Drivers are asking whether they should get the new device, where they can get it and whether it will work for their particular commuting situation. Here are the answers to some basic questions:
●What is it? The Flex is a variation on the almost 20-year-old transponder that is popular with drivers because it allows them to pay tolls automatically. One of the few things better than easy toll payment is no toll payment, which is what the Flex allows.
●How do I use it? This new style transponder fits on the inside of the windshield, just like the traditional one. But the Flex has a switch. When the switch is to the left, the transponder works like any other. When the driver slides the switch to the right, the words “HOV ON” are revealed. That’s the carpool setting.
●Where can I use it? On the 495 Express Lanes, when they open later this year on the Capital Beltway between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road. Drivers already can see overhead signs for the lanes marked “E-ZPass EXPRESS.” Northern Virginia drivers also will be able to use the Flex on the I-95 Express Lanes when those are open in 2015.
●Who needs it? All drivers except motorcyclists will need to have the standard transponder or the Flex to use the new lanes. Drivers will need to have the Flex if they want to get the free ride offered to those who meet the HOV rules.
●How are tolls collected? Drivers who use the four new lanes on the Beltway will not see tollbooths. The transponders’ information will be read when the vehicles pass under gantries placed at various points along the express lanes. It will work like Maryland’s Intercounty Connector, but the connector has no toll exemption for carpoolers.
●What if I carpool with a standard transponder? You will be charged the toll. The electronic monitoring system for the new lanes will not recognize you as an HOV traveler. The same goes for a carpooler who forgets to flip the switch to the “HOV ON” setting.
●What about cheaters? This is why the Flex was invented. It will be part of an electronic monitoring system used by state police to identify drivers claiming the HOV exemption. They will observe whether those drivers have at least two other people on board. The operators of the express lanes — who stand to lose money if cheaters ride free — say they are confident that this system will limit the number of violations.
●Who else needs Flex? The rules for car drivers apply to van-pool operators and taxis, as well. They will need the Flex to indicate that there are at least three people aboard. The exemption that allows drivers of hybrids to use HOV lanes even when they don’t meet the carpool rules will not apply in the new express lanes. Those drivers will pay the toll and need regular E-ZPass transponders.
●What’s the charge for a current account holder? If you had a Virginia E-ZPass account before July 9, you won’t pay the monthly fees set to kick in on Sept. 1. But if you replace a standard transponder or add one to your account, you will pay the same fees as a new account holder.
●What’s the charge for a new account? Anyone who gets a new transponder or starts a new account will be charged 50 cents a month for account maintenance from September through December. After that, customers with standard transponders will pay 50 cents a month and those with Flex will pay $1 a month.
●Any deals? The $1 fee for a Flex will be waived the month after it’s used exclusively in the HOV setting on the 495 Express Lanes or the 95 Express Lanes.
●Is there a deposit? Customers are no longer required to pay a $25 deposit when starting an account. But when they set up their accounts, they will be assessed $35 as a prepayment of tolls. (If you did pay a deposit when setting up an account, you can have that converted to prepaid tolls on a replacement transponder or it can be refunded if you return the transponder and close the account.)
●Is it worth it? Using the express lanes could get pricey for commuters who travel a long way on them at the height of rush hour. They probably won’t be able to afford it every day. But every day that a driver can carpool, it will be a free ride at a reliable speed when the regular Beltway lanes are most likely to be crowded and slow.
●Should I have both transponders? If you have only one vehicle, it doesn’t make sense to have two types of transponders. If you think you will carpool, you will need the Flex to get the free ride on the Virginia express lanes. But in its regular setting, the Flex will work for paying tolls in Virginia or any other state that accepts E-ZPass.
●Should I wait on the Flex? The Flex transponders are available now, but drivers won’t be able to use the carpool setting until the new lanes open. If you don’t have E-ZPass now and you wanted one anyway, the Flex version gives you the option of riding free in the express lanes whenever you have at least two other people aboard. (Could be two co-workers. Could be a spouse and child. It’s all the same to E-ZPass and the state police.)
But the sooner you get the Flex, the sooner you pay the small monthly fee and put down the $35 in prepaid tolls.
If you want to avoid driving completely, watch for new bus routes that will begin to take advantage of the free ride for transit vehicles in the new lanes.
If you’re sure you would never travel the Beltway with three people in the car, don’t get the Flex. If you’re sure you would never use the express lanes under any circumstances and would stick to the regular lanes, you won’t need any E-ZPass.
● Where can I get the E-ZPass transponders? You can sign up at www.ezpassva.com, call E-ZPass Virginia at 877-762-7824, or go to the Northern Virginia Service Center (610 Herndon Pkwy. in Herndon) or the Tysons Corner Department of Motor Vehicles office (1968 Gallows Rd.).
AAA Mid-Atlantic has both types of transponders at several of its offices in Northern Virginia, and they’ll be available soon at Wegmans stores.