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A third of 95 Express Lanes drivers are carpooling

Among the 37,000 vehicles traveling in Northern Virginia’s new 95 Express Lanes on an average weekday, 33 percent are using an E-ZPass Flex in the carpool setting, according to the express lanes operator.

The first figures released since high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes operations began on Dec. 29 show an average toll of $4.01. The tolls, paid via E-ZPass, are in effect at all hours and drivers take trips of varying lengths. The projected toll for a drive along the full 29-mile route at 8:45 a.m. Thursday was $8.

Michael McGurk, spokesman for the express lanes, said that 95 percent of drivers are using either the regular E-ZPass or the E-ZPass Flex, the specialized version of the transponder that allows the user to claim the free ride for HOV3 carpoolers.

In the weeks before the express lanes opened, the express lanes operator and the Virginia Department of Transportation had campaigned to get more of the corridor’s carpoolers to sign up for the Flexes and said they were concerned that many hadn’t done so. I-95/395 in Northern Virginia is a long-established and very successful route for carpoolers bound from bedroom suburbs to work sites in Arlington and Fairfax counties and the District.

The figures released Thursday cover the period from the start of tolling on Dec. 29 to Jan. 31. Transurban, the company that operates the express lanes, will release additional information in April in a report on the year’s first quarter.

Average daily toll revenue during the first month was $103,000, McGurk said. He described the traffic and revenue numbers as “in line with our expectations.” Transurban had not made a public estimate on usage before the lanes opened.

During the first month, McGurk said, more than 200,000 different vehicles used transponders while traveling in the 95 Express Lanes. In the same period, almost 30 percent of the drivers using the I-95 express lanes also took a trip in the 495 Express Lanes, which opened in November 2012 on the west side of the Capital Beltway in Virginia. A driver might use the two sets of express lanes on a trip from home in Woodbridge to an office in Tysons Corner. The HOT lanes network is now more than 40 miles long.

Drivers who pay the tolls are doing so in exchange for a trip of reliable length through one of the most congested parts of a very congested region. There is no limit on how high the tolls can go. The price varies with the level of traffic in the lanes. Under this theory of dynamic pricing, the toll rises to the point where some drivers will be discouraged from entering the lanes, preserving the free flow of traffic within them.

The 5 percent of drivers who are not using transponders either have an exempt status, such as motorcycles or emergency vehicles, or they don’t have an E-ZPass, or they have the pass improperly mounted so that it doesn’t record either the toll or the carpool exemption.

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