FALLS CHURCH, Va. – After being open for about 10 months, commuters can give a report card on the Interstate 495 Express Lanes.
Transurban-Fluor, the company that operates the lanes, is asking drivers to give feedback on their experiences and how they could be improved. The comment period goes through Oct. 25.
“We want to learn from drivers about how to make the 495 Express Lanes an even better option on the Capital Beltway. Whether the feedback is related to improving on-road signage, how to best educate those who haven’t yet traveled the Express Lanes, or what aspect you love most about the Express Lanes, we want to hear from you,” says Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk.
Gabe Goldberg, of Falls Church, lives less than 2 miles from the Capital Beltway, but only occasionally uses the express lanes.
“Before I get to the Beltway, I see a sign now that tells me the cost of being in the toll lane. It doesn’t tell me the benefit, it doesn’t tell me if there is any congestion in the main line, it doesn’t tell me if I will save any time if I use the toll lanes,” he says.
“I need to make an informed decision. I need to say ‘I’m going to pay $1.35 from Gallows Road to the end in Tysons, what am I getting for my money?’ I don’t want to pay to keep pace with the main lanes and feeling silly for spending the money,” says Goldberg.
He argues that while toll prices are supposed to fluctuate based on traffic conditions in the express lanes and main lanes, he doesn’t find that’s always true. He says he’s been frustrated by seeing a high toll, thinking there was traffic in the general lanes, then finding out there was no congestion.
But Sherry Smith of Burke loves the lanes and says it has saved her valuable time on her commute.
“A couple of years ago, it took an hour and 20 minutes to get from Burke to Tysons. Now with the E-ZPass I can go door-to-door in probably a little bit less than 20 minutes. So it’s your time versus the aggravation and the cost of it,” she says.
Smith says she finds the toll prices tend to correspond to traffic on the general Beltway lanes and often makes decisions based on the prices.
“To me, it’s worth it. You’re going to pay a little bit more, but it’s really well worth it to me. You get to home to your family earlier, and you’re more relaxed. So for example, recently there was an accident on the I-95 south ramp from the Beltway, and instead of it taking two hours to go from Tysons to Burke, I was home in 20 minutes. I consider that money well spent,” says Smith.
She adds that she just makes other adjustments to her budget, like eating out less, to make up for the extra cost to bypass traffic on the Beltway.
“These are exactly the type of comments we are looking for and encourage drivers to submit their feedback,” says McGurk.
“Drivers’ feedback has led to changes including improved signage to better explain the new exits in Tysons and identification of issues with traffic signals. We want to continue this conversation by providing long-time customers, new customers and even those who haven’t taken their first trip,” he says.
John Stait, of Falls Church, says he hasn’t used the express lanes and won’t. He says he doesn’t believe it’s fair to charge people to use any road.
“I just feel like it’s another effort for the government and a company to fleece the pockets of the common man, the working man trying to get to work to support his family who already pays taxes. Plus, I’m suspicious they will raise the rates on the ‘Lexus Lanes’ when they don’t get enough money and one day charge for all the lanes,” he says.
“Lexus lanes” is a term that skeptics commonly use to point out that they benefit only the wealthy people who can afford to pay to bypass traffic, while leaving middle-class Americans behind.
“Drivers should not have pay to use a road. I think our founders’ intent was that travel would be free for everyone and not favor the rich,” says Stait.
Goldberg has some other suggestions he plans to make to Transurban as well.
“They should consider allowing the drivers to use the express lanes for free overnight and perhaps sometimes on the weekend. They did the free weekend before, and they should do more of that,” he says.
Goldberg also says he’s concerned about the amount of trucks illegally using the express lanes and he said he hopes enforcement will be stepped up to implement the rules. WTOP asked Virginia State Police about the issue.
“We have issued 1,270 summonses for this since the Express Lanes opened and 206 summonses just over the past six weeks. Transurban tells us that trucks with more than two-axle vehicles make up less than 1 percent of total traffic. When we cite them, we do instruct these vehicles to exit at the nearest available exit after being issued a summons. Sometimes this requires them to continue travel in the Express Lanes for a couple of miles depending on where the traffic stop was conducted,” says Corrine Geller, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police.
The 495 Express Lanes opened up last November and ridership numbers have grown each quarter since, but remain below expectations. The speed limit on the lanes was raised this summer to 65 mph in an effort to increase the savings for commuters and attract more drivers.