The first thing you would have noticed about the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Interstate 66 HOT lanes was that there was no ground.

At similar events for big road projects, there’s a dainty little pile of dirt and enough shovels for the dignitaries to grab. The symbolic moment at the HOT lanes event occurred instead when a switch was flipped to illuminate an electronic message board proclaiming that the transformation of I-66 was underway.

The ceremony was appropriate to the unusual nature of the project. Workers now will begin to install eight toll gantries and 125 signs over and around the interstate inside the Capital Beltway. In terms of construction work, that’s pretty much it. That’s why the high-occupancy toll lane operation is scheduled to begin around this time next year — a very short construction window for a project that will so radically alter rush-hour travel.

The planners on this project say there’s no other example in the nation of an entire section of highway converting to high-occupancy toll lanes, and it’s at least unusual to convert lanes to HOT lanes only for peak periods rather than around the clock.

This is one reason travelers looking up at those signs won’t see the words “express lanes,” even though that’s the common way we refer to their Northern Virginia cousins, the I-495 Express Lanes and the I-95 Express Lanes. “Express lanes” defines a roadway in contrast to the regular, or general-purpose lanes, which are open to all travelers but may be slower. When the I-66 lanes are HOT, that’s all there is. A driver will have no choice but to pass under the toll gantries — which is one reason to have all those signs describing the nature of the lanes and the toll to be paid.

The map below will give you an idea of the types of signs that will be displayed. They aren’t quite like the ones drivers see as they near HOT lanes entrances on the west side of the Beltway or on I-95/395. They will have a green top and the word “TOLL” on a yellow field. When the peak period is over and the interstate changes back from HOT lanes to general-purpose lanes, the tolling information will go blank or “NO TOLL” will be displayed.

That’s only part of the I-66 plan. The state is allocating $10 million to finance 10 programs designed to help commuters leave their cars behind and avoid paying any tolls on I-66. Those programs, including enhanced carpooling facilities and commuter bus services, are scheduled to be active by the time the first toll payer goes under a gantry next summer.

At the groundbreaking ceremony on a high school parking deck over I-66 in Ballston, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) described the complex set of programs as appropriate for attacking “the most congested road in the most congested region” in the nation.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said the setup for the HOT lanes would involve some lane and ramp closings in coming months but should “have a minimal impact on traffic,” and no effect on rush hours.

HOT lanes basics

  • The I-66 HOT lanes inside the Beltway will be tolled from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound and from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. westbound on weekdays.
  • A variable tolling system will be used, as on Northern Virginia’s other HOT lanes. As more drivers enter the lanes, the toll will rise. Drivers will see the current toll rate before entering the lanes. Some will decide it’s too pricey and choose other routes. That will keep the traffic moving and provide trips of reliable lengths for those who do choose to pay the toll.
  • All drivers will need an E-ZPass. Two-person carpools will be exempt from tolls with an E-ZPass Flex in the HOV setting.
  • The threshold for the carpool exemption will increase from two persons to three persons by 2021, when the HOT lanes outside the Beltway are scheduled to be completed.
  • Solo drivers of hybrids and solo drivers traveling to or from Dulles International Airport will need to pay tolls.
  • Big trucks still will be prohibited from using the lanes. The Virginia state government is considering allowing tractor-trailers to use the HOT lanes planned for outside the Beltway, but not inside.
  • Construction of an additional eastbound lane between the Dulles Connector Road and the Ballston exit is scheduled to start in 2018. It should open to traffic in early 2020.