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Not so fast: Use of 495 Express Lanes in Virginia far behind estimates

- 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.

In Los Angeles, where high-occupancy vehicle lanes were converted to HOT lanes, congestion initially worsened, said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation.

Carpoolers were required to have transponders to ride in the HOT lanes. Many did not purchase the devices initially and were forced back onto the regular highway, increasing traffic.

The successes of other projects have brought their own issues. Miami's HOT lanes on Interstate 95, opened in 2008, have become so popular that lawmakers are debating whether to raise tolls to reduce usage and improve traffic flow.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, touted the public-private partnership as a successful piece of his comprehensive transportation plan. He proposed public-private partnerships and toll roads as part of his solution to the state's traffic problems, but the initiative was in motion when Mr. McDonnell was elected in 2009.

Analysts say Virginia's express lanes are complex, with multiple entry and exit points, and it may take more time for drivers to decide whether they are worth the cost.

"The ones in Miami, you can get on and you can get off and that's it. It's a pipe," Mr. Poole said. "The express lanes on the Beltway are the most complex of anywhere thus far. I'm not surprised that it takes longer to figure it out."

Drivers ed

Transurban has taken steps to educate drivers about the 495 Express Lanes. In April, it offered a toll-free weekend so drivers could try the lanes. In June, the speed limit was raised from 55 mph to 65 mph to create greater appeal.

But changing drivers' commuting habits will take "constant messaging," Mr. Townsend said.

Mr. McGurk said Transurban plans to use feedback from a recent survey to look at ways to improve signage explaining where to enter and exit the express lanes. The company also will launch a marketing campaign to let drivers know they can purchase the E-ZPass, the transponder used to pay the toll fees, online and at grocery stores.

Mr. McGurk said Transurban also is reaching out to large businesses in the Tysons Corner area to provide information to employees about the tolls' dynamic pricing, which charges more when traffic is congested, and access points.

"It takes drivers a long time to really get used to this and make it a piece of their commute," Mr. McGurk said.

Expecting too much

Driving has been on the decline in the U.S. since 2004, prompting concern from opponents that development of the 495 Express Lanes was not the best transit investment.

The lanes cost nearly $2 billion to build, though Virginia contributed only $409 million to the public-private partnership. However an additional 29-mile stretch of HOT lanes is under construction along I-95. If the nearly $1 billion project turns a profit, the state stands to collect a percentage. But given the lackluster performance of the 495 Express Lanes, some think the state should have waited before embarking on another project.

Pointing to the Intercounty Connector in Maryland and the express lanes, Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said planners estimated higher usage and better returns on both projects.

"Both lanes are well below their original forecasts for number of trips and revenue, which indicates these are both still experiments," Mr. Schwartz said. "That's why we urged them to wait on the I-95 HOT lanes. We really need to test this out before we go further."

Transit patterns also are shifting, Mr. Schwartz said, with people moving in droves into the District in the midst of its urban renewal and trading long road commutes for other modes of transportation.

He questions whether investment in express buses on dedicated lanes or better links with transit-oriented development could have been more effective at reducing regional congestion.

Noting that usage estimates of the 495 Express Lanes were made before the recession — during which U.S. car usage declined markedly — Mr. Poole thinks planners may have gotten into trouble in the short term.

"There is a question of how they are going to cover their debt service in the next several years," he said.

But as long as the regional economy remains robust, he said, drivers likely will return to the roads and help make the HOT lanes successful.

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