Year-old Beltway express lanes sell time to D.C. area customers beset by congestion

(Robert Thomson/ The Washington Post ) - At the HOT lanes operations center in Alexandria, staffers monitor conditions in the HOT lanes along the Capital Beltway.

(Robert Thomson/ The Washington Post ) - At the HOT lanes operations center in Alexandria, staffers monitor conditions in the HOT lanes along the Capital Beltway.

Adam Epling, who lives near Manassas and commutes to Tysons Corner, is the type of customer that operators of the Capital Beltway express lanes envisioned in their business plan for a highway.

They’re selling time, and he’s buying.

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Before the express lanes opened, Epling said, his travel time could be as much as 90 minutes each way on the 46-mile round trip. Most days, taking Interstate 66 to the Beltway was out of the question because of congestion.

The opening of the express toll lanes a year ago changed everything. Epling’s standard procedure now is to take Braddock Road to the 495 Express Lanes and head north to the new exit at Westpark Drive in Tysons.

His commute was reduced to about 45 minutes each way in the summer and about an hour the rest of the year. For that “stress free” difference, he pays a toll of about $5.10 each way.

“Some might scoff at that, or cry ‘gouging,’ and I get that,” Epling said.

A driver who saw the toll rate set at $9.70 for the full, 14-mile express trip on the morning of Oct. 30 sent a comment to The Post’s Dr. Gridlock online chat decrying this as “Price gouging!

But in describing his attitude about the tolls he pays for a shorter trip, Epling said: “My life is worth more than $10 an hour to me.”

The 495 Express Lanes, the result of a partnership between private companies and the state of Virginia, opened for such business on Nov. 17, 2012.

Many travelers say four new lanes of free-flowing traffic in the middle of the region’s congested Main Street is heaven, even if heaven requires an E-ZPass. Others are scared off by the complexity of the high-occupancy toll system, or think a toll payment is a deal with the devil.

The express lanes project linked several concepts: Private companies speed up construction of public infrastructure in return for a long-term return through tolls, which are used not only to raise revenue but also to manage the flow of traffic.

Drivers look for message boards near the express lanes access points to tell them how much the toll is. It varies with demand for the lanes, and there’s no upper limit.

While the tolls may look high to drivers in a region unaccustomed to paying tolls, this doesn’t meet the common definition of “gouging.” For that to apply, a customer must have no choice but to pay an artificially inflated rate for a product.

On the Beltway, a driver who thinks the trip isn’t worth the toll takes the free lanes.

Far more common than grumbling about high tolls is a complaint among drivers that they don’t have enough information to be smart consumers at the highway’s decision points, since there’s no sign indicating travel times in the free lanes versus the toll lanes.

Others have issues with the system’s design. Most entry and exit points are at interchanges between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road rather than on the Beltway.

Use of the lanes initially was below pre-opening expectations but has increased as drivers have become more familiar with the system. The operating company’s quarterly report for July-September showed the lanes were used for 37,574 trips on an average weekday, up from 26,294 at the start of 2013. The average toll for the recent quarter was $1.86.

According to survey data from the lanes’ operator, most users are Virginians, but many come from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Six in 10 users are women, and six in 10 are under age 45. Toyotas and Hondas are the vehicles most likely to be found in what some drivers disparaged as “Lexus Lanes,” built to serve the wealthy.

The private partnership has a lease to operate the express lanes for most of the century. To Jennifer Aument, head of toll road operator Transurban’s business in North America, this is still “the ramping up phase.”

She hopes new customers will learn to use express lanes “entry and exit points that have not yet been discovered,” like Jones Branch Drive in Tysons Corner. She also is looking forward to linking the 495 Express Lanes with 29 miles of 95 Express Lanes south of the Beltway when that project opens by early 2015.

But is this the way of the future for highways in the D.C. region and the nation?

Patrick D. Jones, executive director of the D.C.-based industry group called the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, describes the express lanes as “a future hall of famer in its rookie season.”

But he said we’re unlikely to see express toll lanes in less densely populated urban areas, because there won’t be enough traffic congestion to create the demand.

Alan Pisarski, an expert on U.S. commuting trends, also noted the relationship between the HOT lanes market and congestion. A weakened economy, such as the nation has experienced in recent years, tends to diminish congestion.

“I am often surprised that anyone is in the HOT lanes when the main road is free-flowing,” said Pisarski, who lives in the D.C. area. “The lanes opened in about the worst times possible as the economy just stumbled along.”

Peter Samuel, correspondent for TOLLROADSnews, a Web site that tracks developments in the tolling industry, said: “Roads like this are a long-term investment. The Beltway isn’t being widened any further, and if traffic grows a bit in the general purpose lanes, it won’t take much for congestion to become a sufficiently serious problem there, encouraging a significant shift into the toll lanes.”

 
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