The 395 Express Lanes will replace today’s high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes, which stretch from near Edsall Road in Fairfax County to the 14th Street Bridge in the District. The lanes will be an extension of the 95 Express Lanes, which operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week and stretch 31 miles between Fairfax and Stafford counties. The non-HOV lanes will remain and will continue to be free.
With the $480 million 395 Express Lanes project, Northern Virginia’s network of HOT lanes will grow to 63 miles. About 55 miles of express lanes have opened on interstates 495, 95 and 66 in the past seven years, and the state envisions more than 90 miles of HOT lanes in Northern Virginia by 2022.
Also under construction are a 10-mile extension of the 95 Express Lanes to Fredericksburg and the addition of 22.5 miles of HOT lanes on I-66 outside the Capital Beltway to Gainesville in Prince William County. Virginia authorities this year announced an agreement with Transurban to extend the 495 Express Lanes, now 14 miles, by three miles, to the American Legion Bridge.
The 395 project “is another important step forward to continue to build out that seamless network of express lanes,” said Michelle T. Holland, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
“Not only does it help the people driving on 395 and 95, it continues to provide seamless connection with [interstates] 495 and 66,” she said. “If someone wants to use these express lanes throughout the region, they are able to do so seamlessly.”
Project and transportation officials said they expect tolls to go into effect on a Sunday evening in November. Earlier plans were to open in late October, but officials said they deferred the opening because they want to open on a weekend and there was a conflict with the Oct. 27 Marine Corps Marathon, which affects portions of I-395.
The HOT lanes will be in effect at all times, and every vehicle, except motorcycles, will need an E-ZPass transponder to use them. Solo drivers willing to pay will be able to use the lanes, which will be northbound in the morning and southbound in the afternoon.
The project covers the Northern Virginia portion of the interstate, an inside-the-Beltway segment of highway that includes four northbound and four southbound general-purpose lanes, as well as two reversible HOV lanes in the middle. The two reversible HOV lanes are being converted to three reversible HOT lanes.
Drivers will notice improvements to the Eads Street interchange, near the Pentagon, including new ramps directly to the Pentagon and Pentagon City.
The lanes will operate similarly to those on 95, 66 and the Capital Beltway, where tolls fluctuate according to traffic volume. Before entering the lanes, drivers will be able to see the toll prices on signs that will refresh about every 10 minutes.
Buses and vehicles with three or more passengers will be able to use the lanes free, but such vehicles will need to have E-ZPass Flex transponders set to carpool mode.
“The rules will be 24/7. If you are carpooling, you always get that free trip. But if you are driving by yourself, you always are going to have to pay that toll,” said Michael McGurk, a spokesman for Transurban, the company that will operate the lanes.
One big change: Hybrid-vehicle drivers who are allowed to use the HOV-3 lanes, even if alone, will not be able to use the HOT lanes free unless they have at least three people aboard.
This change is not exclusive to the express lanes. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles announced this month that starting Sept. 30, the more than 16,000 Virginians with registered vehicles bearing clean special fuel license plates will no longer be able to use any of the state’s HOV lanes without the required number of occupants.
The lane transition should be familiar for drivers who typically drive farther south in the I-95 corridor and use the 95 Express Lanes. But solo drivers who are used to hopping into the HOV lanes when the HOV restrictions end will need to pay attention to the coming conversion to HOT lanes. The present HOV-3 restrictions are in place 6 to 9 a.m. and 3:30 to 6 p.m., which leaves several hours for general use of the lanes daily.
“Those [HOV] hours will no longer be applicable. But if you have three or more people in the car, you can still jump into the express lanes free,” said Paul Nishimoto, the VDOT project manager.
Transurban forecasts high demand for the toll lanes. A survey in May commissioned by the company found that nearly 7 in 10 people who use the I-395 corridor said they plan to use the express lanes at least occasionally.
Nine in 10 drivers said they want traffic to be improved in the corridor, according to the poll of 891 D.C.-area drivers who use I-395. Respondents ranked “too much traffic” as a top reason they have a negative impression of the corridor.
“They are looking for improvements to the traffic and an option for them when traveling on 395, which is exactly what they will get when the express lanes open,” McGurk said. “This is an audience that is ready and receptive to use the lanes.”
Transurban and Virginia officials have said the goal in creating the lanes is to move more people and enhance mobility along the corridor. They say the tolls are an incentive for commuters to use transit or to carpool.
Kalai Kandasamy, a commuter in the I-95 corridor who organizes slug lines — a type of group hitchhiking that is popular in the region — says the change from HOV to express lanes is likely to affect some slugging operations.
“It is going to be a nightmare for drivers dropping off people at the Pentagon and heading to D.C.,” Kandasamy said. “They have to switch their transponder to regular mode, so the officers do not stop them for a violation.”
Although there are already HOV restrictions, many drivers continue on their trips into District via the HOV lanes because there is little to no enforcement along that stretch between Eads Road and the 14th Street Bridge, he said.
This month, Transurban launched a campaign to raise awareness of the upcoming conversion and is stepping up testing of the tolling technology starting this weekend.
In coming weeks, motorists will begin seeing signs alerting them of the change. Crews are continuing their work in the corridor, installing sound walls, finishing up a third lane, and doing some bridge rehabilitation work.
Drivers are urged to begin preparing for the transition by learning how the lanes work and obtaining E-ZPass transponders. Drivers can visit expresslanes.com/395 for more details about how the road will work.
“Even if you are not planning to take the express lanes, you will still see some shifts in traffic patterns,” McGurk said. “Know what you need to do to prepare.”