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I-95 HOT lanes offering incentive to get more E-ZPass drivers

The 95 Express Lanes are under construction in the middle of I-95 in Northern Virginia. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)
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Since the 95 Express Lanes probably will open in December, the lane operators are interested in preparing their base of potential customers. That means making sure that as many drivers as possible have E-ZPass transponders.

So the express lanes company has announced an incentive program: Drivers who open a new Virginia E-ZPass account using the “95Express” promotional code from now till Nov. 15 will receive a toll-free week of travel in the new lanes in early 2015.

The company, Transurban, offered similar incentives to drivers before opening the high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia in 2012, but even after the opening, it found that about 40 percent of all Beltway drivers still did not have transponders.

I wrote a column this month about the problems some drivers have with their E-ZPasses, but they are a small portion — less than 4 percent — of those using the Beltway HOT lanes. Most drivers in the lanes have E-ZPasses, and their transactions are processed smoothly. If drivers avoid using the lanes, it’s probably because they don’t want to pay the tolls, are unsure whether there’s an exit near where they want to go, or they don’t have an E-ZPass. That’s certainly a strong disincentive for drivers passing by signs like the one at left that appear near the express lanes access points.

Some people don’t get an E-ZPass because they’re afraid their movements could be tracked. (Tony Soprano didn’t have an E-ZPass.) Others said they didn’t want to pay the monthly account maintenance fee that Virginia was charging, but the state ended that in June. Many drivers in a region where toll roads still are relatively rare simply didn’t want to be bothered with the account setup process.

The deal announced Wednesday is aimed at I-95 commuters without E-ZPasses today who could become regular users of the express lanes: The promotion is limited to the first 5,000 registrants who sign up using that code, “95Express.” This link goes to the Virginia E-ZPass signup page. Applicants also could call Virginia E-ZPass at (877) 762-7824. Give the customer service person the promo code.

People also can go get Virginia E-ZPasses at retail locations including Wegmans, some Department of Motor Vehicle offices, Giant food stores and AAA offices, or at an E-ZPass Customer Service Center. See a map of locations on the E-ZPass Web site. If you pick up the E-ZPass at one of those locations, be sure to go online or call the Virginia E-ZPass number, register the transponder by Nov. 15, and use the promotion code, to qualify for the free week.

The express lanes operator has not yet set the January week when travel will be free under this incentive. For all the details, go to this page on the 95 Express Lanes Web site.

Travelers often ask if the express lanes will open with some free introductory offer, letting everyone ride free so they can check out the HOT lanes. Just as it was with the 495 Express Lanes opening, the answer is no. The tolls will be in effect at all times once the lanes open in the middle of I-95 between the Garrisonville Road area in the south and the Edsall Road area in the north. That’s why I thought you’d like to know about this free-week incentive.

The 95 Express Lanes will use the same two types of transponders as on the Beltway express lanes: The regular E-ZPass and the E-ZPass Flex. The latter has a switch that can set it to claim the free trip for drivers with at least two passengers. If you’re going for the Flex and planning to carpool for free regularly, then the incentive program won’t help you. The main beneficiaries would be drivers who regularly use I-95 in Northern Virginia and don’t have an E-ZPass now but are thinking about getting one at some point.

And to address this other FAQ: An E-ZPass issued by any jurisdiction will work in the 95 Express Lanes. The only reason you would want to get a new one is if you plan to carpool free. Then you need the E-ZPass Flex switchable transponder.

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