ALEXANDRIA, Va. - This week, a one-month comment period for drivers to suggest ways to improve the 495 Express Lanes closed, with some suggestions as zany as setting up a drive-through coffee shop on the toll lanes.
More than 350 participated online, many with useful suggestions to make the commute better for everyone.
"One of the suggestions we saw," says Michael McGurk, spokesman for 495 Express Lanes operator Transurban, "is that if you're not exiting the express lanes or if you're going to travel slower, stay in the right-hand lane. Remember - most of the exits are off to the left, but if you're driving slower, stay to the right. Some of that may be that because people aren't aware that the speed limit was recently raised to 65 miles per hour."
While McGurk acknowledges you probably won't ever see a drive-through coffee shop in the express lanes, suggestions such as slower vehicles moving to the right are a good idea. Transurban will compile all the suggestions from the comment period over the next couple of weeks and see what themes developed.
"Where is there unison? What do a lot of people want to see? And what can we do about it?" says McGurk.
Another suggestion has been to post travel times near the entrances to the 495 Express Lanes to let drivers know how long it will take to travel to various landmarks in both express and free lanes. However, as WTOP has previously reported, the Virginia Department of Transportation has not been able to get accurate information from the Inrix company to post on signs.
VDOT has told WTOP it's because there are no physical barriers, unlike on I- 95/395, separating the lanes, and the GPS is not sensitive enough to distinguish between the lanes. On I-66, GPS cannot distinguish them either, but the information it provided still proved to be fairly accurate.
Drivers such as Gabe Goldberg, who lives less than two miles from the 495 Express Lanes, has said he gets frustrated when he pays the toll and finds no traffic on the general lanes. He has decided to mostly avoid the express lanes for that reason. While toll prices can fluctuate on the express lanes because of traffic, those prices aren't always a truly accurate barometer of congestion.
"There are certainly drivers who we've heard that from," McGurk says, "but there are a lot of other drivers who are looking for a predictable trip. I take this whenever I want and I know it's predictable travel. We've even seen people who like there aren't any big trucks in the express lanes. People also tell us they like that it's less crowded in general - that people can stick their car in cruise control on 65 and not have to stress because people don't weave in and out of the lanes," says McGurk.
Just weeks before the first anniversary, Transurban's latest figures show that ridership remains below expectations. On average, 37,574 drivers used the Express Lanes each workday in July, August and September, up from 34,974 in April.
"Forty percent of Beltway drivers still don't have an E-ZPass, which means they're not in a position to take advantage of the 495 Express Lanes," McGurk says. "People still come up to us and say, 'Oh, thanks. I've been meaning to get the E- ZPass so I can use the road."
He says they are still in the ramp-up period, a term Maryland officials use for the Intercounty Connector that opened in November 2011.
McGurk also rejects any comparisons between the 495 Express Lanes and the Pocahontas Parkway. In June, Transurban ceded control of the toll road just south of Richmond, admitting it did not generate enough money to keep it sustainable. McGurk points out that the 495 Express Lanes connect busy employment centers in Tysons Corner and near Franconia-Springfield.
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