Green line. Look first at the green line in the middle of the highway on the map’s lower half. If we zoomed out, you’d see that green line continuing south 29 miles. Much of that distance today is HOV3, open at peak periods to vehicles with at least three persons aboard and open to all at off-peak times. (As long as you’re going in the right direction. The lanes are reversible.)
Once the 95 Express Lanes open, the reversible part stays the same, but other rules change. You need an E-ZPass to drive along the green line. If you aren’t an HOV3 carpooler, a toll will be collected via the E-ZPass. Before entering the express lanes, you will pass several electronic signs telling you what the current toll is to three destinations. The toll will vary with the level of traffic but there’s always going to be some toll. It won’t matter what time of day, and it won’t matter whether you’re taking a long trip or a short trip in the express lanes. There will be some toll collected.
If you drive with at least three people in the vehicle, and you have an E-ZPass Flex transponder set to “HOV on,” you will get a free ride through the green area.
Orange line. If we zoomed out on the orange line on the upper part of the map, you would see it extending all the way to the Potomac River. Today, those lanes are part of the HOV system. When the express lanes open to the south, those lanes in orange will still be part of the HOV system. The HOV3 access rules you encounter today will be the same. Travel along the orange line is not subject to tolling.
Red line. The map’s two red lines show the feature that may be the most difficult adjustment for drivers using the express lanes. If you are a toll-paying driver heading north out of that green zone, and you’re traveling during peak hours on weekdays, you will need to move right so you can take that ramp leading to the regular lanes of I-395. If you don’t do that — if you continue northbound onto the orange line — you could get a ticket from police enforcing the I-395 HOV rules.
That other red line, marking the ramp on the southbound side, represents an upside of the project for many drivers who now travel the regular lanes of I-395 South during the evening rush because they don’t meet the HOV3 rules. If they have an E-ZPass and are willing to pay the toll, they can use that red ramp to enter the 95 Express Lanes for a congestion-free trip.
Blue line. The blue lines show the regular lanes of I-395. If we zoomed out on the map, drivers would see I-395 linking with I-95 to the south and continuing into the District in the north. There won’t be anything different about the blue lines once the express lanes open. They won’t be HOV or toll at any time.
A northbound driver in the regular lanes could use that blue ramp to enter the HOV lanes, skipping past the point where the tolled lanes end.
Drivers heading south in the afternoon along the orange line, marking the HOV3 lanes, also have some decisions to make in this area. If there are at least three people in the vehicle and they have an E-ZPass Flex set to “HOV on,” they can continue straight ahead into the green zone, where the 95 Express Lanes will start.
But if the carpooler doesn’t have an E-ZPass Flex and continues south along that green line, cameras in the gantries along the way are going to record images of the vehicle’s license plate, and a bill for the toll plus a fee will eventually be sent to the vehicle’s owner.
Another driver might have carpooled north in the morning, but is driving home solo in the afternoon. Be sure to flip that E-ZPass Flex out of its carpool setting. If you forget and continue into the green zone, where the express lanes start, you will be subject to a ticket. The police can detect that you have the transponder on the carpool setting, and they can see that you don’t have enough people aboard.
Many drivers tell me they wait till the HOV3 rules expire at 6 p.m. before starting their southbound trip from the District. They will be fine as long as they follow the orange line. But the E-ZPass tolling rules start for them, and everyone else, when they reach the green line. It won’t matter if they are on the express lanes for just a few miles. They still will pay a toll.
So these southbound drivers in the HOV lanes who don’t have some form of E-ZPass, or just don’t want to pay any toll, will need to watch for that blue ramp leading them back into the regular lanes of I-395 before the express lanes start.