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More drivers use Beltway express lanes, report says

In Tysons traffic, the time-saving benefits of the toll lanes often become apparent. (Robert Thomson – The Washington Post)
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Driving from Springfield to Silver Spring on Tuesday afternoon, I encountered some of the things that please and vex drivers about the new Capital Beltway express lanes.

On the Beltway in Springfield where the inner loop lanes begin, I could see the message board announcing a toll rate of $2.05 for the 14-mile trip to the lanes’ end north of Tysons. Would it be worth paying? Traffic in the regular lanes looked fine in Springfield, but what lay ahead?

As a long-time Beltway driver, I had a pretty good idea what lay ahead, so I chose the express lanes. But I’ve heard from many drivers who aren’t prepared to make that choice. Those who do choose the express lanes sometimes write in to say they “guessed wrong” because they didn’t notice much traffic in the regular lanes. (It’s one of those few consumer choices where you can see exactly what you would have gotten had you selected the competitor.)

On Tuesday afternoon, the wisdom of my choice wasn’t confirmed till I was in the last mile and a half of the 14-mile trip. The regular lanes in Tysons were stop-and-go. I cruised by them at 65 mph, the new speed limit for the express lanes.

Then I got to one of the other bothersome things about the express lanes: They end. North of the Dulles Toll Road, I had to merge back into the Beltway’s heavily congested regular lanes.

Still, there are enough drivers deciding that the tolls are worth it to push up usage in the express lanes. Transurban, the company that operates the express lanes, issued a quarterly report saying that average daily traffic increased 37.6 percent for the March through June period. On June 28, the last workday for 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. I’ve often used the phrase “varies with the level of congestion.” I think I’ll stop using that phrase, because it may be misleading many drivers. In the D.C. region, our image of congestion matches the stop-and-go condition I saw on the regular lanes in Tysons on Tuesday. I’ve never seen anything in the express lanes that amounts to what we would regard as “congestion.” The toll goes up or down depending on the traffic volume. That may be a better way to express it.

Transurban has a lease to operate the lanes for most of this century, so these quarterly reports don’t tell us much about the long-term prospects for high-occupancy toll lanes in the D.C. region. When I used the lanes on Tuesday, I was returning from a visit to the construction site for the 95 Express Lanes south of the Beltway. When they open in very early 2015, they will tie into the Beltway express lanes. (I plan to have a report on that project for Sunday’s Commuter page in The Post Metro section.) Virginia may decide it wants to expand capacity on Interstate 66 by adding express lanes outside the Beltway. That would create an expansive network for commuters and probably would encourage overall use of the system.

One figure I hope will rise: The share of high occupancy vehicles using the express lanes for a free ride. The March-June report says HOV and exempt vehicles (such as motorcycles and emergency vehicles) account for about 8 percent of users. A big part of the hoped-for congestion relief is about increasing the number of commuters who carpool or take the new express buses to Tysons.

According to a new Washington Post poll, 35 percent of travelers in the D.C. region say they have used the express lanes. Maryland residents were about as likely as Virginians to have used them, while 29 percent of D.C. residents say they have given them a try.

The poll was conducted June 19-23 among a random sample of 1,106 Washington area adults, using landline and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.