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Express lanes lessons ahead

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The Interstate 95 express lanes are being promoted as something that will offer drivers more options along the often congested corridor between Stafford County and Northern Virginia.

But those options also are something that could lead to a lot of confusion for drivers once the lanes open in what is now the I–95 median early next year.

That’s why officials are starting an education campaign nearly a year in advance.

Officials used a similar campaign for the Interstate 495 express lanes before they opened more than a year ago. But drivers were still confused and accidents occurred.

And many didn’t bother to get the necessary transponders used to electronically pay the toll to use the lanes.

Usage of the I–495 express lanes hasn’t reached expectations yet, which is something officials hope to avoid with the I–95 lanes.

Things have gotten better on I–495, said Michael McGurk with the Transurban Group that operates the express lanes. But, he said, the company continues to work on informing people about how to use the new lanes.

Transurban and Fluor Corp. are paying for most of the nearly $1 billion I–95 express lanes project. Transurban will operate the lanes.

The I–95 express lanes project will extend the current HOV lanes nine miles from Dumfries to Garrisonville. The current HOV lanes north of Dumfries will be expanded from two to three lanes. The entire project covers 29 miles.

McGurk said the I–95 express lanes could be more challenging for drivers than those on I–495.

Those Capitol Beltway express lanes are completely new, so driving habits haven’t been as hard to change, McGurk said.

That won’t be the case with the I–95 express lanes. Drivers have used the HOV lanes for decades and have gotten used to the way they work.

While there will be similarities, the express lanes will bring some significant changes. McGurk detailed some of them.

ELECTRONIC TOLLS

To use the express lanes, drivers will need to have an E-ZPass transponder. There are two types: the basic transponder that always includes a toll, and the flex transponder, which includes the option for vehicles carrying at least three people and won’t pay the toll.

Dynamic tolling is key to how the express lanes will work. It’s a simple concept: Tolls will be lower with less traffic and increase as traffic congestion increases. There are no caps on how high the tolls can be.

“The goal is to keep traffic moving” so “there’s a predictable trip,” McGurk said, adding that this appears to be something drivers don’t quite understand.

As with the I–495 express lanes, there will be ample digital signs showing the toll rates. While tolls will vary, once a driver enters the lanes the toll will not change for that vehicle.

What if you mistakenly get on the express lanes without a transponder? Electronic scanners more than likely will catch you by reading your license plate. There also will be beefed up Virginia State Police patrols that might get you.

If you catch the mistake within five days and contact Transurban, you will be charged the toll plus a $1.50 fee. If Transurban has to mail you an invoice, the fee will increase.

E-ZPasses can be obtained online, by phone, at some Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle offices and retail stores, such as Wegmans supermarkets.

To get an E-ZPass, you have to put down a $35 deposit, which goes toward tolls. There also are monthly maintenance fees. Those fees will be waived if drivers have no toll charges for a given month.

In addition to vehicles carrying three or more riders, motorcycles, buses and emergency vehicles will not pay a toll on the lanes.

EXPRESS LANES USAGE?

Vehicles that have fewer than three occupants can use the HOV lanes, but only during certain times. The lanes also are closed for periods during the week and weekend.

The express lanes, however, will be open around the clock. They also will remain reversible like they are now.

“A lot of people have asked if the rules are going to be 24/7,” McGurk said.

They will be, he said.

McGurk said it’s a common practice for those without at least three people in a vehicle to wait until the restrictions are lifted during the week so they can get on the HOV lanes. Those drivers won’t have to do that anymore, if they are willing to pay the toll.

ACCESS POINTS

Drivers on the I–495 express lanes have struggled somewhat with entry and exit points, which is something officials want to avoid on I–95, McGurk said.

“This is definitely a key challenge of ours, from an education point,” he said.

The Interstate 95 express lanes will have many more access points than I–495. And motorists used to the I–95 HOV lanes will notice a big difference with the express lanes access points.

There are several options to get on the I–95 HOV lanes, but once drivers get on them, they basically have to go the distance.

“You’re in it until Fairfax” if you are traveling north, said Kelly Hannon, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The I–95 express lanes will have more than a dozen exits and slip ramps. Exits will take drivers directly to arterial roads off the interstates, some of which will be flyovers, such as the Garrisonville exit. Slip ramps will allow traffic to get on or off the interstate’s primary lanes.

There will be signs, including real-time digital signs, to help drivers navigate the express lanes.

NORTHERN TERMINUS

A diagram of the area where the express lanes and the Interstate 395 HOV lanes will connect looks confusing, with as many as four ramps.

But in actuality it should be relatively easy for drivers.

Still, McGurk said Transurban sees it as a key educational challenge.

The I–95 express lanes will end north of Edsall Road and morph into the I–395 HOV lanes.

Northbound vehicles carrying at least three people will be able to continue onto the HOV lanes. Others will have to use a ramp that will take them to the main interstate lanes.

Those on the primary interstate lanes will be able to take a ramp to the HOV lanes.

Southbound drivers will be able to continue from the HOV lanes straight onto the I–95 express lanes. Toll-paying drivers will be able to use a ramp north of Edsall Road to get from the primary lanes to the express lanes.

Again, McGurk said, there will be plenty of signs to alert drivers.

McGurk said Transurban officials understand there will be a breaking-in period, but they hope the educational program will help ease the pain. He said the company is creating a website that will help drivers plan ahead.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

 

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