Columnist

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

It doesn’t seem like Virginia is getting the expected amount of traffic off the Capital Beltway and onto the new 495 Express Lanes.

I hear advertising about the benefits on the radio and see it in print. Remember how banks got you to open up a new account: They offered freebees to the population, such as a toaster or blender, and they got the requisite results.

So, using this model, the express lanes operators could offer folks who had never had an E-ZPass free use of one for six months to a year. During the free trial, drivers might develop a fondness for express lane travel.

— George Berry, Haymarket

Berry has the right idea, in that the express lanes are a new service that can be marketed to consumers.

Some marketing incentives were offered before the express lanes opened in November, and this spring, drivers had a toll-free weekend to check them out. In June, drivers got a non-monetary incentive: Virginia raised the speed limit in the express lanes to 65 mph. The regular lanes remain at 55 mph.

But if this style of toll lane is going to be successful in the Washington region, the long-term incentives must be convenience and reliability. For a commuter, those things are worth a lot more than a toaster.

The Transurban company, which has a contract to operate the express lanes for most of the 21st century, just issued a quarterly report saying that average daily traffic increased 37.6 percent during the April through June period. On June 28, the last workday of the quarter, the express lanes recorded 42,998 trips, according to the Transurban report.

The company attributed the increase in traffic to “growing customer familiarity” with the lanes and more demand during rush hours. The average toll increased almost 20 percent, from $1.43 in the year’s first quarter to $1.71 for the second quarter. The maximum toll was $7.55 to travel the full length. In the previous quarter, the maximum was $6.35.

The toll rate varies, and I’ve often used the phrase “varies with the level of congestion.” I think I’ll stop using that phrase, because it may be confusing drivers. They see the tolls vary, but tell me they can’t spot the traffic varying in a corresponding way.

Our region’s image of congestion is stop-and-go traffic. Like my letter-writers, I’ve never seen anything in the express lanes that amounts to what we commonly define as “congestion.” The toll goes up or down depending on the traffic volume, and as you can see from the quarterly report, the volume has been increasing, particularly during peak periods.

Pierce Coffee, director of marketing at Transurban, pulled some toll records at various times of the day and week to give me a historic illustration of the price variation as traffic builds during rush hours. She used the weekdays of May 6 and 8 for drivers traveling between the lanes’ southern terminus in Springfield and Westpark Drive in Tysons, near the northern end.

At 6:30 a.m. on May 6, a Monday, a northbound driver would have paid $1.50. At 8:15 a.m., the driver would have paid $4.10. At 9 a.m., the toll was $5.15. Two days later, the driver would have paid $4.75 at 8:15 a.m. and $5.05 at 9 a.m.

These were the tolls for drivers leaving Tysons and heading southbound on May 6: $1.50 at 4 p.m., $2.35 at 6:30 p.m. and $2.05 at 7 p.m. For May 8: $1.55 at 4 p.m., $3.70 at 6:30 p.m. and $3.25 at 7 p.m.

One figure I hope will rise: the share of high occupancy vehicles using the express lanes for a free ride. The April-through-June report says HOV and exempt vehicles (including motorcycles and emergency vehicles) account for about 8 percent of users.

A big part of the hoped-for congestion relief on the Beltway is about increasing the number of commuters who carpool or take the new express buses to Tysons.

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.