- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2013

High-occupancy toll lanes on the Beltway in Northern Virginia are underperforming a year after opening, a hurdle similar to others across the country during the infancy of road projects.

Analysts say the lower-than-expected traffic on the 14-mile-long corridor could be a result of changing transit patterns, an indication that drivers lack familiarity with the lanes or that predictions in early planning stages were overly optimistic.

The 495 Express Lanes were built through a private-public partnership and are operated by Australian company Transurban, where officials say they plan to create better signage and expand outreach in efforts to increase usage.

“There’s certainly a ramp-up period and there’s education to be done, and that’s what we’re focusing on in the next year,” Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk said.

In an October financial report, Transurban disclosed that “traffic on the 495 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia remains below the project case expectations” with the number of trips averaging 37,574 per weekday. Planners initially estimated that weekday usage would average 66,000 trips within the first year.

“We saw the same thing with the [Intercounty Connector in Maryland] and other express lanes across the country,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II. “There is going to be longer ramp-up period when you almost have to dare people to use such a facility.”

Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation, said it typically takes a year to 18 months for high-occupancy toll lanes to reach their stride.

“I’m fairly confident that we will be where we need to be in six months,” Mr. Feigenbaum said.

The average number of daily trips has increased steadily since the 495 Express Lanes lanes opened in November 2012, with record daily toll revenue of $108,493 and 47,303 trips recorded on Sept. 12.

“We’re continuing to review the revenue profile against our expectations,” Mr. McGurk said.

Across the country

HOT lanes across the country have experienced rollout problems, but transportation scholars say usage has increased as drivers become accustomed to them.

The projects provide dedicated lanes restricted to vehicles with a certain number of passengers — three in Virginia’s case — or vehicles that pay a toll. Their purpose is to encourage carpooling or offer an alternative to people who are willing to pay to travel in lanes with less traffic.

In Atlanta, where there was initially fierce opposition to HOT lanes on Interstate 85, tolls had to be adjusted soon after their 2011 opening because so few drivers were using the lanes.

“They got the pricing wrong, there was almost nobody in the lanes and it was a big political mess,” said Mr. Feigenbaum, adding that the toll lanes hit their usage target about a year later.

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