washington region.

(Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post) - Few drivers opted to pay for the 495 Express Lanes, right, near Tysons Corner on the first weekday of their debut in November 2012.

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You don’t need a captain’s license to navigate the 495 Express Lanes, but it is a learning experience not every driver is comfortable undertaking.

When travelers write in to say they don’t use the express lanes, they cite their reluctance to pay tolls but also say they are confused about routing.

Those three most popular trips, which are listed in the 495 Express Lanes’ first-year report, connect major highways with major highways. But most of the access points to the express lanes are at intersections connected to lesser commuter routes, such as Lee Highway, Braddock Road and Gallows Road. The Beltway access points at Lee Highway in Merrifield and at Westpark Drive and Jones Branch Drive in Tysons did not exist before the express lanes opened on Nov. 17, 2012.

Using such routes involves a learning process. In a November interview for the lanes’ first anniversary, Jennifer Aument, head of Transurban’s business in North America, told me the company hopes to encourage drivers to use the other access points. For example, the express lanes’ marketing highlights easier access into Tysons when using the Westpark Drive and Jones Branch drive exits.

Drivers using the interstate-to-interstate routes are probably making the express lanes a leg of a much longer commute. For example, a driver using the 14-mile route from Springfield to the northern end probably is bound for the American Legion Bridge into Maryland or the George Washington Parkway to points in Arlington County or the District.

The tolling system used on the express lanes, which is based on traffic as well as distance traveled, is unique in the Washington region. The toll rises and falls throughout the day, depending on the amount of cars in the lanes. And tolls rose last year, along with the lanes’ use.

According to Transurban’s latest quarterly report, the biggest day of the year was Dec. 19, the Thursday before Christmas, when 46,975 trips were taken along at least part of the route. This might have been a combination of holiday shopping, some long-distance travel and regular commuting. The toll revenue for the day also was a record, at $123,604.

For the final quarter, average workday trips totaled 37,969, compared with 37,574 in the July to September quarter. Transurban’s financial report noted that commuter traffic was down because of the 16-day federal government shutdown in October.

Still, the revenue grew from a daily average of $51,736 in the July to September quarter to an average of $64,277 for the October to December period.

The results for the last quarter of 2013 provide the first year-to-year comparison, but it’s not an ideal one because the lanes were open for only part of the final quarter in 2012. However, the Transurban numbers do show that average daily trips for the last quarter of last year were 63.6 percent higher than in the last quarter of 2012.

The average toll charged in last year’s final quarter was $2.32. The maximum toll was $9.75. That’s what the drivers going from Springfield to the northern end would pay. Tolls are still around that level. At 8:50 a.m. Jan. 14, a typical Tuesday rush hour, people entering the express lanes in Springfield paid $9.65 to drive the entire route.

The operator’s report on the first year included results of a regional survey that showed some other characteristics of the express lanes’ customers, besides their willingness to pay tolls.

Most users — 59 percent in the survey — were from Virginia, with Fairfax County denizens accounting for about a quarter of them. Marylanders were 29 percent of users — 17 percent from Montgomery County and 12 percent from Prince George’s — and the District claimed 12 percent.

The survey, conducted online in September, found that 58 percent of the users were women and that 60 percent were younger than 45. The top reason survey respondents gave for using the lanes was the need to reach a destination on time, with 68 percent citing that as a motive. The respondents could pick multiple reasons. Forty-four percent cited congestion in the Beltway’s regular lanes, 30 percent said they were interested in a reliable trip and another 30 percent said they wanted a less stressful trip.

In my experience with the west side of the Beltway at rush hour, a single commute could inspire all those motives.

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