On Virginia's 495 Express Lanes, if you want to avoid the traffic, you have to pay - or carpool.
The goal is to have traffic on the road travel close to 55 miles per hour, even in rush hour. To do that, the Express Lanes use sophisticated technology and the law of supply and demand. When demand for the road is high, tolls will go up.
However, the rules of this road may seem complicated to people used to just driving the Beltway. So, with the help of News4 transportation reporter Adam Tuss, we've assembled this list of the answers to the most common questions we've received about the Lanes.
In addition, the Express Lanes website has a detailed FAQ section. If you are going to use the road, you should check it out.
Q: Where do the Express Lanes begin and end?
A: The 495 Express Lanes run in the middle of the Capital Beltway on the Virginia side. Driving southbound, the Express Lanes begin about one mile after the George Washington Parkway/Georgetown Pike exit. They end at the I-95/I-495 merge, near Springfield.
Q: What exits are there on the Express Lanes?
A: There are nine exits on the Express Lanes: The Dulles Toll Road, Jones Branch Drive, Westpark Drive, Leesburg Pike, I-66, Lee Highway, Gallows Road, Braddock Road, the Springfield interchange to I-95, I-395 and I-495 and the I-95/I-395 HOV ramps.
All exits off the Express Lanes are to the left.
Q: Who has to pay to ride on the Express Lanes?
A: Anyone who does not have three or more people in their car.
Note that drivers with a hybrid car or clean fuel license plates will be subject to tolls (unless they are also carpooling) - even though that's not the case on other HOV lanes in Virginia.
Buses, motorcycles and emergency vehicles also do not have to pay.
Q: How much are the tolls for the Express Lanes?
A: The tolls to use the lanes - if you don't have three people in your car - will vary depending on traffic conditions and how far you travel on the Express Lanes. Virginia transportation officials said they expect tolls will range from 20 cents per mile during less busy times to $1.25 per mile in some sections during rush hour (though there is no offical cap on the tolls). An average trip cost is estimated to be between $5 and $6.
The road is fully monitored by cameras and by sensors on the side of the road. The sensors will detect the levels of traffic and adjust the tolls to keep traffic moving.
The current tolls will be posted on two sets of signs before the lanes begin and at the dedicated entrance ramps to the Express Lanes. Once a driver enters the lane, their toll rate is locked in.
Q: How do I pay the tolls?
A: The Express Lanes will not have toll booths. Any driver who wants to use the Express Lanes must have an E-ZPass. If you plan to take advantage of the free trips for carpoolers, you must have an E-ZPass Flex, which allows a driver to switch to a special HOV mode.
Q: Where do I get the E-ZPass Flex?
A: Visit the Virginia E-ZPass site, or the Maryland E-ZPass site. Or visit the E-ZPass section of the 495 Express Lanes web site and read the section about swapping your existing E-ZPass for an E-ZPass Flex.
Q: I live in D.C. Can I get an E-ZPass Flex?
A: D.C. residents can apply for a Virginia or Maryland E-ZPass Flex.
Q: Can I use my current E-ZPass?
A: Yes, but if you are a carpooler you will not be able to travel for free. Carpoolers must have the E-ZPass Flex or they will be charged the current toll.
Q: Couldn't drivers just buy an E-ZPass Flex and ride with fewer than three passengers for free?
A: Carpoolers must turn on the HOV mode on their E-ZPass transponders. Once they do that, they'll get special scrutiny both by police patrols in cars and by the multitude of cameras that are watching the road. Those authorities will be checking that you have the required three people in your car.
Q: Can I use E-ZPass Flex in other E-ZPass facilities?
Q: What happens if I accidentally get on the Express Lanes without an E-ZPass?
A: Visit 495ExpressLanes.com and click on the "Missed Toll" link.
Don't try to duck out of the toll. If a driver travels on the Express Lanes without an E-ZPass, sensors will capture an image of their license plate, and they'll be sent a an invoice in the mail requesting payment of your toll and a $12.50 administrative fee. If they don't pay that, fines will rise - and a judge could even impose civil penalties.
Q: Can trucks use the Express Lanes?
A: Mid-sized or delivery trucks can, but 18-wheelers or trucks with more than two axles cannot. Towing boats or trailers is not allowed on the Express Lanes.