Thousands of motorists are choosing to pay tolls to get ahead on the Washington region’s traffic-choked highways.
The majority of frequent Express Lanes users, defined as those who choose the lanes at least once a week, are more likely to use them for commuting to work and are willing to pay when they need to get to an important meeting and traffic is bad in the regular lanes, according to the survey commissioned by Transurban, the company that operates the 495 and 95 Express Lanes.
More than half the Washington-area drivers surveyed — from a sample of 1,732 motorists — said they’ve used the 95 and 495 Express Lanes. The most popular reason? They view them as a way to beat traffic and save time.
“These are our neighbors. They are busy professionals who have kids and are trying to get to work on time,” said Elisa Bell, marketing director at Transurban North America.
Occasional users, defined as those who drive the lanes only about once a month, are more likely to use them for specific travel such as a family road trip down the I-95 corridor or to get to the airport, according to the 2018 Transurban State of the Lanes report.
Despite HOT lanes' disparaging nickname of “Lexus lanes,” most 495 and 95 express users are not affluent, according to the survey, and many of them work for employers who subsidize their commutes. About 60 percent of the frequent users said they have household incomes of less than $100,000, and a similar share have a bachelor’s degree or higher. About one-third of those users said they don’t mind the tolls because their employers pick up the bill, according to the survey.
More than half he lane users said they live in Virginia, while 31 percent are Maryland residents, and 16 percent are D.C. residents, according to the data.
The typical user is younger than 45 (82 percent), has young children and relies on home services such as grocery delivery and house cleaning. They are loyal Amazon customers who get a package from the online retailer at least once a month.
“They don’t mind paying a fee for convenience services and similarly don’t mind paying for tolls,” Bell said.
An average of 45,000 daily trips are made on the 495 Express Lanes, where tolls average $5.40. The 95 Express Lanes have an average of 51,000 daily trips, with tolls averaging $8.45, according to Transurban. Tolls have topped $30 for the 495 lanes, which are used more for commuting.
Drivers who have an E-ZPass Flex and drive with at least two passengers can use the lanes free. The lanes have a variable tolling system, meaning rates change based on volume to keep traffic flowing at a target speed of 65 mph.
There is no cap on the tolls. The highest toll recorded for the 495 lanes last year was $32.30; the highest for the 95 express lanes was $46.25. In the case of the 495 lanes, a crash in the lanes between Interstate 66 and Route 7 on June 8, 2017, caused delays; fewer than 30 people paid the highest toll, Transurban said. The 95 toll hit its high point on Nov. 15, 2017, when a crash in the lanes in the Lorton area caused a backup. Fewer than 10 motorists paid $46.25.
The two express lane systems are part of a growing network of toll lanes in Northern Virginia that is expected to grow to 90 miles by 2022. The newest entrant, the 66 Express Lanes, opened in December, with 10 miles of rush-hour, peak direction toll lanes that have yielded some of the highest tolls in the country — $47 one way. That system is directly operated by the state.
The 495 Express Lanes, stretching 14 miles, were the first high-occupancy toll lanes in the region when they opened in 2012. The state is studying an expansion to the American Legion Bridge, which will add three more miles to Virginia’s system and connect to a proposed system across the Potomac River into Maryland.
The 95 Express Lanes opened four years ago, spanning 29 miles from just north of Garrisonville Road in Stafford to the vicinity of Edsall Road on Interstate 395 in Fairfax County. An expansion in Stafford added two miles last year. And work is underway on a 10-mile extension from Garrisonville Road (Route 610) in Stafford to Route 17 in the Fredericksburg area, a project expected to be completed in 2022.
Before that, Virginia is slated to add another eight miles of toll lanes on I-395. The state is converting the HOV lanes into toll lanes as part of a $480-million project slated to open next year. The 395 Express Lanes will essentially amount to an extension of the 95 Express Lanes.
The state is also building another 22 miles of toll lanes on I-66 outside the Capital Beltway. With that addition, the 395 Express Lanes and the Fredericksburg extension, these projects will deliver the next major milestone in the state’s vision to create a network of more than 90 miles of HOT lanes in Northern Virginia by 2022.