Tolls to start on I-395 in November

Traffic is bumper to bumper south-bound on I-395 headed out of Washington before the Thanksgiving holiday, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012, in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Major changes to Interstate 395 will begin in November, when the HOV lanes are converted to an extension of the HOV or toll 95 Express Lanes.

Transurban, which will operate the toll lanes, had targeted a late-October launch, but testing, scheduling conflicts and other preparations have led to a to-be-determined November date instead, spokesman Mike McGurk said Tuesday.

Testing is underway now, including messages on the overhead signs and test vehicles riding in traffic, to check automated E-ZPass payment systems on the 8-mile stretch.

Drivers in these lanes don’t have to worry about any charges during this testing period, McGurk said. “We’ll continue those tests until we actually are ready to physically open the road to traffic in November,” McGurk said.

A specific opening date, expected to be on a weekend, will be announced next month.

To avoid extra fees, all drivers using the lanes must have an E-ZPass. To ride free as a carpool with at least two other people in the car, an E-ZPass Flex is required. The flex transponder has a switch for drivers to indicate whether they qualify for a free ride or are paying a toll.

Like the 95 Express Lanes, tolls in the 395 Express Lanes will rise and fall based on the amount of traffic in the toll lanes and HOV or toll rules will apply 24/7. Hybrid drivers will no longer have a waiver from the HOV rules either, a change that also kicks in nationwide for non-plug-in cars
Sept. 30.

Southbound traffic leaving D.C. in the afternoon will see signs with the latest toll price for trips to Springfield and some intermediate exits in places including Arlington and Alexandria, but will not see a total price for a trip down the 95 Express Lanes. Drivers who want to avoid the lanes could
exit to the regular lanes at Boundary Channel Drive or exit onto Eads Street just before the toll system starts.

The eight-mile stretch on I-395 will become another example of what Transurban calls a “pricing zone,” McGurk said.

As drivers near Edsall Road, another sign will show the price for the first part of the 95 Express Lanes near a spot where drivers can return to the regular lanes. A similar option for the second segment on the 95 Express Lanes is located farther south.

The same is true in reverse during the morning commute.

Transurban plans to offer carpoolers or sluggers a free ride for the last part of the trip over the Potomac if they drop off members of the carpool at the Pentagon. Drivers who carpool with an E-ZPass Flex in HOV mode, get off briefly to drop off riders, and immediately get back on
at Eads Street with the E-ZPass Flex in toll-paying mode will have the toll to the Potomac River waived.

Among the construction-related changes from the toll lane conversion: at Eads Street, traffic to the Pentagon will have its own ramp, while Pentagon City will have a separate ramp.

A fraction of the money will support alternatives to paying the toll, such as commuter bus service.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board was briefed on the projects Tuesday, with formal approval expected next month.

Most of the projects funded with the initially recommended $19 million program for the first year and a half of tolling will launch when tolling starts. That includes new commuter bus service, better local bus service, and efforts to convince people to carpool or take transit to help ease traffic and save money.

Northern Virginia and state leaders are considering bonding some or all future payments from the toll lanes to pay for certain larger projects sooner.

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