I-95 Express Lanes open
© Culpeper Times
“Everything went really well,” Express Lanes spokesman Mike McGurk said of Sunday's opening. “Very smooth, typical HOV volume, actually.”
The 95 Express Lanes will provide free, limited-access carpool lanes for drivers with three or more passengers, just like the current traditional HOV lanes along I-95. However, with the Express Lanes, drivers with fewer than three people in the car may use the lanes by paying a toll.
For the next two weeks, all drivers can use the Express Lanes for free -- with or without an EZ-Pass.
But starting Dec. 29, the tolls will be turned on and overhead cameras will photograph vehicles that don't have the E-ZPass installed.
HOV drivers can avoid the tolls only if they have a different unit -- an E-ZPass Flex.
The Flex transponder allows drivers with two passengers to switch to “HOV” mode and use the lanes for free.
The “toll” mode is for drivers who are alone or who are riding with just one other person.
As of the most recent survey, only one-third of carpoolers had obtained an E-ZPass Flex, McGurk said on Monday.
Over the next two weeks, he said, they'll need to upgrade if they want to ride for free.
Once the tolling starts on Dec. 29, prices will change based on traffic.
When traffic is heavy, the toll goes up.
When traffic is light, the toll goes down.
The theory is that drivers are willing to pay higher prices to skirt around heavy traffic.
The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that tolls will run from 60 to 80 cents per mile during rush hour with a typical trip costing between $6 and $8.
Electronic signs will be posted along the regular travel lanes of I-95 notifying drivers of upcoming Express Lane entrances and the current cost of the toll.
It's the same system already being used on Interstate 495.
Even drivers who don't use the Express Lanes will benefit since the project also took pressure off the regular travel lanes at hangup points.
The HOV lanes that once ended in Dumfries have been turned into Express Lanes and extended to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County.
There is also now a third lane beginning north of the Prince William Parkway and extending to Edsall Road.
“I saw a lot of people getting on at the new entry point in Stafford County so that seemed pretty popular,” McGurk said.
Through Dec. 28, VDOT is encouraging all drivers to try out the lanes for free during non-rush hour times.
During rush hour, the lanes are only for HOV-3 drivers and those with clean fuel plates.
Starting on Dec. 29, McGurk said, the clean fuel vehicles won't be able to use the Express Lanes for free anymore.
Express Lanes FAQ
Q: Will the tolls change while I am in the lanes?
No, but you might need to pay more than one toll during your trip. When you pass under a pricing sign, you lock in your toll rate until the last exit shown on the sign. If you see another pricing sign during your trip on the Express Lanes, you will lock in your rate for the next part of your trip after you pass under the second pricing sign.
Q: What's the difference between an E-ZPass and E-ZPass Flex?
A: All travelers on the Express Lanes will need to have an E-ZPass or a new E-ZPass Flex. The E-ZPass Flex will work like a regular E-ZPass, but will let you switch between HOV and toll-paying modes. If your E-ZPass Flex is switched to HOV mode and you have three or more passengers in the car, you will not be charged a toll. If your E-ZPass Flex is switched to toll mode, it will be used to pay the toll on the Express Lanes. This switchable E-ZPass will pay tolls on any other road that accepts E-ZPass, regardless of the position of the switch.
Q: How will you enforce the HOV requirement?
A: When you pass through a tolling spot, a computer will register your E-ZPass or E-ZPass Flex designation. State troopers will be waiting at the tolling spots and will receive a notice that an HOV vehicle just passed through. They'll then make a visual check to be sure that the vehicle registered as HOV actually has three people in the car.
Q: What if I get on without an E-ZPass?
A: If you don’t have an E-ZPass, roadside equipment will capture an image of your license plate and you'll get an invoice in the mail for the toll and an administrative fee. You can avoid the invoice by going online to pay the toll and administrative fee immediately after your trip. The fee will increase if you don't pay on time.
- Tara Slate Donaldson (Source, VDOT)