Map shows the planned locations for I-66 tolling gantries. The “Registration” gantry on the Dulles Connector Road records the entry point of vehicles, but doesn’t assess a toll. (VDOT image)

Recent letters, blog comments and online chat questions remind me how complicated the high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes projects are. In fact, they’re the most complicated part of our regional travel network.

By comparison, figuring out bus fares and routes is easy. And when you’re staring at the Metrorail fare chart, at least you’re standing still.

So with the Virginia Department of Transportation scheduled to begin construction this summer on the Interstate 66 HOT lanes inside the Capital Beltway, and meetings coming up to discuss the northward extension of the 95 Express Lanes, I’d like to address just a few of the most frequently asked questions. My examples below are drawn from questions and comments I did not get a chance to publish during my online discussion Monday. My response appears below each traveler’s comment.

Any chance of saving the hybrid HOV exemption for I-66?
I know the exemption for hybrids from the HOV restrictions on I-66 isn’t particularly popular among non-hybrid owners, but there are thousands of people relying on it when making major life decisions (e.g., where to work, where to live, what kind of car to buy). Everything I read about the HOT lanes plan involves axing the hybrid exemption, but I understand some people are trying to preserve it. Is there any chance it can be saved?

DG: I don’t see any chance the hybrid exemption will be retained. If that was going to happen, the recently concluded session of the Virginia General Assembly would have been the time for it. VDOT officials and transportation experts recognize that the hybrid exemption is a threat to a basic concept behind the HOV lanes. A faster, more reliable trip is the incentive for carpooling. The more solo drivers in hybrids occupy the lanes, the less likely the carpoolers are to maintain their travel times. This same basic idea about traffic management applies to the HOT lanes concept, as well.

So for both I-66 projects, the one inside and the one outside the Beltway, the hybrid exemption will disappear. Also going is the I-66 exemption for traffic heading to and from Dulles International Airport. The inside the Beltway project is scheduled to be up and running in summer 2017. At that time, the solo hybrid drivers and the airport traffic still will be able to use I-66, but during the HOT lanes hours, they’ll need to have an E-ZPass to pay the tolls. The HOT lanes hours will be 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound and 3 to 7 p.m. westbound.

Virginia HOV lanes
If I have three in my car, use the Flex pass turned to HOV and enter the HOV lanes at 2:30 p.m., will I be charged for use of the HOV lanes?

DG: In the format of an online chat, it’s difficult to do any back-and-forth with the readers to seek clarification on questions. But I offer this question here because I get many like this that appear to reflect confusion about HOT lanes basics.

Just to clarify, you don’t need an E-ZPass or E-ZPass Flex to use HOV lanes. You have to meet the carpool rules or have an exemption, but there’s no tolling in High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. You need one of the passes to use the HOT lanes. Otherwise, the toll gantries will record an image of your license plate and send you a bill, no matter how many people you have in the car.

If you want to claim the carpool exemption in the 495 Express Lanes or the 95 Express Lanes, you need to have at least three people in the vehicle and the E-ZPass Flex transponder switched to the HOV setting. When tolling starts next year on I-66 inside the Beltway, you will need at least two people in the vehicle, with an E-ZPass Flex set to HOV. Two people get the free ride during the HOT hours till the outside the Beltway project is done, probably in late 2020 or 2021. At that point, the free-ride standard will go to three people per vehicle.

This next comment starts with a quote from my response to another question during Monday’s chat and proceeds into a question about cheating.

RE: 395 HOT lanes
“So a cheater needs to get the E-ZPass Flex, then set it to HOV mode and take a chance that the state police, using the electronic detectors, aren’t going to spot that.” But exactly where are state police supposed to sit and enforce HOV cheaters when the 395 Express Lanes configuration eliminates one of the shoulders (like what happened between Edsall Road and Lorton)? The new facility design does not support HOV enforcement, and trying to squeeze a third lane into an already tight roadway is going to make it nearly impossible to catch cheaters. As it stands now, there is virtually zero enforcement between Edsall and Lorton on the 95 Express Lanes. HOV cheaters can use that stretch with near impunity.

DG: I get many variations on the question about how HOT lanes are supposed to reduce the number of cheaters in today’s HOV lanes. During the development of the I-66 plan, many people suggested that if Virginia State Police stepped up their current enforcement program, then HOT lanes would not be necessary.

If state police stepped up their current enforcement program, the legit drivers would hate it. Rush hour traffic would slow to a state even worse than today’s, because almost all drivers would slow when they see the police lights. Plus, it would be very expensive to expand the police enforcement.

The I-66 enforcement design is similar to the style used on Virginia’s other HOT lanes. Police have a cutout area to monitor traffic. (VDOT image)

One of the goals of the HOT lanes projects is to reduce the number of cheaters in the lanes by requiring all travelers to have transponders that can be read by the toll gantries. In the 495 Express Lanes and the 95 Express Lanes, police have cutouts near the gantries where they can monitor which vehicles are claiming the free ride for carpoolers. They can observe how many people are aboard, chase the cheaters and ticket them. That’s not going to catch all the cheaters, but so far, it’s working to the satisfaction of the public and private partners who set it up. (The state police do these patrols under a contract with Transurban, the company that operates today’s HOT lanes.)

We have yet to see a detailed design for the I-395 extension of the HOT lanes, up to the Potomac River. We have seen a detailed design for I-66 inside the Beltway, and that’s what you see in the VDOT image above. Some travelers have written to suggest that police use infrared detectors to count the number of occupants. While that’s technically possible, I think this is more intrusive than most people would be willing to tolerate, and VDOT has no plans to go there.

I expect to have more detail soon about the I-395 project. You can ask your own questions of Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne. He’s scheduled to be my guest at noon Monday for our next online chat.