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Friday, September 14, 2012

Beltway toll lanes expected to open by the end of the year

The Gallows Road exit on the beltway.
If you’re one of those people vowing to never pay to drive on the beltway or feel the new Express lanes (they’re not called HOT lanes anymore) promote a class system, with the affluent able to pay for a less-congested trip, the companies developing the new system want to set you straight.

According to Pierce Resler Coffee, a spokesperson for Transurban, the company operating the Express lanes, “only 25 percent of toll-paying customers on SR-91 in Southern California are in the top income bracket.” She says the Express lanes will encourage carpooling, noting that carpool rates have increased nearly 9.6 percent since the SR-91 HOT lanes opened in 1995.”

We’ll see for ourselves soon enough. The Express lanes are expected to open by the end of December.

The tolls will be about $4 to $6 for a typical trip during rush hour, but “could be considerably more,” said Coffee. “There is no maximum on tolls.” She suggested the tolls could be as much as $20 to $25 during the heaviest traffic conditions, like the day before Thanksgiving.

Coffee and Jamie Breme, a spokesperson for Fluor, the company responsible for designing and building the $2 billion beltway expansion/Express lanes project, will be speaking at community meetings over the next few months to explain how toll lanes work and encourage people to purchase the E-ZPass transponders they’ll need to take advantage of them.

At a recent meeting of the Braddock District Council of Community Associations, Coffee said most people will use the Express lanes for about three to five miles, and people will most likely use them if they’re late for an appointment or otherwise in a hurry, not for everyday commuting. “Most HOT lanes users on SR-91 pay to use the lanes a few times a week when they need a faster or more reliable travel time,” she said.

The Express lanes will extend for about 14 miles from the Springfield interchange to the Dulles toll road.

The beltway viewed from Gallows Road.
The toll amounts can be adjusted every six minutes, but will be locked in when you enter the Express lanes. The Express lanes are in the middle of the beltway, and you’ll only be able to access them from certain points. For example, the Little River Turnpike exit won’t have access to the Express lanes. From Gallows Road, you’ll be able to get on the Express lanes heading north, but not south.

All motorists will be charged a toll, including those with hybrid cars. High-occupancy vehicles (HOV) with three or more people can use the lanes for free. Motorcyclists also won’t be charged. Large trucks will not be allowed to the use Express lanes.
The E-ZPass transponder will be automatically read as you enter the Express lanes and deduct the toll amount from your online account.

The toll amount will be regulated by sensors along the road that monitor traffic conditions. Tolls will be set at amounts designed to keep traffic moving at 55 miles per hour, Coffee said. Drivers will see signs with pricing to three destinations, including the maximum toll to get to the farthest exit, so they’ll know before they enter the Express lanes whether the faster ride is worth the cost.

People who already have an E-ZPass will be able to use it on the beltway Express lanes, but if you want to take advantage of the toll-free HOV rule, you’ll need an E-ZPass Flex with an HOV switch you can use to indicate there are three or more people in the car.

HOV rules will be enforced by police and cameras, Coffee said. State troopers will be able to do a “visual assessment” to check whether there actually are three people in the car. A driver who turns on the HOV switch by mistake will be able to go online and make a correction and pay the toll. If you don’t, you’ll get an invoice with the toll plus a fee.

Drivers will need to rent an  E-ZPass transponder for $1 a month for an E-ZPass Flex (50 cents for the non-Flex pass) plus pay a down payment of $35, which will be applied to tolls. You can get E-ZPasses online, at the DMV in Tysons Corner, some AAA offices, and some Giant and Wegman’s stores. People who order an E-ZPass in September will get two free weeks.

You’ll be able to sign up online for alerts telling you much you paid and how much is in your EZ pass account. Drivers can add to their accounts online or arrange to have their accounts loaded automatically.

Several people at the meeting raised concerns about breakdowns. There aren’t any shoulders along the left side of the regular, non-Express lanes, so if a car is disabled in the left lane, it would have to be moved across the lanes to the right shoulder. If there is a vehicle breakdown in the Express lanes and traffic is stalled, drivers will be able to request a reimbursement in their toll.

The project  is about 95 percent complete, said Breme. All the bridge work is finished. All the tolling structures are in place, and test vehicles have been cruising the Express lanes to make sure they work. The ramps at Braddock Road, Gallows Road, and Lee Highway are still not quite finished.

Drainage and grading is still going on at Braddock, and Fluor is working with VDOT to adjust the signal timing at the Braddock and Little River Turnpike exits. A new signal will be installed at Gallows Road, regulating drivers who want to go left or right when they exit the Express lanes.

There will be barriers preventing cars from moving between the regular and Express lanes, but emergency vehicles will be able to cross lanes if needed, Breme said. There will be back-up generators to keep the system functioning in case of a power outage.

VDOT has a $5 million budget for landscaping along the beltway, which will start in spring 2013.

In August, construction began on a $925 million Express lanes project on Interstate 495 between Edsall Road and Garrisonville road in Stafford County.


  1. I am against the project mostly because of its impacts to Tysons through the oversized onramps that take up multi-million dollar property in the heart of the city to the bridges which end at left turns.

    The one benefit will be the pseudo-BRT bus routes which I think after a few months will be far more popular than SOV HOT lane traffic or even car pooling. For 4-5 dollars you can get a basically unimpeded bus ride from transit hubs in Burke/Lorton/Annandale to Tysons. It could be a big boost to a lot of commuters and I think will take a lot of cars off the road.

  2. I wish the express lanes were separated from the regular lanes by more than just some crappy plastic white tubes. Cars will be stopped in the regular lanes whilst the BMWs and Mercedes whiz by in the express lanes at 55 MPH or more realistically 70 MPH. There should be a concrete jersey barrier in between. But I suppose cost > safety, eh Flour/Transurban?

  3. Concrete jersey barriers require wider shoulders. Wider shoulders would have required more adjoining houses being condemned for the lane expansion. I'd have preferred concrete jersey barriers, but my house was not on the chopping block.

  4. From what I can tell the new express buses won't be stopping in Annandale.

    1. yes, because there isnt an onramp to the express lanes that would make sense for them - the only onramp north of braddock is gallows road, and there probably isnt sufficient ridership to justify having buses up Gallows than up the HOT lanes. Maybe someday, if and when Gallows gets even more congested than it is now.

  5. Didnt our taxes used to pay for roads? Oh yeah, I forgot, the Democrats took all that and plowed it into wasteful entitlement programs to buy votes and we have nothing to show for it but debt. So now the less affluent complain these are lanes for "the rich"? We've all been shafted here by liberal "class warfare" once again that divides even the roads.

    1. Wasteful entitlements like the Medicare prescription drug benefit? Oh, wait--that was the GOP. Or was it the optional war over WMD? Nope--that was the GOP, too.

      Party aside, we're going to rue the day when we let road construction become a profit center for private companies, who'll be collecting tolls for 50-75-99 years. Just ask the folks in Ashburn who keep seeing their Greenway tolls go up and up and up.