A Year Before Opening, Virginia Toll Road Builder Launches E-ZPass Campaign

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If you want to carpool between Fairfax and Stafford County next year, you'll need an E-ZPass.

The firm building the 95 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia wants carpoolers to get their E-ZPass transponder now, even though the new HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes stretching 30 miles between Fairfax and Stafford Counties are not expected to open until early next year.

The construction conglomerate Fluor-Transurban is launching a public outreach campaign — ‘Make a Plan’ — to alert HOV-3 carpoolers of the coming changes to I-95.

“You need to have an E-ZPass to use the lanes,” said Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk.

The electronic toll lanes will be open to northbound commuters during morning rush hour before switching to the southbound direction for the afternoon drive home. An HOV-3 carpool will ride free as long as the vehicle has an E-ZPass ‘Flex’ transponder. Everyone else with E-ZPass can choose to pay a toll for a faster ride, or stay in the old lanes.

Warmer prospects for 95 Express Lanes

The $925 million price tag of the 95 Express Lanes compares favorably to the nearly $2 billion cost of the 495 Express Lanes on the Beltway, even though the latter is only half the new project’s length. The reason for the smaller price is simple: Fluor-Transurban essentially is converting the existing HOV lanes on I-95 so carpoolers can continue to exploit them, while adding new capacity on part of the corridor.

“There will be an additional lane coming from the Prince William Parkway to the project’s northern terminus. It is two lanes today. It will be three lanes when the Express Lanes open,” McGurk said. “But it is mostly conversion. We are changing the rules for people traveling [95] today. It is especially critical to recognize that you are going to have to have an E-ZPass to use this road.”

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Friday that construction is 70 percent complete and the project remains on target to open in 2015.

Fluor-Transurban is building nine miles of new HOV lanes from Dumfries to Garrisonville Rd. in Stafford County, improving the existing two HOV lanes from Rt. 234 to Prince William Parkway, and expanding from two to three the number of HOV lanes between Prince William Parkway and Edsall Rd. on I-395, a 14-mile stretch.

Transurban is getting the word out early partly because the company has struggled to convince motorists to obtain E-ZPass to use the first toll road it built in Northern Virginia, the 495 Express Lanes. Those lanes opened in November 2012 and have yet to turn a profit. Usage is below company projections. A Transurban survey late last year found that only 60 percent of Beltway travelers have E-ZPass.

McGurk said the 95 Express Lanes may be more conducive to daily use.

“Some folks are out there on 495 as little as once every two weeks, once a month or so, so it is more difficult for them to want to get that transponder. But our message is if you ever want the option to take the Express Lanes, even if you are out there on 495 infrequently, you want to have E-ZPass in your car so that option is available to you,” he said.

495 Express Lanes haven't taken off

Even though the Express Lanes are offering drivers the opportunity of a congestion-free ride (for a toll) in one of the most congested regions in the country, many have not leapt at the chance. Changing drivers’ habits in a region where tolls are relatively new is taking time.

“Once people get used to it and realize there are no barricades, no long lines getting through a toll, they will be more comfortable with it,” said Emil Frankel, a transportation policy expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center in downtown Washington. “The slowness of getting used to having a transponder in their car is probably more of an obstacle even then the level of the tolls.”

Tolls on Transurban’s highways are dynamically priced, meaning they change throughout the day depending on how many drivers are using them. The more commuters entering the E-ZPass-only lanes, the higher the toll charged. There is no ceiling.

“People just aren't accustomed to doing it,” said Frankel of the reluctance of at least some drivers to obtain E-ZPass. “You can go back to the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, or the tunnel under the English Channel. It takes a long time for these to be financially successful.”

Virginia contributed $71 million in taxpayer dollars to the 95 Express Lanes and $400 million to the 495 project. The private sector — Transurban and its investors — paid for most of the rest. As part of this public-private partnership, Transurban collects most of the toll revenues for the next 75 years.