The District is jumping into congestion priced highways with the opening of the 495 Express Lanes on November 17th, 2012. The 495 Express Lanes is a 14-mile HOT lane(s) (high-occupancy toll) designed to provide a consistent minimum 45 MPH commute to anyone to anyone who wants to pay.
The project cost $260 million for additions, upgrades, and replacements to the highway. It was made possible through a public-private partnership between the Virginia Department of Transportation and Fluor Enterprise, an engineering construction company. Public-private partnerships for highway improvements is a relatively new financing mechanism and something we will likely see more of throughout the nation. The express lanes consist of two new center lanes in each direction, increasing the total number of lanes from eight to twelve. The price of tolls will rise in real time as the express lanes become more congested. The variable pricing is managed in part by Transurban, an Australian based toll road owner and operator.
How much commuters will pay depends on how crowded the lanes are. Lane operators expect tolls to range from 20 cents a mile up to $1.25 per mile. A 5-mile commute could then cost between $1 and $6.25 one way. Travelling in the express lane is free for carpools of 3+ people and public transit. Hybrids and electric vehicles are not exempt from paying the toll. This configuration has good implications for encouraging carpooling and transit which will help reduce overall congestion. The choice not to include hybrids and electric vehicles may be contentious by not encouraging the adoption of gasoline alternative vehicles.
So far, there seems to be a learning curve. Washington Post reports that the new toll roads are being avoided because “navigating the express lanes is the most complicated thing many commuters have done since they got their driver’s licenses”. An informational website is available to help commuters plan their trip, but most people tend to overlook it and instead hop in their car and go. Since most commuters aren’t trip planners by nature, Transurban officials allowed people to drive the express lanes for free last weekend (4/6 & 4/7).
It might seem that a free weekend would be too short to give commuters a chance to familiarize themselves, but there seems to be some sense in the limited trial run. This is because interested commuters would only need to make a couple trips to become familiar with their route. It would also limit the possibility of people getting comfortable with an extended trial period and getting a sense of entitlement (remember hybrids in California carpool lanes?).
If you’re interested in historic or current rates, then be sure to visit 495 Express Lanes’ website.