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December 29, 2014 Published in Traffic & Transportation

“Ladies And Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!” Tolling And New Rules Begin on the 95 Express Lanes

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(Courtesy Photo)

(Courtesy Photo)

The trial run is over, so is the free ride. The timely roll-out and carefully crafted big reveal are ending just in time for the always clogged New Year’s Eve travel weekend, the new Express Lanes on the perpetually busy I-95 Corridor in Northern Virginia will officially open for business. It all starts in earnest during the morning rush hour, today, Dec. 29, 2014. That means tolling will actually begin on the 29-mile Express Lanes corridor and new rules will go into effect.

During the initial two-week toll-free pilot period, traffic volume on the new 95 Express Lanes matched volume on the preexisting I-95 HOV lanes. Beginning on the first day of the first workweek after Christmas, all drivers will need an E-ZPass® to use the 95 Express Lanes 24-hours- a-day, seven-days-a-week. Carpoolers will need an E-ZPass FlexSM transponder. Drivers with three or more people in the car and an E-ZPass FlexSM set to HOV mode can ride toll-free on the northern stretch and the southern stretch of the 95 Express Lanes.

“Winding nearly 30 miles through the most congested terrain in Northern Virginia, the new 95 Express Lanes are game-changers. Its very existence disproves the notion in some circles that more roads won’t solve traffic problems on I-95 in Northern Virginia,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “The spill-over effect will soon become self-evident, as the 95 Express Lanes ease congestion in the regular lanes, which daily carry 200,000 vehicles. Every user must make safety a priority while utilizing the newly dedicated 95 Express Lanes, by heeding the directions on overhead dynamic message signage system in advance of the entryways, by knowing the lay of the new road-scape, by being totally aware of the fact that the I-95 Express Lanes will be reversible, and by avoiding distractions.”

The project converted the venerable HOV facility into Express Lanes, and those lanes will reverse in the a.m. and p.m. rush hours, a fact nearly half of 95 drivers failed to grasp a month ago, a survey by VDOT revealed. By design, the 95 Express Lanes will “keep traffic moving by using dynamic tolling that will adjust tolls based on real-time traffic conditions, video technology capable of identifying accidents, and a series of electronic signs to communicate with drivers and state trooper to ensure enforcement.”

“It is not far-fetched to say the 95-Express Lanes, which stretch  from Garrisonville Road in Stafford County to Edsall Road just north of the Beltway in Fairfax County, will change the way we – motorists, sluggers, car-poolers, and the owners of hybrid vehicles – commute on one of the busiest highways on the Eastern Seaboard,” said Townsend. “Goodbye the traditional HOV lanes. Hello the E-ZPass FlexSM.”

“If you build it, he will come,” so goes the famous line in Field Of Dreams. Will toll-averse motorists come to the 95 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia? Well, nearly “125,000 drivers used the Interstate 95 Express Toll Lanes north of Baltimore in the first week of toll collections,” reports The Baltimore Sun. Volume on a kindred project in Northern Virginia, the 495 Express Lanes, increased to an “average of 43,170 workday trips for the September 2014 quarter.” It comprises a 14.9 % increase from 37,574 daily trips in the September 2013 quarter. In the meantime, the final section of Maryland’s Intercounty Connector opened in November from I-95 to US 1 in Laurel. In its third year of operation, the ICC is Maryland’s first all-electronic, variably priced toll facility, is attracting an average of 50,000 vehicles daily.

It is all about safety at the ingresses and the egresses all along Northern Virginia’s 95 Express Lanes, and drivers are urged to pay careful attention to on-road signage and the gates. That means drivers must give the roadway their undivided attention while entering the Express Lanes and exiting the Express Lanes, advises AAA Mid-Atlantic. For safety’s sake, all 95 Express Lanes users must be fully cognizant of the fact that the lanes will be reversible in the morning and evening rush hours, just like the HOV lanes they replaced.

Gate transition time on the Express Lanes is expected to temporarily increase due to the nine-mile southern extension and new gates, forewarns the Virginia Department of Transportation. Here is the take-away: drivers should expect delays in the afternoon weekday transition to reverse the flow of the traffic southbound. In days to come, the gate transition period will return to standard times, advises VDOT. Of necessity, Express Lane users must give their utmost attention to the signs overhead and to the vehicles around them. When the 495 Express Lanes opened two years ago its debut was marred by a spate of traffic crashes and rear-end collisions.

A 72-year-old woman from South Carolina was killed in May in a deadly crash involving three vehicles at the northbound entrance to the 495 Express Lanes.

Accordingly, AAA Mid-Atlantic and VDOT offer these safety reminders:

  • Follow directions on dynamic message signs at entry points and within the Express Lanes.
  • Learn where your toll entry and exits are on your route to ensure you can move over safely.
  • Stay alert for new traffic patterns along the 95 Express Lanes Corridor.
  • Never stop in a travel lane, especially on a highway.
  • Never back up in a toll lane.
  • Avoid distracted driving.
  • If you must stop, pull over on the shoulder and do not exit your vehicle unless it is an emergency.
  • Do not attempt to drive through the reversible gates if they are down.
  • Make a plan. Explore the 95 Express Lanes website to determine your best route.

Ready, set, toll. Tolls will vary depending upon your exit point and entry point. Northern Virginia HOV lane fines will also apply to violators on the I-95 Express Lanes. Virginia State Troopers will be patrolling the area for cheaters. Troopers could pull you over for incorrect use of the E-ZPass FlexSM in HOV mode – “including switching between travel modes while in the Express Lanes.” If you are caught cheating red-handed, you will be fined $150 for the first violation. However, the second violation is $250, plus 3 points on your driving record. Compounding the penalty, a third offense runs $500, plus 3 points against the driver’s license for infractions. The fourth offense carries a $1,000 penalty, plus three points on your driving record.

Given the huge demand for the E-ZPass FlexSM from car-poolers who ordered online, it can take up to seven days to receive the transponder. They can sign up for a seven-day toll exemption that applies to the 95 Express Lanes only, says VDOT. Car-poolers and sluggers can easily exchange a standard E-ZPass® for an E-ZPass FlexSM. The E-ZPass® is currently available in Virginia and Maryland or at the nearest E-Zpass Service Center.

In fact, you can pick up an E-ZPass® or an E-ZPass FlexSM at AAA Mid-Atlantic locations, at select Wegmans locations, and at select Giant Food Stores. If you live or work in Washington, D.C., don’t fret, you can sign up for a Virginia or Maryland E-ZPass®account. Conveniently, you can also pick up your an E-ZPass® at the AAA Mid-Atlantic retail store in downtown Washington, D.C. at 1405 G Street, Northwest.

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