What to do when the Express Lanes are slower than the regular ones

WASHINGTON — When drivers in Northern Virginia decide to use the I-95 Express Lanes, most are willing to pay a toll in exchange for a smooth trip and free-flowing traffic. But some of these drivers have encountered the opposite — bumper-to-bumper traffic that some say is much worse than in the regular lanes.

With the warmer weather in recent weeks, the volume of traffic on I-95 has been steadily increasing. Friday afternoons are the busiest travel period on the interstate. To the dismay of late-week drivers in the Express Lanes, a long delay has formed over the past several Friday afternoons in Quantico. The backup leads to the southern end of the Express Lanes, where an elevated ramp deposits traffic into the main lanes of I-95 before the highway’s interchange at Route 610.

Last Friday, this queue was over seven miles long by midafternoon, beginning near Dumfries, Virginia. Some who drove the lanes said they waited for more than an hour in an exit-less stretch through the Quantico Marine Base just for an opportunity to escape. Most agreed that the drivers in the main lanes were making better time.

One driver put it this way: “I feel ripped off.” Liz commutes from Fredericksburg to Reston using the Express Lanes on I-95 and I-495 every day. She was quick to express her frustration as she inched through the recurring Friday afternoon traffic jam several weeks ago.

“I’m paying the highest price right now, probably, because of the amount of volume … and I’m going a fraction of the pace of the mainline. I bowl in a bowling league and I thought I’d be home by seven o’clock, but now I probably won’t be home until eight at the earliest.”

Mike McGurk, with TransUrban, the developer and operator of the 95 Express Lanes, says he is aware of the delay: “It’s the Friday getaway traffic that’s compounding it.”

TranUrban has attempted to moderate the backup in recent weeks.

“We are using dynamic message signs to advise of congestion whenever that does occur. This is atypical of that area, but when it does happen, we are using those signs to advise folks that there’s congestion ahead so they do have that in advance,” McGurk says.

One of these signs has been placed before the last exit point in Dumfries. It offers drivers one last chance to get back into the main lanes before they commit to the final leg in Stafford County. Liz admits she’s missed the exit a few times and has paid for it in money and time.

“The exits from the [Express] Lanes are different from they used to be. Now that flyover for Quantico is in a different spot.”

In addition to guidance from electronic signs, TransUrban will continue to tweak the cost of the lanes during peak times to dissuade drivers from using the lanes when the congestion develops.

“Over the longer term, I think what drivers might expect is to see the toll prices increase to continue in the lanes after that exit point,” McGurk says.

The price for the lanes fluctuates depending on the volume of traffic. TransUrban relies on this form of congestion pricing to keep the traffic in the lanes moving, even during rush hours. This tactic works most of the time.

Still crawling through Quantico, Liz wonders how much money her trip will ultimately cost.

“I think that paying for it is an ultra-bummer … I’m watching my colleague drivers over there in the mainline — who opted not to pay — make better progress than I am.”

McGurk and others at TransUrban have been fielding questions, complaints and compliments since the unveiling of the facility late last year.

“If you have feedback, or you weren’t satisfied with your trip, you can certainly contact our customer service center. We always want that feedback. The 95 Express Lanes are still so brand new that … it’s going to help us provide a better option for people over the years ahead.”

Anyone with questions can call 1-855-495-9777 or visit https://www.expresslanes.com/contact.

Dave Dildine

A native to the Washington area, Dave Dildine is no stranger to the region's complex traffic and weather patterns. Dave joined WTOP in 2010 when the station launched its very own in-house traffic service. You can hear him "on the 8s and when it breaks" from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.

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