Beltway HOT lanes getting a name change

Adam Tuss, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Turns out HOT lanes, won’t be so HOT after all.

D.C.-area commuters have been experiencing the construction associated with the High Occupancy Toll lanes on the Capital Beltway for years, but once the project is finished late this year, you can forget about the HOT designation.

WTOP has learned that the lanes will be formally designated as “Express Lanes” on highway signs, with an E-Z Pass logo positioned alongside.

The name change is enough of a concern that the operator of the lanes, Transurban, will roll out a media campaign next week to let drivers know about the new designation. Starting the morning of Jan. 9, the website 495expresslanes.com will launch to try and clear up any confusion.

But longtime WTOP Traffic Reporter Bob Marbourg says drivers will be confused by the change.

“For years we’ve endured the construction of the HOT lanes, and now we find out they are going to have a different name?” Marbourg says. “At 60 miles an hour, it’s really tough to make a decision when the signs only leave you more confused.”

Project leaders assure drivers that highway signs will spell out all the requirements to use the lanes, including High Occupancy Vehicle restrictions.

The term HOT lanes can not officially be attached to highway signs because of a 2009 Federal Highway Administration guideline that keeps certain types of highway signs — like those for toll roads — uniform.

“We are excited about the new website and education campaign to prepare the region’s drivers/travelers for the benefits coming their way and to ensure everyone knows how to use the lanes safely,” Transurban Marketing Director Pierce Coffee writes in an e-mail.

The concept behind the express lanes is fairly simple. Drivers can use them for free if they have three or more people in their car. Any less than that, drivers have to pay a toll. The more the lanes are used, the higher the tolls, the idea being that some will be priced out of the lanes and traffic will be able to continue moving.

Drivers are promised a speedy commute of at least 45 miles per hour. Tolls are collected using an E-Z Pass that will allow traffic to keep flowing.

The estimated opening date for the Beltway HOT lanes between Springfield and just north of the Dulles Toll Road now stands at December 2012, according to VDOT. Two new lanes are being added in each direction.

The current cost estimate is $1.9 billion. The project is being funded by both public and private money. Australian-based Transurban-Fluor is the private party investing in the project.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)