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Tolling Points

Better Than Chocolate: 495 Express Lanes Transform Travel in Northern Virginia

Bill Cramer

Written by Pierce Coffee, Transurban

The 495 Express Lanes are transforming travel in northern Virginia, where traffic on the Capital Beltway around Washington, DC is almost always at the top of the United States’ “most congested” list.

The new high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes have been open since last fall, and they’re gaining in popularity as northern Virginians see how the new route reduces congestion and makes commuting more reliable. Drivers particularly enjoy three new interchanges that take them directly into the heart of the Tysons and Merrifield business and retail districts. The highway operator, Transurban Group, recently increased the speed limit on the express lanes from 55 to 65 mph, delivering even greater benefit to customers.

The lanes were built under an innovative public-private partnership between Transurban, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, infrastructure developer Fluor, and road builder Lane Construction. They opened more than a month early – on November 17, 2012 – after four years of construction that included the replacement of more than 50 bridges and overpasses along Interstate 495, most of which now include bike and pedestrian access.

In addition to increasing capacity for car travel on Virginia’s congested Capital Beltway, the lanes encourage ride-sharing and rapid transit. New express bus routes have been developed to take advantage of 495 Express Lanes to provide quicker, more reliable service to Tysons and other popular destinations. Buses that previously used 495 have saved more than 20 minutes by moving to the express lanes.

The new lanes and the HOT lane concept are new to Northern Virginia, so Transurban has been hard at work helping travellers understand how the lanes work. Vehicles carrying one or two people pay a toll to use the express lanes, while vehicles carrying three or more can travel at no charge. A broad public education campaign has been under way for more than a year to offer information and answer specific questions about individual trips.

Tolling is all-electronic, so the lanes are restricted to vehicles with an E-ZPass® or E-ZPass® FlexSM properly mounted to the vehicle windshield. The E-ZPass Flex is a new electronic tolling device that can switch between toll-paying and toll-free travel modes. Customers travelling alone or in pairs pay the prevailing rate, which varies according to traffic in the lanes and the distance travelled. Cars with three or more passengers, buses, shuttles, and motorcycles enjoy a toll-free ride.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the new 495 Express Lanes is what other people are saying about them. The lanes are winning praise as an important new tool supporting the region’s economic growth and prosperity.

The managers at Tysons Corner Center tell us the 495 Express Lanes are helping their customers get in and out of the mall quickly and easily. “Since the Express Lanes opened, our guests have experienced faster and easier travel to and from the property, which is a big positive for everyone,” said Cory Scott, the mall’s assistant vice president for property management.

Drivers themselves have been heaping compliments on the new lanes. Travellers have told stories about finally making it to work on time, getting to medical appointments early, and traveling at highway speed past backups and accidents in the general purpose lanes. One customer tweeted:  “Two-buck happiness. 495 Express Lanes. Cheaper than chocolate.”

It doesn’t get much better than that.