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495 Express Lanes

Transportation Nation

Beltway Express Lanes Aren't Attracting Drivers Or Money

Friday, February 28, 2014

The 495 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia are bleeding money.

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Transportation Nation

New Highway Along Beltway is Road Less Traveled

Thursday, October 24, 2013

WAMU

The 495 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia—14 miles of EZ Pass-only toll lanes where HOV-3 vehicles ride free—are still struggling to attract drivers nearly one year after opening. Traffic volume on the new highway is below expectations, according to information reported to the Australian Securities Exchange.

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Transportation Nation

Why Tolls Will Be Waived On One Virginia Highway This Weekend

Friday, April 05, 2013

A dynamic tolling system is set to open on a new section of the Beltway later this year.

495, shown last year while under construction

Nearly five months after opening, the operators of the 495 Express Lanes are struggling to attract motorists to their congestion-free toll road in a region mired in some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.

Transurban, the construction conglomerate that put up $1.5 billion to build the 14-mile, EZ Pass-only corridor on the Beltway between the I-95 interchange and Dulles Toll Road, will let motorists use the highway free this weekend in a bid to win more converts.

“It takes a lot of time for drivers in the area to adapt to new driving behaviors. A lot of us are kind of stuck on autopilot on our commutes. That trend might continue for a while, too,” said Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk.

Light use of HOT lanes raises questions

McGurk says some drivers are confused about the new highway’s many entry and exit points. Opening the Express Lanes for free rides this weekend will let motorists familiarize themselves with the road, he said.

After opening in mid-November, the 495 Express Lanes lost money during its first six weeks in business. Operating costs exceeded toll revenues, but Transurban was not expecting to turn an immediate profit. In the long term, however, company officials have conceded they are not guaranteed to make money on their investment. Transurban’s next quarterly report is due at the end of April.

To opponents of the project, five months of relatively light traffic on Virginia’s new $2 billion road is enough to draw judgments. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has not recovered since the recession knocked millions out of work and more commuters are seeking alternatives to the automobile, according to Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“They miscalculated peoples' time value of money. They overestimated the potential demand for this road,” said Schwartz, who said the light use of the 495 Express Lanes should serve as a warning.

“We should not have rushed into signing a deal for hot lanes for the 95 corridor, and we certainly shouldn’t rush into any deal on I-66,” he said.

Transurban is counseling patience.

“We’re still in a ramp-up period. You’ve probably heard us say that since the beginning, too, but with a facility like this it’s a minimum six months to two years until the region falls into a regular pattern on how they’re going to use this facility,” McGurk said.

In its first six weeks of operations toll revenues climbed on the 495 Express Lanes from daily averages of $12,000 in the first week to $24,000 in the week prior to Christmas. Traffic in the same period increased from an average of 15,000 daily trips to 24,000, according to company records. Despite the increases, operating expenses still outstripped revenues.

It is possible that traffic is not bad enough outside of the morning and afternoon rush hours to push motorists over to the EZ Pass lanes on 495.

“It may also show that it takes only a minor intervention to remove enough cars from the main lanes to let them flow better,” said Schwartz, who said the 14-mile corridor is simply pushing the bottleneck further up the road.

Even Transurban’s McGurk says many customers who have been surveyed complain that once they reach the Express Lanes’ northern terminus at Rt. 267 (Dulles Toll Road), the same terrible traffic awaits them approaching the American Legion Bridge.

Express Lanes a litmus test for larger issues

The success or failure of the 495 Express Lanes will raise one of the region’s most pressing questions as it looks to a future of job and population growth: how best to move people and goods efficiently. Skeptics of highway expansions, even new facilities that charge tolls as a form of congestion pricing, say expanding transit is cheaper and more effective.

“An approach that gives people more options and reduces driving demand through transit and transit-oriented development may be the better long-term solution. But we’ve never had these DOTs give us a fair comparison between a transit-oriented investment future for our region and one where they create this massive network of HOT lanes,” said Schartz, who said a 2010 study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments pegged the cost of a tolled network of 1,650-lane miles of regional highways at $50 billion.

Transportation experts say a form of congestion pricing, either tolled lanes or a vehicle miles traveled tax, may be part of a regional solution to congestion. The public, however, needs to be explained why.

“As long as the majority of system remains non-tolled and congested then you are not going to solve the problem,” said Joshua Schank, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank.

“Highways in this region are drastically underpriced. People are not paying enough to maintain them and they certainly are not paying enough to pay for the cost of congestion. The American people have been sold a bill of goods because they have been told that roads are free. Roads cost money,” he added.

The 495 Express Lanes are dynamically-priced, meaning the tolls increase with demand for the lanes. The average toll per trip in the highway’s first six weeks of operations was $1.07, according to Transurban records. As motorists enter the lanes they see signs displaying how much it will cost to travel to certain exits, but no travel time estimates are displayed. “It is important to be very clear to drivers about the benefit of taking those new lanes, and I am not sure that has happened so far,” said Schank, who said it is too early to conclude if the Express Lanes are working as designed.

“It’s hard to know if it works by looking whether the lanes are making money. I don’t know if that is the right metric. It’s the right metric for Transurban, but it’s not necessarily the right metric from a public sector perspective,” he said. “The real metric is to what extent does it improve economic development and regional accessibility, and that’s a much harder analysis that takes some real research and time.”

Follow @MartinDiCaro on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

Virginia's 495 Express Lanes Unveil News Ops Center

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The operators of Virginia’s I-495 Express Lanes unveiled the highway’s incident command center on Wednesday where traffic monitors will watch the flow of vehicles on a widescreen monitor displaying a dozen camera angles. The new lanes are expected to open by the end of fall.

The center will operate 24/7 with staffers monitoring traffic volume in order to compute toll rates. The new roadway – connecting the Dulles Toll Road to the I-395/I-95/Springfield interchange 14 miles to the south – will charge drivers dynamic tolls, meaning the price will change depending on traffic volume. The more traffic, the higher the toll.

The express lanes’ private sector operator, Transurban, is required to keep traffic moving at least 45 m.p.h., so if traffic slows due to heavy volume tolls, will be significantly increased to deter further drivers. Transurban invested $1.5 billion into the lanes as part of a public-private partnership with Virginia, and will receive toll revenues for the next 75 years.

“Three times per mile we will have detector stations that will give our control center here information regarding what is the volume of traffic and what is the speed of traffic,” said Transurban operations manager Rob Kerns. “Our dynamic pricing is scheduled to update every fifteen minutes.”

Transurban has not released precise toll rates because of the dynamic nature of the pricing system. Moreover, once the highway opens, staffers will need some time to determine what rates work best.

Simulation of Express Lanes signage (image courtesy of Transurban)

“The tolls are set minute to minute based on what's actually happening out there. We won't know until the road opens how drivers are reacting to different toll prices,” said Jennifer Aument, a project spokeswoman.

The average toll will be between $3 and $6 during busy periods, said Aument, who said the Express Lanes are designed for use a couple times a week when drivers need a dependable ride. The new lanes will run parallel to 495’s regular travel lanes that are often clogged bumper-to-bumper.

Aument is encouraging drivers to familiarize themselves with the coming changes to the Beltway at 495ExpressLanes.com and to sign up for an E-ZPass as soon as possible.  Only E-ZPass will be accepted in the new lanes, with HOV-3, buses, and motorcycles riding free. However, carpoolers will still need to obtain an E-ZPass Flex transponder.

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Transportation Nation

Highway Expansions Are Only A Short-Term Solution: Expert

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Highway construction in Virginia (photo by bankbryan via flickr)

When the express lanes projects on the I-495 Beltway and I-95 in northern Virginia are ready for commuters, they will be designed to serve a dual purpose: encouraging carpooling by giving HOV-3 vehicles a free ride, and reducing congestion by also giving motorists the option of paying a premium toll to escape the usually jammed non-toll lanes.

The first of those goals is attainable. But the second is not, according to an expert on drivers’ behavior, who says expanding two of the busiest highways in the Washington metropolitan region will produce the unintended consequence of more congestion in the long term.

“The biggest potential problem is that we’re building more roads that will provide very short-term congestion relief and will cause other kinds of traffic and travel problems,” says transportation consultant Rachel Weinberger, the co-author of Auto Motives: Understanding Car Use Behavior.

Weinberger believes enough drivers will be willing to pay the tolls so Transburban, the private entity building the 495 and 95 Express Lanes, will make a profit.  However, she says, there's little evidence to suggest expanding highways will solve a region’s congestion woes.

“First we have to ask, do we really need this road? All of the research shows that when you add capacity to highways, rather than relieving congestion in the long run, you actually create more congestion in other parts of the system,” she says.

In short, wider highways induce more traffic. Those new users ultimately have to exit the highway somewhere, producing more traffic on secondary roads where expansion is not possible. “Now you have dumped more cars onto the streets on Washington D.C. because you’ve added this capacity on I-495,” Weinberger says.

Earlier this week, TN asked Virginia governor Bob McDonnell if northern Virginia is becoming overly reliant on highway expansion projects to solve congestion problems. McDonnell responded that the state is trying different solutions. “We are trying to do everything,” he said, adding that Virginia is investing in transit projects like the Silver Line.

Backers of the Express Lanes projects are relying on drivers’ willingness to pay pricey tolls for a faster, more predictable ride.  They are also calling the possible increase in carpooling a win-win, even though more free rides on the new lanes mean less toll revenue for Transurban.  However, in the contract with the state of Virginia, Transurban is protected in the event the number of free rides rises dramatically.

The state is required to subsidize ride sharing if the number of carpoolers on I-495 reaches at least 24 percent “of the total flow of all [vehicles] that are… going in the same direction for the first 30 consecutive minutes during any day… during which average traffic for [the toll lanes] going in the same direction exceeds a rate of 3,200 vehicles per hour…”  The threshold on I-95 will be 35 percent under similar conditions.

In Weinberger’s view, there will enough new carpoolers and toll payers to provide the appearance of relief -- but it won’t last.

“We sit in traffic and we fume about it and we think that the easy solution is to build more lanes and then we won’t have so much traffic, but I am sure the Beltway has been expanded several times and there continues to be traffic,” she says.  "Typically when we build more capacity we make somebody’s trip a little bit faster, but it’s very rare that people actually conserve their travel-time savings. Instead they’ll make some other adjustment like they may move further out, creating more sprawl."

 

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