The ins and outs of Beltway express lanes

Robert Thomson
Columnist October 27, 2012

Commuters have a lot to learn about the Capital Beltway HOT lanes before their first encounter with them late this year. For one thing, they won’t see any signs pointing them to “HOT lanes.”

Such transportation systems are known generically as “high-occupancy toll,” or HOT, because travelers either carpool for free or pay a toll, with the goal of getting a quicker and more reliable trip than would be available in the regular lanes.

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

The first four such lanes in the D.C. region will be in the center of the Beltway between Springfield and the area just north of the Dulles Toll Road. “We’re opening a new interstate highway inside an interstate highway,” said Jennifer Aument, a vice president with Transurban, the company that will operate the HOT lanes.

But the feds are fussy about what can be placed on an interstate sign, and “HOT” doesn’t make the cut. Instead, drivers will see several different styles of signs to get them in and out of the lanes. And they’ll need to be prepared for this on Day 1. The express lanes won’t have a free test-drive period, as Maryland’s Intercounty Connector did.

The express lanes will be HOT from the moment they open. The first Monday morning rush hour will probably be like a first day of school for drivers who choose to use them.

So what should they look for and where? Here’s a guide to those basics. We’ll have more about using the express lanes in coming weeks, so send your questions and concerns to drgridlock@washpost.com.

Signs

Entering. Look for the purple and white “E-ZPass” sign followed by “express” in black letters. Under some of those E-ZPass signs, drivers will see blocks of black type that state the rules of the road. The text will tell them that all users need E-ZPasses. Those who have a switchable E-ZPass Flex transponder and at least three people in the vehicle pay no toll. (That part of the sign will have the E-ZPass Flex logo in white letters on a purple field.)

Below the E-ZPass Express banner on other signs, drivers will see a message board displaying toll rates. The first two rates will state the current toll to popular destinations along the 14 miles of express lanes. The bottom line will be the rate for a trip all the way through. The prices may rise as the lanes become more congested, but drivers will pay the rate displayed on the sign when they saw the sign.

Exiting. As drivers approach the end of their routes, they should look for signs that say “E-ZPass Express Exit” and get into the left lane.

Getting on and off

Most entry and exit points involve ramps at interchanges. Only at the northern and southern points on the express lanes will drivers move directly between the new lanes and the regular lanes of the Beltway.

Northern Beltway. Enter the southbound express lanes from the left side of the regular lanes after the George Washington Parkway/Georgetown Pike exit. Leave the northbound express lanes to join the regular Beltway lanes north of Route 267.

Dulles Toll Road/Airport Access Highway. Drivers can enter the southbound express lanes from Route 267 East, but not from the westbound side. Drivers on the northbound or southbound express lanes can exit onto Route 267 West.

Jones Branch Drive. Enter either the northbound or southbound express lanes. Exit onto Jones Branch Drive from either side of the express lanes.

Westpark Drive. Enter either the northbound or southbound express lanes. Exit from either side of the lanes onto Westpark Drive.

Route 7. Entering drivers can go south in the express lanes, but not north. Drivers on the express lanes will have an exit from the northbound side only.

Interstate 66. From I-66 East, enter either side of the express lanes. From I-66 West, enter the southbound express lanes only.

Drivers can exit the northbound express lanes onto either side of I-66. Drivers on the southbound express lanes can exit onto I-66 West only.

Route 29. Entering drivers can travel south in the express lanes but not north. Drivers in the northbound express lanes will have an exit, but not those on the southbound side.

Gallows Road. Drivers can enter the northbound express lanes only. Drivers on the express lanes can exit from the southbound side only.

Braddock Road. Entering drivers can travel north in the express lanes but not south. Drivers on the express lanes can exit from the southbound side only.

Springfield Interchange. Drivers can enter the northbound express lanes from the left side of the regular Beltway lanes north of the Springfield Interchange. The exit from the southbound express lanes will be between Braddock Road and the Springfield Interchange.

I-95/395 HOV ramps. Drivers in the southbound Express Lanes should stay to the far left after Braddock Road to reach the I-95/395 HOV lanes or to continue on the Beltway’s outer loop toward the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

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