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Big changes are coming to I-95

Courtesy Photo/US - The ubiquitous tollbooths will be notably absent from the Interstate 95 express lanes. Instead, drivers will pass under overhead gantries without slowing down.
If you don't have an E-ZPass yet, you're going to want one soon.

That's the word from transportation officials as they start preparing Northern Virginia drivers for the changes coming to Interstate 95 early next year.

Michael McGurk, a spokesman for Transurban, said in an interview on Thursday that commuters should start planning ahead for what they're going to do when the HOV lanes on I-95 become express lanes instead.

The I-95 project is a public-private partnership between the state, the federal government, and Transurban.

The new lanes were originally called “HOT lanes” or (high occupancy/toll lanes) when they were first proposed but are now referred to as “express lanes.”

When the new lanes open, drivers who currently use the HOV lanes on I-95, and those who look longingly at them during rush hour, are in for big changes.

That's because the HOV lanes will be replaced by express lanes that are open to any driver with an E-ZPass willing to pay the toll.

Distance

The new lanes will run from Garrisonville Road in Stafford about 29 miles to Edsall Road on Interstate 395 in Fairfax.
That includes two new express lanes from Garrisonville Road to the existing HOV lanes in Dumfries.

From there, the existing HOV lanes will be widened from two to three lanes that run to the Springfield Interchange.

E-ZPass
Drivers won't be able to get on without an E-ZPass, McGurk said. And there won't be any toll booths. The overhead gantries -- or electronic toll booths -- will charge drivers a toll as they drive under it at normal speeds.

It's the same system already used on Interstate 495 and like the I-495 express lanes, the I-95 lanes will also be free to carpoolers, buses and motorcycles.
That's where it gets a little more complicated though.

Motorcycles can use the express lanes for free without having an E-ZPass. Motorcycle drivers who already have one can leave it on -- the gantry will not charge tolls on E-ZPasses registered to motorcycles.

Everyone else will need an E-ZPass. Carpoolers and sluggers can drive the lanes for free if they have an E-ZPass Flex, which is an E-ZPass with a switch on it to change from regular mode to HOV-3 mode.

The HOV-3 mode indicates that there are at least three other people in the vehicle. When the E-ZPass is set to that mode, the gantry will not charge a toll.

Hybrid drivers, used to being able to use most Virginia HOV lanes whether they have three people or not, will lose that privilege on the I-95 express lanes. There, they'll be subject to the same rules as any other vehicle.

Enforcement
Enforcement “is certainly one of the challenges that we see every day in the HOV system,” McGurk said.

That same issue will be true on the express lanes as well and cheaters will be caught the same way they are on HOV lanes -- by state troopers stationed on the roads.

The gantries have signal lights that indicate whether a vehicle passing under it is paying the toll or is set to HOV-3. When a vehicle goes through as HOV-3, troopers stationed nearby will look at the vehicle as it goes by to be sure there are three people inside.

In addition, McGurk said, the troopers will have equipment in their cars that allow them to read E-ZPass units as they drive near them at speed. They'll be able to look in cars as they drive the express lanes and make sure that the number of people inside matches what the E-ZPass says.

“The trooper presence is funded entirely by the project,” McGurk said, explaining that the tolls will fund the enforcement so police presence won't cost any additional tax dollars.

Cost
The cost of the tolls will vary depending on traffic but McGurk said he expects they'll run 20-80 cents per mile so a single trip on the express lanes will cost $6-8.

“The toll is based on what's actually going on out there on the road,” McGurk said.

The fees are set up based on demand; when I-95 traffic is the heaviest, drivers will pay extra to use the express lanes. When the interstate is flowing smoothly, the express price will drop.

“The real test will be the first day we open,” he said.

That will give officials a better idea of how many drivers pick the express lanes at any given time, which will help them set toll prices for the future.

Maintenance fees
There's another change coming to the system as well. Currently, drivers who have an E-ZPass are paying a monthly maintenance fee. That fee is 50 cents for the first unit on their account and $1 for every extra one. An E-ZPass Flex costs $1 per month.

The fees are charged whether you use the unit or not, although currently, E-ZPass Flex owners who use them only for carpooling on the 495 express lanes and for nothing else don't have to pay that fee.

That's all going to change in September. Last week, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill ordering VDOT to repeal those maintenance fees.

Well before the I-95 express lanes open in early 2015, the fees will be a thing of the past so commuters who don't already have an E-ZPass or E-ZPass Flex will be able to order one and only pay when they're actually using the toll road.

More information
Officials are urging I-95 drivers to visit www.95expresslanes.com/make-a-plan to figure out if and how they'll use the new lanes, as entrance and exit points will be changing as well.

Drivers who want to order an E-ZPass or E-ZPass Flex can do so at www.ezpassva.com.

Monthly maintenance fees are currently still in effect.
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