WASHINGTON - Drivers on the Capital Beltway are finding themselves confused by the traffic patterns created with opening of the new 495 Express Lanes.
Since the lanes opened Saturday morning, Virginia State Police say there have been six crashes, all occurring at the entrance to the northbound Express Lanes at Braddock Road.
"Like with any new facility or road that opens, there's going to be some driver confusion. These signs are new so people aren't used to them," said Transurban spokeswoman Pierce Coffee. Transurban is the company operating the Express Lanes.
A four-car crash just before 6:30 a.m. Monday briefly closed access to the Inner Loop Express Lanes near Braddock Road.
The northbound entrance to the 495 Express Lanes is just south of Braddock Road. That's the area where crashes have been occurring since the lanes opened Saturday.
"We're observing swerving or sudden lane changes to avoid the toll lanes. This has been the case in at least four of the six crashes that we've had since it's opened," said Virginia State Police Sgt. Kerry Allander Monday morning.
Swerving drivers are losing control and striking the Jersey wall or other drivers.
"We did have a similar issue with the opening of the Springfield Mixing Bowl. We had crashes early on. A lot of it was just drivers just becoming accustomed to the new traffic patterns," Allander said.
There are new signs that indicate where the lanes are, plus there are signs that change as the price of the lanes changes throughout the day.
Transurban Vice President Jennifer Aument tells WTOP additional reflectors have been added at the entrance to the toll lanes near Braddock Road, and digital message signs are flashing to warn drivers to be careful.
"There is definitely confusion out there," says WTOP Traffic Reporter Reada Kessler about the first Monday morning commute with the new toll lanes.
WTOP Traffic Reporter Jack Taylor says one caller to the WTOP Traffic Hotline says that while the Express Lanes are clearly marked on the Inner Loop, the regular THRU lanes are not. Drivers who are used to getting to the left-hand side of the Inner Loop to continue on the Beltway find themselves headed into the toll lanes.
The WTOP Traffic Center over the weekend received reports that some drivers entered the Express Lanes by mistake and then backed up to try to get back on the non-toll lanes to avoid paying the toll and the $12.50 penalty for not having an E-ZPass transponder.
"We are absolutely stressing - do not speed or do not back up," said Allander.
"Safety is top priority. If you get into the Express Lanes and you don't mean to be there, what you should do is just continue on your way. You shouldn't try to cross out of the lanes or back up," Coffee said.
Drivers who end up in the lanes can avoid paying the penalty by logging onto 495expresslanes.com and clicking on "missed a toll?" Drivers will be charged a $1.50 administrative fee plus the tolls due.
Coffee said drivers also can call customer service at 855-495-9777.
"We want to work with customers," Coffee said.
She said customer service representatives are waiving fees on a case-by-case basis.
With the lanes confusing locals, traffic reporters worry the problems will worsen as the week progresses.
"Imagine what this will be like with people traveling through the area for Thanksgiving," Taylor said.
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