ARLINGTON — New tolls coming to Interstate 66 could force a lot of cheaters to pay up. The rush-hour tolls for solo drivers inside the Capital Beltway, which are set to begin next year, will be automated — which means drivers who use the lanes without an E-ZPass Flex switched to HOV mode will automatically get a bill.
“The default will be, you get charged; the default now is, you don’t pay,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said Monday as construction kicked off.
Today, only vehicles with two or more people inside are supposed to use I-66 inside the Beltway in the peak direction during each two and a half hour rush-hour period.
The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that one-third to half of cars in the lanes at those times are solo drivers.
One driver, who was aware of the current rules, was caught last week using a mannequin as the second “passenger.” Fairfax County said “the hair gave it away.”
“Remember, we did try enforcement, and our state police said to really do it … it would have caused significant delays and made the commute almost unbearable,” Layne said.
The variable toll will allow solo drivers a legal option to use the lanes during the restricted hours, although it will also require drivers who currently drive on the fringes of the restricted period to meet the HOV requirements or pay up.
“It’s a choice,” Layne said. “You don’t have to use it, but you can use it legally now.”
There are some exceptions under the current rules for certain hybrid drivers and traffic headed to or from Dulles International Airport. The new rules will eliminate those exemptions and expand the rush-hour period to four hours.
“Hybrid has always been a temporary exemption on I-66,” Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue said. “These lanes are about moving more people through this region, and one person in a car doesn’t do that,” he said.
Under the HOV or toll (HOT) lane system — like the one in place for the I-95 and I-495 Express Lanes — drivers must switch an E-ZPass Flex into HOV mode in order to ride free.
“On the other roads where we have converted HOV to HOT, we have seen violation rates drop from around 25 percent to around 1 percent,” Donohue said.
Drivers who would have been considered violators in the past instead are charged on their E-ZPass or get a bill in the mail.