Va. Commuters Weigh Fees for Beltway's HOT Lanes

Construction on the Beltway will begin next year, with rush-hour tolls averaging $5 to $6.
Construction on the Beltway will begin next year, with rush-hour tolls averaging $5 to $6. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

On a good day, Chris Lee spends 25 minutes driving from her home off Braddock Road in Fairfax County to her office in the Tysons Corner area. On a bad day, it can take 45 minutes.

Naturally, she's curious about whether the express toll lanes to be built on the Capital Beltway in Virginia could shorten her commute. But she still would rather see the $1.7 billion used for mass transit instead of road construction.

"I might try it once to see if it works, but I'm not a huge proponent," Lee said.

State transportation officials announced last week that five years of express-lane construction will begin early next year as they try to ease traffic on one of the region's most clogged corridors. Some commuters expressed mixed feelings about the lanes.

"I'd definitely use it -- as long as it's not $20," said Michael Sepehri, a Herndon retiree who was having coffee with a friend one afternoon last week at Tysons Galleria.

The four express lanes will be free for carpools of three people or more, but other drivers will pay a toll that will vary according to traffic volume, a system known as congestion pricing that is designed to alleviate backups. Overhead signs will alert drivers to the price; officials said the average trip during rush hour is expected to cost $5 to $6.

Many regular drivers to the Tysons Corner area say that's too expensive, echoing a concern by critics, who describe the high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes as "Lexus lanes" available only to the affluent. But studies have shown that HOT lanes in other states are used by people at all income levels.

"It's not something we can afford," said Ann Luthman, a homemaker with five children who lives off Spring Hill Road. "If I was desperate, I would be really thankful [for the express lanes], but most of the time I wouldn't be able to afford it."

Marilyn Peschard of Leesburg drives to Reston each day while her husband commutes to downtown Washington. They estimate that they spent $4,000 on tolls last year.

"When you look at it per ride, it's not so bad. When you look at it yearly, it starts to add up," she said. "I hate to see us go in that direction -- where only wealthy people can afford this."

The 14-mile project includes nine dedicated interchanges from the Beltway, including three new access points to Tysons Corner. The four lanes to be added to Interstate 495 between Georgetown Pike (Route 193) and the Springfield interchange also will allow for bus service on the Beltway.

Deborah Louise, an investigator with a company that conducts security clearances, lives in Winchester but frequently drives to the Tysons Corner area for work. She said she doesn't use toll roads unless she is in a hurry. "I don't like to pay," she said.

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