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One year later: 495 Express Lane debate is between saving time and money

Thursday - 11/14/2013, 11:17pm  ET

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Is the time saved worth the money it costs to travel the express lanes? (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- This weekend marks one year since the 495 Express Lanes opened, but drivers still struggle with whether a consistently fast commute -- even during rush hour -- is worth the price.

Throughout the last year, tolls have ranged from $0.25 to $9.75. Back on Oct. 30, tolls on the 495 Express Lanes climbed to $9.50. Tolls like those have some drivers questioning how high is too high? Is there a price where saving time on a commute is no longer worth it?

"Even at $4 or $5 one way is pricey. $9.50 is way too much. In a tight economy people are strapped. It's just not a necessity. I would rather wait a few minutes," says Pete Harris of Reston, Va. who referred to them as "Lexus Lanes."

The term is popular among opponents of toll lanes to point out that the prices allow the wealthy to have a faster commute, leaving normal everyday workers behind in traffic.

But even Tracey Stapleton of Falls Church, Va., who says she loves the express lanes and uses them frequently, admits her cap is well below $9.50 or $9.75.

"I would draw the line there. The most I think I've paid to get on is about $5 or $6. So that would be a big too high. For example, I avoid to Dulles Greenway tolls because they're too high. So I have my price point. I do not know what it is, but it's less than $9," she says.

Transurban, operator of the lanes, says such a situation is rare. Spokesman Mike McGurk says traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the Capital Beltway that day, so the $9.50 toll was set to offer a guaranteed option that would provide a 65 mph free flow trip.

"Dynamic tolling is something people haven't had to think about, budget for or plan for before. So what does that mean for some of these high toll days? Perhaps it means forgoing Starbucks a couple times a week, when it really makes a difference for you to get home faster," he says.

"But it's an individual choice. If it's not worth it for you, you can risk on the regular lanes. Other times you may want to pay to travel past all the traffic."

Transurban says the average toll charged increased from $1.71 in the June quarter to $1.86 for the September quarter.

"My time is worth a lot to me. I'm so busy at work that if I can save up to half- an-hour on my commute, I will pay the toll prices," says Stapleton.

"If it's not rush hour, then no I won't (use them) because it'll only save a couple minutes and isn't worth the cost. But in rush hour, absolutely."

But Rodney McLaren of Vienna, Va. says he does not use the express lanes, despite owning an E-ZPass. He believes the current average is too high for him

"Highways should always be free and paid for with taxes. I think the most I'd be willing to pay is $1. If I were them, I would lower the prices and then you'll get a lot more usage," McLaren says.

McGurk says that won't happen because the dynamic toll prices are set to allow drivers to travel at 65 mph, regardless of the traffic in the main lanes. If the prices are set too low, the express lanes will become congested and no longer offer save commuters time. But he acknowledges that if prices are too high, it can price people out of the lanes. So he concedes it's a balancing act.

"As we see more traffic come into the lanes, tolls go higher and higher. So as more people become equipped with E-ZPass, become comfortable and opt to take the express lanes, the price is going to rise to manage that congestion," says McGurk.

The toll prices were one of the top concerns raised last month in an online comment period for drivers. Some express lane users since inception have told Transurban that they've now stopped using the lanes because the prices went too high, making for a constant struggle to meet ridership projections without overcrowding the lanes with vehicles.

Transurban reports 37,574 vehicles drove the lanes between July and September 2013, up from 34,974 in the June quarter and 23,308 during the first three month it was open. Transurban reports toll revenue grew 14.3 percent to $51,736 through September, with most of that money going towards paying down the debt used to build the lanes.

Other interesting nuggets from Transurban:

  • Drivers from all 50 states have used the Express Lanes
  • September 12, 2013, was the busiest day on the Express Lanes with 47,303 trips.

    Top reasons customers had used the 495 Express Lanes:
  • 68% Needed to be on time for work or an appointment
  • 46% Congestion on the regular Beltway lanes
  • 30% Interest in a reliable trip
  • 30% Wanted a less stressful trip
Where Express Lanes customers live:

Virginia - 59%:

  • Fairfax County - 24%
  • Prince William County - 9%
  • Arlington, Loudoun Counties - 8%
  • City of Alexandria, City of Fairfax - 8%
  • Other - 10%
Maryland - 29%:
  • Montgomery County - 17%
  • Prince George's County - 12%
Washington, D.C. - 12%

  • 58% of Express Lanes customers are female and 60% of Express Lanes customers are younger than 45.

    Top vehicles on the 495 Express Lanes include:
  • Toyota - 17%
  • Honda - 15%
  • Ford - 8%
  • Nissan - 5%

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