Faster Beltway commute will come with varying tolls

Adam Tuss,

TYSONS CORNER, Va. – By the end of 2012, two new Express Lanes will be open on the Beltway between Springfield and just north of the Dulles Toll Road.

Carpools with three or more people can use the lanes, which promise a minimum speed around 45 miles per hour, for free.

Cars with fewer than three people can use the lanes, but those vehicles will have to pay a variable toll that will rise and fall depending on how much traffic is in the lanes.

The more traffic, the higher the toll. The idea being, some drivers will eventually be priced out of the lanes and traffic will keep moving.

On Wednesday project leaders unveiled the key to how the system will work.

The new E-Z Pass Flex transponder is now available in Virginia. It has a switch that allows drivers to toggle between High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) mode of three or more people to non-HOV mode of fewer than three people.

“This is how the electronic tolling system knows that you are a HOV-3 rider,” says Charlie Kilpatrick, Virginia Department of Transportation chief deputy commissioner.

“As a vehicle drives under the gantry, and it recognizes the vehicle in a HOV mode, it will not assess a toll,” he says.

Just like the newly opened InterCounty Connector in Maryland, the Express Lanes that are formerly known as High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes will not have toll booths. It will be an all electronic tolling system.

Virginia State Police are anticipating some riders might leave the switch in HOV mode permanently and ride in the lanes for free. They are dedicating a force of state troopers to constantly monitor the lanes and spot HOV cheaters. Technology will alert police when a car has the flex transponder switched to carpool mode.

The pricing system for the E-Z Pass Flex is similar to the more traditional E-Z Pass, however there is a difference in the monthly service fee.

Drivers will be charged $.50 per month for the E-Z Pass Flex between September and December of this year. After that, the monthly fee goes up to $1. If a driver uses the E-Z Pass Flex in carpool mode only for an entire month, the monthly fee will be waived for that month.

The E-Z Pass Flex will also work normally with all other E-Z Pass facilities.

If a driver wants to use the Express Lanes with their traditional E-Z Pass, it will work. However, those drivers will not have the option of switching over to carpool mode.

For drivers who aren’t carpooling, there’s no limit on how high tolls can reach.

“Very few people (will) go the entire 14 miles,” says Tim Steinhilber, general manager for the project.

“In our traffic models, we show people go about 3 1/2 miles on the Beltway. That 3 1/2 miles, we are using an average of $5 or $6 (for the toll.) That’s what we’re expecting to see,” he says.

Drivers who use the Express Lanes without an E-Z Pass will have to pay the toll plus a $10 administrative fee. Cameras will record the license plate of cars without E-Z Pass and then assess the toll.

The current cost estimate of the Express Lanes project is $1.9 billion. Officials say it is on time and on budget. The project is being funded with both public and private money. Australian-based Transurban-Fluor Follow Adam and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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