Recently, I overheard somebody praising the new Transurban I-495 EZ Pass Express Lanes (also known as HOT Lanes for High Occupancy or Toll) because “they respond to the marketplace in real time” or something along those lines. Overall though, the marketplace response seems to be “not interested.”
Over the first few months of operation, the EZ Pass Express Lanes have confused drivers and underperformed on the ledger.
Tolls are priced according to traffic volume (WTOP) – less cars means a lower toll to incentivize drivers to choose them and vice-versa. So far, I have only seen a few times that the toll between Tysons and Springfield topped $3. It isn’t unusual for the toll to be under $2, even during the evening rush hour.
Overall, I have been a skeptic of the whole operation — if this is such a good idea, why can’t the commonwealth of Virginia do it on its own instead of outsourcing it to foreign interests? Also, these lanes do not address the primary problem — traffic between Fairfax County, Va. and Montgomery County, Md. via the American Legion Bridge. That’s on Maryland and perhaps the state will re-evaluate its position. In that circumstance, I could see the EZ Pass Express Lanes being more successful. Most troubling is Transurban, the operator of the lanes, retains veto power over the expansion of “free” Beltway lanes. I don’t expect that to be an issue any time soon, but it isn’t good. The lack of political will to fund American transportation infrastructure is at the root of these set-ups.
I also have concern about snow removal in the EZ Pass Express Lanes, but we never get snow anymore.
The EZ Pass Express Lanes also resulted in the reconstruction of all lanes between Springfield and Tysons which was needed. New pavement, signs and the removal of a mainline left exit ramp from the Inner Loop (I-495 north) to I-66 west are certainly welcome. That would not have happened for for some time and probably not all at once. Although I stopped driving on the Beltway daily during the construction, it was not nearly as disruptive as I thought it would be. If I were still driving that route to work, I would probably utilize the lanes from time to time, because what’s a $2 toll versus daycare late fees or getting home 15 minutes earlier in free-flowing traffic? That would certainly be a consideration.
More EZ Pass Lanes lanes are under construction on the Shirley Highway corridor (The Post), from Garrisonville Road in Stafford County to just past Edsall Road in Fairfax County, just south of the city of Alexandria. All but the last mile or so is part of I-95, the portion north of the Springfield interchange is I-395. That will tie in well with the Beltway lanes, but probably be disruptive of the successful HOV corridor along Shirley Highway.
Just a few months is a short evaluation time for any transportation project, but I think it is fair to suggest that Transurban and Virginia have not shown that high occupancy toll lanes are silver bullet solution to traffic relief.