New E-ZPass signs can confuse drivers

Robert Thomson
Columnist November 8, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I keep seeing signs for E-ZPass along both sides of Interstate 66 between Arlington County and the Nutley Street exit. What does this mean, and how it does it affect me?

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

I am not a commuter. I use I-66 only occasionally to go into Arlington from Fairfax County and return. Can I still use I-66, or will I have to purchase an E-ZPass?

— Carolyn Nugent, Fairfax

When I saw those E-ZPass Express signs go up on I-66 near the Capital Beltway, I was afraid they were going to confuse some drivers. First, the answer to Nugent’s question is that she and everyone else can continue to use I-66 without E-ZPasses. The signs are there to inform drivers that they are approaching an access point for the 495 Express Lanes, but I think it’s a little too easy right now to mistake the intent.

Drivers are not going to be forced into these express lanes, scheduled to open next Saturday in the middle of the Beltway between the Dulles Toll Road and Springfield. They still will have access to the Beltway’s regular lanes.

The express lanes will be free for those in a three-person carpool. Other car drivers will pay a variable toll. And they all will need some type of E-ZPass — either the regular one or the E-ZPass Flex for the carpoolers.

Federal rules — and common sense — restrict how much information and what type of information can be displayed on highway signs. Also, a project stretching along 14 miles of major highway can’t put up all its signs at once or, in some cases, unveil entire signs all at once.

If there appears to be some confusion now, wait till this coming week, when crews will be out making final preparations to open this highway within a highway.

The Virginia Department of Transportation lists the things that must happen:

Covers will be removed from overhead and ground-mounted signs within the express lanes and on nearby roads and highways with express lanes access, including I-66. Barricades will be removed from the express lanes’ entrance and exit points, and the new traffic signals installed on the access ramps will be activated.

That’s just for starters. Project managers want to open the lanes on a weekend, when the traffic is light. So most commuters will get their first experience with the new traffic patterns on the morning of Nov. 19, a Monday.

Even drivers who have no intention of ever using the new lanes will need to watch out for changing traffic patterns around the access points. Those new traffic signals will regulate their movements as well as those of the express lanes’ users.

Virginia planning

Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board rescheduled a meeting in Fairfax County to discuss the state’s proposed transportation improvements to be financed in the six years from fiscal 2014 through 2019.

The session, postponed when Hurricane Sandy was approaching, is now set for Tuesday at the Virginia Department of Transportation’s regional office, 4975 Alliance Dr. It will begin with an open house from 6 to 6:30 p.m. Then, people can speak for up to three minutes or submit written comments. Speakers can register at the door.

Metrobus meetings

Metro riders often complain about the transit authority’s communication skills. But one area in which I think Metro has done a good job in recent years involves the redesign of bus routes.

In the latest example, Metrobus officials want to meet with riders to discuss potential improvements for Route 80, the North Capitol Street Line. Meetings are scheduled for Wednesday at Providence Hospital, 1150 Varnum St. NE, and for Thursday at the Phoenix Park Hotel, 520 North Capitol St. NW. Both are from 5 to 7 p.m.

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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