Virginia’s High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes Changed to ‘Express Lanes’

An in-depth look at the highway project

The High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes on the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia are expected to become a reality later this year according to Transurban (USA) Development Inc., Fluor Enterprises and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

This was a project long in the making. VDOT began looking at solutions to the growing congestion on the Capital Beltway between Springfield and the American Legion Bridge in the 1980s. An early plan for a traditional expansion of the Beltway met significant community opposition to the plan’s costs and that it would have required condemning and taking more than 350 homes and businesses along the Beltway. Further, the project would do nothing to provide new opportunities for bus service or carpooling.

In 2002, Fluor proposed a better idea – build four new High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes in the median of the Beltway. The streamlined HOT lanes would require much less space and reduce the number of homes taken from 350 to just eight. HOT lanes would add much needed new lanes to the Beltway while also creating a network for buses and carpools to travel. A public-private partnership (PPP) with tolls would help fund the improvements. In 2004, Transurban joined the Fluor team to serve as concessionaire and long-term operator of the HOT lanes. After a competitive procurement, the team was selected to deliver and operate the new HOT lanes.

Reason has been following the project from the beginning – since the HOT lane was proposed. This $1.5 billion project consists of 14 miles of new express lanes (two in each direction) on I-495 between the Springfield Interchange and just north of the Dulles Toll Road. These HOT lanes will allow the Beltway to offer HOV-3 connections with I-95/395, I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road for the first time. When completed, buses, carpools, vanpools with three or more people, and motorcycles can ride in the new lanes for free. In addition most interchanges and access points are completely reconstructed.

The HOT lanes will operate alongside the existing free lanes. Drivers traveling alone or with only one other person have a choice: They can stay in the existing free lanes or pay a toll to travel faster in the HOT lanes. Tolls are based on real-time traffic conditions. When traffic is heaviest, tolls are the highest. This variable pricing (also known as congestion pricing) limits the number of vehicles entering the HOT lanes, in order to keep cars from free-flowing at the maximum speed allowed. The EZ Pass toll system allows drivers to pay tolls and to enter the toll lanes without slowing down. There will be no tollbooths.

This project has been under construction since 2008. Alongside of the project is the construction of Washington Metro’s “Silver Line” which aims to provide service between Tysons Corner area and Dulles International Airport. The two projects are about $4.5 billion of construction in a limited area. This has been frustrating to drivers; however the end is in sight.

The updates on just the HOT lanes project with pictures are here. The updates on the Metro Rail project are here. DOT had experience with “mega projects” from two previous projects: Woodrow Wilson Bridge ($2.4 billion) and the Springfield Interchange ($750 million). VDOT did an effective job of signing up folks for updates on the Mega Projects site here and made hard copy updates available – much like a shopper’s weekly newspaper.

Announced at the beginning of the New Year is a new name and new website for the HOT lanes project. It is rebranded as Express Lanes. he Federal Highway Administration decided they liked “Express Lanes” better than HOT lanes. As the Washington Post pointed out “Express Lanes” will be on “the signs along the Beltway to comply with Federal Highway Administration rules. (The feds can’t give us more money, but they still can give us rules.)”

The new Express Lanes website explains various aspects of the project such as how to use, how to pay tolls, how the tolls will be set, transit options, and how to travel safely. It even has a place where people can sign up for frequent updates including lane closures for final construction, etc.

In addition, you can plot your route. And you can see what the signs will look like.

This is probably the best example of public outreach for a new transportation concept. Lessons will abound for both the public and the private sector. Is the opening going to be perfect? Who knows? But I will say the folks travelling in Northern Virginia have been well educated and are looking forward to the new Express Lane option on the Capital Beltway.

The congratulations go to Transurban, Fluor and VDOT for working though the difficult issues and keeping the citizens up to date so that the public welcomes the Express Lane option.

Shirley Ybarra is a senior transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation