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Northern Virginia HOT Lanes

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So we're getting really close to the opening of the I-495 HOT Lanes, and we just broke ground on the I-95 HOT Lanes.  Here are some of my thoughts about how useful these will actually be...


I think these will work relatively well for people staying in Virginia.  Some extra capacity was badly needed between Springfield and Tysons Corner.  I think a significant benefit will come just to those who use the Tysons Corner interchanges.  Today, it can take 15+ minutes just to drive the length of the entrance/exit ramps during peak times, and having "artificially" uncongested interchanges (due to tolls/occupancy requirements) on the HOT lanes will be a huge benefit to those who choose to use the lanes.  I see some minor operational issues at the south end, just because you have so many lanes converging and diverging there, and during rush hours for the first couple years, toll payers will have to exit into the regular lanes to get to I-95 south, as the I-95 reversible lanes will be HOV-3 only.  I see some bigger problems at the northern end, northbound, during PM peak hours.  According to Dr. Gridlock in the Washington Post, the operators of the lanes don't expect much traffic to use them north of Tysons Corner.  I don't believe that.  There are plenty of people who will gladly pay to use the lanes between Tysons and the north end to avoid the interchange delays that I mentioned above.  To them, its a sweet deal, because the toll will be relatively cheap since they will only be in the lanes for a short time before they end.  I predict there will be some congestion in the HOT lanes approaching the merge point.  But like the I-95 HOV merge in Dumfries, the higher density of traffic in the regular lanes vs. the artificially constrained traffic in the HOT lanes (or starved traffic in the HOV lanes in the case of I-95, since there are no entrances south of Springfield) means the line to reach the merge point will be longer in the regular lanes than in the HOT lanes.  In otherwords, there will still be a jam leading to the American Legion Bridge, but HOT users will skip ahead in the line. 

I think that, in general, the lanes will be underutilized on weekends.  There is just not much traffic on that portion of the Beltway on weekends, you just have local traffic which will use the regular lanes for free.  Long distance traffic will be on the east side of the Beltway.


A little bit of benefit for rush hour commuters (especially afternoon commuters), little to no benefit for weekend drivers.  Let me start by saying that there is a huge elephant in the room that has not really been addressed...that is that weekend traffic on I-95 is very different from weekday commute traffic, and although everyone will acknowledge that weekends on I-95 are awful, no one has yet to come out and admit that this project will do little to change that.  So lets start with weekdays.  Here we have traffic that is very directional (north in the AM, south in the PM), and is focused from the southern suburbs into DC via I-395.  The reversible lane facility serves this traffic well. 

In the afternoon, you'll have HOV-3 traffic from Pentagon/DC joined by some single occupant /HOV-2 vehicles from the mainline of I-395.  You'll take on a bunch of traffic from the I-495 HOT lanes coming from Tysons.  You'll have an extra lane as far as Prince William Parkway...which is something more than you have now.  As you pass each interchange, enough commuters will exit the mainline and HOT lanes, such that the merge point at Garrisonville Road won't be too bad, at least not as bad as the merge point is in Dumfries today.  Think about it, many of those HOT lane users going to Stafford County will not have to enter the regular lanes, whereas they do now.  But the key thing is that as you head south, people get off to go to their homes, leaving more room in the regular lanes/less traffic in the HOT lanes to get to the new merge point. 

Northbound, in the morning, I think the lanes will work okay up to but not including the end of the HOT lanes at Edsal Road.  You're going to have more lanes feeding a chokepoint.  The mainline lanes of I-395 will be very congested approaching this merge point.  HOT lane users will get to the front of the line, but will still ultimately have to merge.   We can only hope that enough of the tollpayers are going to Tysons and not up I-395, that is what will keep the merge from becomming awful.  Perhaps the lane operators could make the toll for the segment between the Beltway and Edsal Road very high, thereby encouraging Tysons commuters but discouraging DC commuters from using the lanes, or at the least, getting DC commuters out of the lanes a little earlier than at the very very end.  Also, the operators should play up the fact that anyone with HOV-2 has another option...rather than merge onto I-395, they could continue paying tolls and use the I-495 lanes, and then take I-66 inbound to Arlington and DC (would really only work well for the west side of DC and Arlington, would be too out of the way for Capitol Hill). 

Weekends, going south: Not going to do a darn bit of good.  Remember that on weekdays, as you travel south, people get off at the interchanges, freeing up space in the mainline lanes and reducing the volume in the HOT lanes.  Weekends, not so much.  On weekends, a much greater percentage of traffic is in it for the long haul to Richmond and beyond, for everyone who takes a local exit, there's a local person going to the beach who gets on in their place.  So all you are doing is moving the merge south about 8 miles.  But since HOT lanes are artifically starved of traffic because of the tolls, HOT lane drivers will simply move to the front of the line, and regular lane drivers will sit in worse traffic than they do today.  In order to have a big impact, these HOT lanes would need to be extended down to Fredericksburg.  That is where the real weekend bottleneck is, at the Rappahannock.  There you have I-95 traffic and people bypassing DC via US 17 merging, and then a  lot of local traffic exiting at Route 3 and Massaponax, so the bridge is the chokepoint.  If you extended the HOT lanes there, you'd increase the capacity of the bottleneck.  Absent that, the bottleneck is still there. 

Weekends, going north: like described above, the Rappahannock is the big bottleneck.  The lanes don't begin until beyond there.  But it will bring that point where the road opens up a little bit further south, so it might help a little north of Fredericksburg.  Hopefully enough traffic will actually use the lanes to pull enough traffic out of the mainline lanes to give some congestion relief.  But don't count on it!

Some more points to consider with I-95's heavy weekend and holiday traffic....  If you're a commuter, on Friday afternoons you'll be competing with all of those vacationers for space in those HOT lanes.  I'd expect that the price will be very very high on Fridays.  If I'm taking my once-yearly trip to Virginia Beach, I won't mind paying a $50 toll to escape the frustration of the regular lanes as much as the commuters that won't be able to afford that on a regular basis.  In otherwords, the vacationers will price-out the locals, since the vacationers only have to do it once.  The other thought, which should be obvious....on some days, especially on summer weekends and around Thanksgiving...the traffic is bad in both directions.  One direction will be helped by HOT lanes, but the other will be just as bad off as today with no help from additional lanes.  I hope they at least keep the schedule similar to the way it is now, as right now the lanes are optimized for northern Virginians taking weekend trips out of the area on Friday/Saturday morning and coming back Saturday evening/Sunday, as well as leaving before a long holiday weekend and coming home at the end.  Otherwise the lanes would be benefitting those from Richmond and North Carolina more than the locals. 

In the meantime, prepare to suffer a lot during construction.  As it is now, the lanes will be closed during weekday overnights for roadwork including Friday night.  So when the lanes open on Saturday morning, VDOT will have them pointed north (since the portion from Edsal Road to DC will be open north during the closures further south), meaning those escaping town on Saturday will not have the benefit of the lanes.  I would easily forsee some complete weekend closures, which can really make a big mess of traffic. 

Very good post.

I'm not a fan of the I-95 project for a number of reasons, the main one being that the center HOV carriageway is currently open to all traffic during the non-HOV hours (except while the road is being reversed) and the majority of that traffic will now be pushed into the general-purpose lanes, which in turn is likely to push traffic there onto the limited parallel routes like US-1.

There's one very significant difference between the I-95 and Beltway projects that has not gotten a lot of mention, although Mike touches on it: The I-95 lanes have places where you can move back into the mainline. The Beltway lanes do not. That means that on the Beltway lanes, when you enter the lanes you lock in the toll rate to your destination. For example, the sign at Route 7 in Tysons Corner may list tolls of $3.00 to I-66, $6.00 to Braddock Road, and $8.00 to Springfield (this means Gallows Road would be around $4.00 since it's between I-66 and Braddock). If you're going to Springfield, your toll is $8.00. It won't go up while you're in the lanes.

That's not going to be the case on I-95. The information on the project website says that the tolls will be for "segments" of the lanes and that the toll for the "next segment" will be posted in advance so you can decide whether to stay in the lanes or exit into the general-purpose lanes. So suppose you're driving south from DC late at night as a solo driver (since I assume the HOV lanes north of the Turkeycock ramps will still be open to all traffic during non-HOV hours). As you pass Duke Street, you see a sign giving you toll info. It will list tolls for the Beltway, Route 644, and the exit to the general-purpose lanes just beyond Route 644. If you want to go to the Franconia—Springfield Parkway, that's on the next "segment" and you won't know what that rate is until you've already entered the lanes and paid the toll (though practically speaking the added toll would likely be minimal due to the short distance). The second tolled "segment" includes the Franconia—Springfield Parkway (VA-289) and then ends at the slip ramp marked "Lorton" just south of the Newington interchange. The third "segment" would then be much longer, including the US-1, VA-123, and VA-294 (Prince William Parkway) exits, with the segment ending at the flyover ramp just north of Potomac Mills Mall. (This all assuming they don't add additional entry and exit points. I know there is to be a new Express Lanes exit at Newington connecting to Alban Road and Boudinot Drive, but that's different from a flyover or slip ramp to the general-purpose lanes).

The Beltway system sounds a lot easier to understand because, let's be realistic, the average person who might use these lanes won't bother to educate himself on these kinds of issues. The amount of uninformed emotional bullshit rants I see regarding the Beltway project both amuses and disgusts me. But I think some of the rants have a bit more legitimacy as to I-95 and I wonder how the project will make it crystal clear to drivers that when the sign gives the toll to, say, Newington, it means that if you want to continue past Newington you will pay a separate toll at a rate to be announced when you reach Newington. I don't think it's unreasonable at all for people to demand that this information be made as unambiguous as possible. What concerns me about it is that people will have seen how the Beltway system works and they'll assume I-95 will work the same way. I suppose that's not necessarily a reasonable assumption, but it's reasonable to assume people will make that assumption (I hope that made sense).

BTW, I've seen the slugging community objecting to the HO/T project on the ground that they feel that they were lied to when they were told HOV will ride free. They feel that the institution of a monthly fee for the E-ZPass Flex is a violation of the promise that HOV will ride free and they think they shouldn't have to get transponders. I don't entirely buy the argument and the reason is a practical one: The vast majority of Northern Virginia drivers who would benefit from having an E-ZPass device for roads other than the new HO/T lanes already have an E-ZPass. (I know one guy who should but doesn't, but he's a special case–a bit of a kook because he feels getting an E-ZPass means that he's tacitly approving of the Dulles Metrorail project. Whatever.) Anyway, VDOT's announced that the E-ZPass Flex will be free PROVIDED you use it SOLELY in "HOV mode" and SOLELY in the new HO/T lanes on I-95 and the Beltway (you also have to use it at least once a month–if you fail to use it, or if you use it anywhere other than the HO/T lanes, or if you drive in the HO/T lanes with the device in "non-HOV mode," you pay the fee for that month). It seems to me that a driver who does not now have any use for an E-ZPass is unlikely to see his travel habits change so radically that he'll suddenly benefit from having one, such that if he continues his normal routine–say, a slug driver who picks up two people in Prince William County and drives to the Pentagon–he will pay neither a toll nor the E-ZPass fee.

WTOP Radio: Beltway Express Lanes given a test

--- Quote ---The Express Lanes being built on the Virginia side of the Capital Beltway aren't officially open yet, but that doesn't mean cars aren't driving on them.
--- End quote ---

--- Quote ---A number of test vehicles started cruising the brand new lanes this week. The test is all about the electronics of the road.
--- End quote ---

Anyone have a picture of the E-ZPass Flex transponders. Curious if they are based on the newer/smaller Mark IV transponders currently in use for SC's Palmetto Pass or if its the older design all the E-ZPass agencies are required to use.


--- Quote from: NJRoadfan on August 15, 2012, 07:51:56 PM ---Anyone have a picture of the E-ZPass Flex transponders. Curious if they are based on the newer/smaller Mark IV transponders currently in use for SC's Palmetto Pass or if its the older design all the E-ZPass agencies are required to use.
--- End quote ---

The Virginia E-ZPass site has an image of the E-ZPass Flex transponder here.

This article has an image of a "regular" MdTA E-ZPass transponder.

Peter Samuel of TOLLROADSnews wrote about the Mark IV transponders in use in South Carolina in 2007 here.  If North Carolina becomes a member of the E-ZPass IAG (which is supposed to happen soon), then South Carolina might just want to follow along for the convenience of persons using the Palmetto Pass.


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