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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fewer people using beltway express lanes than anticipated

The express lanes run through Annandale.
A survey of “frequent beltway drivers” finds 46 percent do not have an E-ZPass, so they cannot take advantage of the express lanes.

During the first six weeks after the express lanes opened in November, use of those lanes was “a little less than anticipated,” resulting in $11.3 million less in toll revenues than projected, said Transurban spokesperson Pierce Coffee.

“We absolutely expected a ramp-up period,” she said. “It will probably be 10 or 25 years before we expect to make a profit.” The company has agreed to operate the express lanes for 75 years in return for retaining the toll revenue.

Revenue from tolls will go first to cover the company’s costs for operating and maintaining the express lanes, and second, to repay its $1.1 billion of debt to fund the construction costs, Coffee said. After that, additional revenue would be returned to shareholders, and if toll revenue exceeds certain levels, Transurban will share a portion with the commonwealth of Virginia to fund additional transportation projects.

The $2.8 billion project was designed to relieve beltway congestion by offering drivers the opportunity to use less crowded lanes if they either pay a toll or have at least three people in their car. To ensure the express lanes run smoothly, the tolls rise when the beltway slows down. To use the express lanes, drivers need an E-ZPass in their vehicle to record the trip and toll amount.

Among the survey respondents who use the beltway frequently and don’t drive on the express lanes, 41 percent said it’s because they are unclear about how to get on, and 46 percent said they are unclear about how to get off the express lanes. For guidance on all the entry/exit points, there are videos online.

According to the survey, 82 percent of drivers who have used the express lanes estimated a real time savings on their trip.When asked to check off all the reasons they have used the express lanes, here is how they responded: 
  • 71 percent said they needed to reach a destination on time.
  • 45 percent said the regular beltway lanes were congested.
  • 22 percent said they were interested in a reliable trip
  • 16 percent said they wanted to get on or off the express lanes at one of the new entry/exit points in Tysons or Merrifield.
Seventy percent of express lane users said they are likely to use them again, and nearly 70 percent would recommend them to friends, family, and colleagues.


  1. My commute in the evening takes me from the Dulles Toll Road to Route 50 on the beltway. I would use the Beltway express lanes more often and get off at Gallows instead, but the problem is that there's no way for me to know whether it's worth it taking the lanes or not until I already make the choice. I can't see traffic congestion on the beltway from the Dulles Toll Road unless it's extremely backed up on the entrance ramp (rare), and once I reach the point where I can see if the beltway is backed up or not it's too late to change my mind. So I end up taking the regular lanes on the beltway when I would have taken the toll lanes if only I had known that the beltway was backed up.

    So the problem is one of imperfect information. There should be signs near all the entrances to the beltway/express lanes saying, for example, how long it will take to get to a certain exit taking the regular vs. express lanes. More people would be willing to pay if they actually knew it would save them time.

  2. try right before you leave your house

  3. Cara - great point about getting more information re: traffic congestion before you make the decision to hop on the Express Lanes. For now, the best gauge of this would be to use the toll pricing (i.e. the higher the posted tolls, assume there is more congestion on the regular Beltway Lanes).

    I have a Flex Pass and really only use it when I'm with my kids and we qualify for the HOV-exemption. HOWEVER, I'm always very cautious about being in these lanes because I feel like I'm an easy target to be pulled over for speeding. There are ALWAYS patrol cars tucked inside the Express Lane barriers, and I don't know if they're looking for HOV violators, large 4 axle trucks, or someone going 70 MPH.

    Result: I end up traveling 60 MPH, which is SLOWER than the cars in the regular 495 lanes. If they raised the speed limit to 65 or 75 MPH (reasonable, considering that traffic goes in one straight line, there is little "lane changing" and off-ramps are long), I think they'd find a lot more drivers with the confidence to get on the lanes. After all, isn't the idea to make our trips FASTER?

  4. Cara, simple solution. It is ALWAYS worth taking the express lanes. Why you would even want to risk sitting in traffic on the Beltway to save a buck is beyond me. I hit 495 from Tysons to Gallows everyday.