Q. Free I-495 Express Lanes: I just received an e-mail from the I-495 Express Lanes marketing gurus. The e-mail states that the I-495 express lanes will be free for all users this weekend (April 6-7) even to those who don’t have an E-ZPass. While I think it’s a great idea, and one that probably should have been done within the first few weeks of the lanes opening, I’m concerned as to how the free weekend will be accomplished. Will the toll signs actually say “$0.00″ with the variable signs alerting drivers to the free weekend, or will the signs just say the normal toll and you have to be “in the know” to take advantage of the fact that the toll collection systems will be turned off?
DG: That was one of the questions that came in during my online chat Monday. Starting Wednesday, drivers on the Capital Beltway should notice that the message boards within the express lanes advertising the free rides offered for 48 hours this Saturday and Sunday.
While a driver would have to be inside the express lanes to be directly under those signs, the express lanes are so close to the regular lanes that many drivers on their regular routes are bound to see them. (Transurban, the express lanes operator, has been using this technique to advertise that the Westpark Drive and Jones Branch Drive exits are Tysons exits.)
Starting at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, the message boards at the express lanes’ entry points will indicate the trip is free. The exact phasing will vary depending on the type and location of the sign, but the general idea is that they will communicate the limited time offer, say that no E-ZPass is required for this free weekend and remind drives that the lanes are for two-axle vehicles and buses only. Pierce Coffee, the director of marketing at Transurban, gave several examples. She said that on a route that has several changeable signs, the first would flash two messages:
APRIL 6 AND 7
TRAVEL FREE ON
Followed by …
APRIL 6 AND 7
[This paragraph updated.]
At the second sign, the one that normally lists the tolls to three destinations, a driver still would see the three destinations, but they all would show a toll of $0.00 during the weekend.
At the second sign, Coffee said, operations staffers with Transurban have decided that instead of displaying the usual destinations, they will simplify the message to this:
APRIL 6 AND 7
ALL EXITS FREE
“We’re limited in how many words we can put on each line,” Coffee said, “but we’re hoping that these combinations are helpful and clear for travelers.”
Coffee and I have talked frequently over the past couple of years about the legal and practical challenges in conveying information quickly and safely to drivers moving by rapidly.
At the start of 2012, with the opening still 11 months away, Transurban began its first big education and marketing campaign. Till then, the common reference to the project was “the Beltway HOT lanes.” (HOT: high-occupancy toll, a phrase I always hated and thought was meaningless to many drivers.) Since then, we usually refer to the “495 Express Lanes” as the project’s title, reflecting the fact that federal highway rules wouldn’t permit road signs referring to “HOT lanes.”
Many drivers have found the signs confusing enough. When those purple and white “E-ZPass Express” signs first went on connecting highways, I got letters from drivers wondering if they were still allowed to use the Beltway without an E-ZPass.
The variable toll signs are off-putting to some, because they display the tolls to only three destinations along the 14 miles of express lanes. Drivers might never see the toll to their exits displayed, and may know only that it will be something less than the toll to the last of the three destinations displayed.
The free weekend won’t help drivers with their toll calculations, but it could help with some of the basic navigation questions they have about getting into and out of the new lanes. Some commenters during Monday’s chat pointed out that many commuters are unlikely to get out of bed Saturday and Sunday just to do an extra commute, a week’s worth of them having been punishing enough.
I think the free weekend will be helpful to some drivers who live near the Beltway — in a community like Merrifield, for example — and might just want to know if those new Tysons exits are a practical way for them to get to shopping or to work. And the free weekend is just part of a new phase of Transurban’s educational and marketing campaign for the lanes. You probably will see or hear new ads for the express lanes this week.