Toll lanes go live Monday on a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia, kicking off a major makeover of one of the region's most congested highways.
The rush-hour, peak-direction high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes from Route 29 in Rosslyn to Interstate 495 will open with expanded rush-hour periods — a significant shift that is certain to make the transition even more difficult for thousands of commuters.
The Virginia Department of Transportation anticipates the variable tolling system, similar to those on the 495 and 95 Express Lanes, will help the state better manage traffic, foster carpooling and public transit use, and give commuters more travel options in the corridor.
Previously, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) restrictions limited use of that section of I-66 during rush hours to vehicles with two or more occupants and drivers of hybrid vehicles with special clean-fuel license plates. Solo drivers will be able to use the new HOT lanes during rush hours — provided they are willing to pay the toll. Hybrid drivers will also have to pay if they are driving solo.
"This is a huge change to help more people travel throughout that corridor," said Amanda Baxter, VDOT's manager for the project. After years of planning and months of testing and outreach to commuters, she said, the I-66 corridor is ready for the next phase.
"We are ready to go," she said. "I believe people are ready and anticipating this."
Ready or not, it's happening, and here is what you need to know.
The tolls, like those on the 495 Express Lanes in Virginia, will vary depending on traffic. The state says the requirement is to maintain a minimum average speed of 45 mph. So the price will vary to control congestion to achieve that goal. There is no cap on the toll pricing, which means the toll will increase as congestion rises and decrease as congestion lessens.
The hours of operation will be 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound and 3 to 7 p.m. westbound, Monday through Friday. The lanes will be free to all users during off-peak hours and weekends.
Solo drivers using the toll lanes will pay. That includes drivers of hybrid vehicles. Motorcycles and vehicles carrying two or more people can use the lanes free.
Drivers traveling to and from Dulles International Airport will pay a toll if traveling alone — they used to ride free under the previous HOV-2 restrictions.
It's important to note the operating hours because they reflect a major expansion of the rush-hour periods by 90 minutes. Drivers who used to travel just before or after the old peak hours (when there were HOV-2 restrictions) will need to adjust their trips accordingly to avoid paying tolls.
Tolls will be paid electronically. Signs just outside the Express Lanes will show prices for up to three destinations. Drivers will lock in their toll price just before entering the lanes.
All vehicles using the toll lanes, except motorcycles, need an E-ZPass transponder to pay the toll or an E-ZPass Flex transponder set to "HOV" so they can claim the free ride in a carpool of at least two people.
There will be no toll booths and no cash payments will be accepted. When you pass under one of the overhead gantries, your E-ZPass account will be debited the amount of the trip. If you go through without a transponder, you will receive a bill in the mail — including a penalty for not having an E-ZPass.
There is no monthly fee to have a transponder, but you will have to pay $35 to get one. That fee will eventually be available for payment of tolls. Part of the toll revenue will go to improvements in transit and other modes of transportation, including bike infrastructure.
Days before the Express Lanes open, many I-66 commuters still do not have an E-ZPass transponder, Baxter said.
"Get your E-ZPass and understand your choices to get to your destination," she said. "Plan ahead."
The implementation of rush-hour HOT lanes kicks off several improvements along a highway that experiences eight to 10 hours of congestion daily, including on weekends.
As part of the effort to bring relief and expand capacity, a separate project next year will add an eastbound lane between the Dulles Connector Road and Fairfax Drive in Arlington. Construction is set. And, outside the Beltway, a $2.3 billion expansion will add toll lanes.
That project will widen I-66 between the Beltway and University Boulevard in Gainesville. It includes four HOT lanes — two in each direction — three general-purpose lanes in each direction, a bike trail, new and expanded transit service, and median space reserved for future rail expansion. Construction is expected to begin this year and be completed in summer 2022.
The HOV-2 requirement that will be in effect Monday, will change to HOV-3 when the expansion outside the Beltway is completed.
"Our ultimate goal is to get people to understand that beyond widening the eastbound lane through (Fairfax Drive), there is not much more capacity improvements that we can do to 66 inside the Beltway," Baxter said. The toll system "is our best way to provide better traffic management so people that are taking transit and consolidating their trips can get to work effectively," she said.
To learn more about the Express Lanes visit 66expresslanes.org.
For more about the I-66 expansion project go to transform66.org.
Follow @VaDOTNOVA on Twitter for traffic and other related updates.
Buy an E-ZPass or get more information about where to purchase one by visiting ezpassva.com.
The smartphone app 66ExpressLanes will be available for download Monday, officials said. The app will allow commuters to track toll price estimates and historical toll pricing. It will be available for iPhone and Android.
As tolling begins, transportation planners anticipate a good number of commuters will spend the first few weeks testing their options. Research on the 495 and 95 Express Lanes indicates that toll users get on the lanes once or twice a week at most. State officials anticipate a testing period where some will try it out and find the best times to get their best toll pricing. Others may turn to carpooling, public transit or alternative routes.
"A lot of people are looking to doing things differently, which is great," Baxter said.
Drivers are encouraged to try options. You're also warned that if you get on the lanes outside of tolling hours, you must get out before tolling kicks in: You'll have to pay even if you stay in the lanes for a minute.
Baxter's main message to commuters on the eve of tolling: "Get your E-ZPass, know your commute options, and please be patient with us as we launch something that is going to be regionally significant to the way people commute on 66 inside the Beltway."