Police urge caution ahead of 1st commute with new Express Lanes

WASHINGTON – Virginia State Police are urging commuters to study up on the new 495 Express Lanes before driving into work Monday morning.

The new lanes opened to a rocky start Saturday with multiple accidents and reports of drivers backing up along the entry ramps to avoid the tolls.

Police urged drivers to be alert and to pay close attention to highway signs when they are on the Capital Beltway.

“Your morning drive on I-495 is going to look much different from what you are used to,” says Capt. Mike Spivey, Virginia State Police Fairfax Division Commander, in a prepared released.

The lanes officially opened to the public at 2 a.m. Saturday after several years of construction. The 14-mile express lane section runs from the Springfield Interchange to just north of the Dulles Toll Road. The express lanes – two northbound and two southbound – supplement the existing eight lanes in that area.

Police responded to four accidents since the lanes opened. All four occurred at the northbound entrance of the 495 Express Lanes.

Two women with minor injuries were taken to the hospital after the first accident, about 7 a.m. Saturday morning, according to the Virginia State Police.

Emergency responders had cleared the scene before the second crash happened just before 8 a.m. Both occurred near the Braddock Road exit.

Police say every accident was caused when a driver suddenly swerved or made a sudden lane change to avoid the toll lanes.

The WTOP Traffic center also received reports that some drivers entered the express lanes by mistake and then backed up toward the standard Beltway lanes to avoid paying the toll and a $12.50 penalty levied on drivers that don’t have a toll transponder.

Drivers that don’t have an E-ZPass can avoid paying that extra fee by logging onto 495expresslanes.com and clicking on “missed a toll?” Drivers will be charged a $1.50 administrative fee plus the tolls due.

Transurban spokeswoman Pierce Coffee tells WTOP that as drivers approach the start of the express lanes near Springfield, they should shift to the right lanes if they do not want to use the express lanes.

She says three signs have been posted within 1.5 miles of the new lanes alerting drivers to the lanes. Signs also list tolls prices and that the lanes are open to traffic, she says.

“We’re urging everyone to stay alert, to be careful. If you do get in the 495 Express Lanes and that wasn’t your original intention, don’t try to get out of it by crossing the white barrier. That’s actually illegal and really unsafe for you and everyone around,” Coffee says.

Police also urge drivers to not stop or back up to avoid the lanes.

She called the lanes’ opening the biggest traffic pattern change in the region since Interstate 66 opened several decades ago.

“It’s new to the region. And while its going to be great for travelers, we need people to be alert and safe.”

Police say they are working with the Virginia Department of Transportation and TransUrban to assess and improve signage of the lanes changes. New markings are being planned for the immediate area.

The next test of the lanes comes during the Monday morning rush hour for commuters and again Wednesday when out-of-town travelers will drive through the region on their way to Thanksgiving Day dinners.

WTOP’s Brian Drew and Amanda Iacone and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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