Beltway Express Lanes speed limit raised to 65 mph

MCLEAN, Va. – The speed limit on the 495 Express Lanes will go up to 65 mph later this month after a study from the Virginia Department of Transportation concluded it would not pose a safety risk to drivers.

“The new speed limit increase will help Northern Virginia Beltway drivers save even more time on their commute. A faster trip on the Express Lanes improves access to key employment centers, sets the region up for growth and makes Northern Virginia an even more attractive place to live and work,” says Gov. Bob McDonnell of the Friday announcement.

Mike McGurk of Transurban, which operates the 495 Express Lanes, says quicker commutes are better for everyone.

“Drivers on the Capital Beltway already know that using the Express Lanes is the way to go when you want a faster, more predictable trip and don’t want to risk getting caught in traffic. When the speed limit goes to 65 miles per hour, it just means an even faster, more predictable trip,” he says.

On Monday, VDOT completed a detailed engineering and crash data study to determine the safety impact of raising the speed limit on drivers.

According to the document obtained by WTOP, the average driver travels 65 mph with the pace of traffic between 59 mph and 68 mph. The study also found the 85th percentile speed is 70 mph.

The 85th percentile speed is a statistic used to describe the speed 85 percent of drivers remain below, and transportation officials commonly use the statistic to determine the speed limit for a roadway.

“Although the results of the speed study indicated that an increase in the posted speed up to 70 MPH could be made … we do not recommend increasing the posted speed limit up to 70 MPH,” the study states. “Posting the HOV/HOT Lanes at 65 MPH provides a speed more commensurate with the speeds along I-495 to permit merging and lane changing in safe conditions.”

VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris tells WTOP that the 495 Express Lanes were always built for a higher speed.

“VDOT intended to open the roadway with a 55 mph limit initially to see how it operated, then assess whether increasing the speed limit would be appropriate,” she says.

McGurk agrees.

“Even during the planning phases, there was always an expectation that eventually the speed limit would be increased to 65 miles per hour. We just had to wait until the road was open and operational to conduct the appropriate studies,” he says.

The process is similar to when the Maryland Transportation Authority raised the speed limit on the Intercounty Connector from 55 to 60 mph in late March. The MdTA also conducted an engineering and crash data study to determine that the higher speed limit would make sense. Like on the 495 Express Lanes, MdTA officials initially set the ICC speed limit lower to see how it operated.

The new Express Lanes speed limit is scheduled to take effect on June 24, weather permitting.

“The 65 mph speed limit signs on the Express Lanes will be on the left side of the roadway, and they will have a top panel that says ‘E-ZPass EXPRESS’ with the E-ZPass logo,” says Morris. “The top panel will look like other Express Lanes signing along the corridor. VDOT will review the corridor and will add more 55 mph signs to the right side of the facility to be sure we provide clear indications to motorists on the main Beltway lanes.”

End to end, the higher speed limit will save drivers about two minutes along the 14-mile stretch.

New ridership numbers for the Express Lanes are scheduled to be released in July. Transurban reported ridership increased in the first quarter of 2013, but remain below expectations.

Users of the Express Lanes pay a variable toll, depending on the length of the trip and the amount of traffic — generally ranging from about 50 cents to $5. Carpools of three or more are exempt from the tolls.

The speed limit on the regular Beltway lanes will remain 55 mph.

See the speed limit study below:

VDOT Speed Limit Study

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow WTOP on Twitter.

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