The Beltway’s Brain

To get a taste of Virginia’s transportation future, take a spin on the 495 Express Lanes project where sensors, artificial intelligence and dynamic pricing combine to optimize scarce capacity on the Capital Beltway.

by James A. Bacon

If highways had IQs, the newly reconstructed Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia would be the Einstein of asphalt. The 495 Express Lanes have 75 electronic signs and message boards, 36 gantries and tolling points, 80 microwave-radar sensors to measure traffic speeds and innumerable video cameras to monitor road conditions, all tied together by 45 miles of high-bandwidth cable.

The beltway’s brain, where data compiled by the sensors is assimilated and acted upon, is located in a non-descript building in an industrial park just off I-95 in Alexandria. There, employees of Capital Beltway Express (CBE) keep a close eye on traffic, dispatching incident-management crews in the event of accidents or flat tires, providing customer service and otherwise ensuring that the $2 billion toll road runs smoothly. But the most important decisions — the price of tolls — are not made by humans.

Every 15 minutes a computer algorithm adjusts the rates for nine highway segments, depending upon the level of demand for each. An employee watches the algorithm, but from what I could observe when visiting the control center for more than an hour last month, the task of watching sine waves undulating across a computer monitor did not appear to be a terribly exciting one.

Humans will re-enter the pricing picture, but only briefly, when programmers periodically incorporate traffic data based upon the expressway’s real-world experience to update the algorithm. Says Jennifer Aument, vice president of corporate relations for Transurban, which owns 90% of CBE: “The system will get smarter and smarter.”

I had come to visit the 495 Express Lanes control center to get a peek at the future of transportation in Virginia, particularly in Northern Virginia which by some measures has the worst traffic congestion anywhere in the country. New highway capacity is hideously expensive to build in the Old Dominion, and even more so in the Washington suburbs where the high cost of real estate makes the acquisition of right of way prohibitive. Given intense opposition to tax increases, Northern Virginia cannot build its way out of traffic congestion. That leaves only one alternative. As Aument says, “We have to get smarter managing what we already have.”

The 495 Express Lane project, which runs 14 miles between Interstate 95 and the George Washington Parkway, uses technology and tolls to guarantee access to free-flowing express lanes for those who, at any given moment, place the greatest value on their time. The technology makes it possible to vary the price directly in response to changes in traffic volume. When volume increases, so does the price; when traffic decreases, the price goes down.

The $2 billion express lanes project creates economic value in four ways. First, it adds four new lanes to the Beltway, expanding capacity. Second, it provides three new Beltway access points in and around the Tysons business district. By allowing some toll users to exit closer to their destinations, it takes cars off congested local roads. Third, the express lanes provide time savings for people who wish to bypass congestion. Fourth, it provides predictability for everyone, whether they use an express lane or not. Northern Virginia drivers typically tack on 15- to 20-minute buffer times around meetings to give themselves leeway in the event of gridlock. Just knowing they have the congestion-free option, should traffic slow, allows people to reduce the dead time, even if they don’t actually end up using the lanes.

Capital Beltway Express is a collaboration between Transurban, an Australian toll-road company, and Fluor, a global construction company, in a public-private partnership with Virginia. The same partners are constructing the Interstate 95 express lanes, which, when complete in 2014, will merge seamlessly with the 495 lanes and will be run out of the same operations center. The state contributed $409 million to the Beltway project, mainly to offset the cost of rebuilding some 58 bridges and overpasses to accommodate the four extra lanes. Dating back to the 1960s and earlier, those facilities had accumulated a significant maintenance backlog. Transurban and Fluor invested $350 million in equity, and the rest came from bonds to be repaid with toll revenues.

As part of the deal, buses, motorcycles and vehicles with three or more drivers use the express lanes for free, treating them, in effect, like High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. Thus, the bonds are being repaid by drivers who use the lanes to avoid congestion, not ride sharers or the general public.

Most toll facilities, like the Dulles Toll Road, publish their rates in advance and stick with them for months or years at a time. Some, like the Midtown Tunnel-Downtown Tunnel project in Norfolk, varies pricing by time of day but does so in accordance with a posted schedule. The 495 Express Lanes project is one of only five in the country that uses dynamic pricing, in which the price varies depending upon traffic conditions throughout the day.Integrating dynamic pricing for single-occupancy vehicles with HOV lanes was major challenge. The first trick was figuring out how to allow buses and carpools onto the expressways while weeding out cheaters, who comprise roughly one quarter of HOV traffic on nearby I-95. The solution: Sell flex transponders that allow drivers to switch back and forth between single-driver and shared-driver mode. To make sure drivers don’t abuse their flex transponders, gantries take front and back photographs of vehicle licenses. The system then alerts state troopers, whose time is paid for by the tolls, to visually confirm that there are at least three riders in vehicles claiming HOV status.

The next trick was conveying the pricing information. With nine segments varying independently and 11 exits and entrances, the rates are complex. It isn’t easy to put pricing information on a sign that drivers can read without getting distracted while driving at 55 miles per hour. CBE settled upon a sign that contained three pricing slots detailing maximum prices for the most common exit points.

Sensors capture data on the volume and speed of car and the algorithm sets toll rates that guarantee speeds of at least 45 miles per hour. Traffic follows patterns that make volumes predictable to some degree: Each day of the week experiences surges during morning rush hour and evening rush hour. But outside factors often intrude. There can be spillover effects from Interstate 66 or I-95. Traffic accidents and even flat tires on the Beltway or connecting roads can cause bottlenecks and divert traffic to alternative routes. Holidays, summer vacation and even special events can make a difference. The algorithm updates the tolls every 15 minutes, adjusting rates in increments to avoid sharp increases.

A month after the express lanes opened, traffic volumes still were relatively light. Drivers were still adjusting to the new traffic patterns and getting accustomed to the idea of paying tolls to skirt past congestion. Charges varied between the minimum of $0.25 per trip to a peak of $4.00, but Aument says that peak rates most likely will increase as more drivers avail themselves of the express-lane option. Higher volumes, she adds, will mean greater fluctuations in the number of users and wider swings in prices.

While it is still too early for an authoritative analysis of who is using the express lanes, there is enough anecdotal information to dispel the characterization of them as luxury “Lexus lanes” reserved for the automotive 1%. For starters, motorcycles, buses and cars with three or more riders are using the lanes for free, says Aument. Indeed, Fairfax County will be expanding its municipal bus service this month.

The experience from other express lanes suggests that most toll payers use the lanes only a couple of times a week, typically when they are in a time pinch. Child care is a big factor. Parents use the express lanes to pick up their children from day care on time, sometimes avoiding late fees that run as high as $1 per minute. Businesses also use the lanes to boost productivity. Truck drivers can squeeze in more stops and make extra deliveries. Business people can schedule more sales calls. “It’s not just the time savings,” says Aument, “it’s the predictability.”

CBE has released no official traffic counts yet but Aument says volumes appear to be in line with expectations. “We know it will take some time before we’re running at full speed” — the marketing/communications plan is scheduled to run through the duration of 2013. All things considered, she says, “We’re very pleased. We’re seeing traffic grow almost every day.”

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This article was made possible by a sponsorship of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

39 Responses to The Beltway’s Brain

  1. Not sure if the 4 ways that value are added are VDOT-supplied talking points or your own but they are dead on true and your article explains succinctly why with modern technology – road capacity and throughput can actually be “managed” and it results in a win-win for all drivers.

    We’re wringing more efficiency out of, as you pointed out, hideously expensive infrastructure that we really have little realistic hope of adding to in the future – any other way that this way we did this one.

    and two more benefits:

    1. – the nexus between the road user and it’s cost is much, much closer this way than with the gas tax.

    2. – future roads are going to be looked at in terms of “need” in a different way – where “need” becomes how much enough people are willing to pay instead of some meaningless and disconnected metric.

    And Jim touched on this. Compare how the DTR is “managed” vs the express lanes – and one realizes even more just how ham-fisted the DTR approach is and how much more it is vulnerable to unsavory practices such as MWAA using it as a cash cow caring only about how much they can charge and get away with it.

    I’m a critic of VDOT (mainly because of their new location/NEPA approach) but I also acknowledge that they are a leader in much of the technology and operation of roads – in the country.

  2. “The System wil get smarter and smarter…”

    Read ” The system will figure out how to extract more and more money from users—– and all WITHOUT RAISING TAXES! ”
    Yay!

    Meanwhile, it is eat my words time: I inititally did not think much of Zipcar, but it has been sold to Avis for $500 million. I imagine the assets of Zipcar are pretty small, the vehicles being mostly financed, but the fact that Avis bought it suggests my initial assessment was wrong. I thought the appeal of a part time car would be limited, and to be sure, I see them on the road rarely. However the company has been successful at getting subsidies in the form of free parking spaces from various cities. In effect, they use city facilities as their rental lots, just as the MEGA buses operate without a bus terminal. This has kept their coasts low and their convenience factor high.

    As for the toll lanes, I have only observed them on weekends and I saw a total of four vehicles using them. This suggests that there will be a lot of time when the usage of the beltway plus toll lanes will be non-optimal: even if the beltway is free flowing, it would be better to have the additional lanes in sevice and have more distance between cars moving at high speed.

    Accordingly, part of their algorithm ought to be reverse metering: when they cannot get the price low enough to induce people to use the lanes, they should reward people with transponders by issuing credits for usage at extremely low use periods. There is nothing optimal about having $2 billion dollars sitting around doing nothing.

  3. “1. – the nexus between the road user and it’s cost is much, much closer this way than with the gas tax.”

    Only because the gas tax has not been dynamically priced (for a few decades), as the road is and will be (hourly and yearly). If the gas tax were set at the APPROPRIATE level, then the Nexus would favor the gas tax because it would not have to support the massive technology infrastructure or pay the profit.

  4. 2. – future roads are going to be looked at in terms of “need” in a different way – where “need” becomes how much enough people are willing to pay instead of some meaningless and disconnected metric.

    Well that is right. And if we are going to look at land use in connection with road construction or existing availability, then we should expect to have land owners that benefit pay a portion of the cost, in addition to their gas tax payments. Taking part of the sales tax to pay for highways (and other transportation) is a roundabout (pun intended) way of looking at this. In a sense it lets residential road users off the hook, on the other hand, if they go someplace to buy something, they will pay the sales tax, not the businesses.

    This is a major failing the the toll model used on the beltway project, and in the thinking of most planners, as well as the public. The costs of roads cannot be fairly distributed based on miles driven alone. The costs need to be allocated according to the benefits received. If you freel you need the benefit of driving a 500 HP passenger car, you should pay for that benefit. If you benefit from driving a heavy truck, you should pay for that benefit. (What does the beltway toll road charge for heavy trucks? Do they have weight sensors, too?).

    And, If your property benefits from being allowed access and development to a road in a regime where access and development is limited in order to manage congestion, then you should pay for that, too, and seperate from whatever you pay for construction, use, and maintenance of the road.

    I am gratified to see that Larry has finally caught on tho this idea. And here is another feature of this idea. In the toll model one pays more, the more congested the road is. This is backwards from the users perspective: one ought to be willing to pay more the LESS congested the road is. But a land owner, at least a business land owner is often willing to pay MORE, for a space on a congested road.

    In short, the algorithm used by Transurban for road pricing may be sophistecated for THEIR uses (extracting the maximum bucks), but from a total system perspective (getting the maximum benefit for everyone involved) it is entirely inadequate. When that little fact becomes generally known will be the day we rue the idea of private toll roads.

  5. I visited my brother over the weekend and he lives in Vienna near Tyson’s Corner. So we took a road trip to see both the new beltway HOT lanes and the Dulles Metrorail extension. His commute is out 66 so he has no experience with the new HOT lanes, but the family had heard mucho complaints about the signage and new traffic patterns. This may fade with time.

    My wife’s brother-in-law does use a short stretch of the beltway for his commute, and he reported that he has seen an improvement in congestion (he drives at an ugodly early hour) due to traffic moving over onto the HOT lanes. But I suspect the real test is this week, with schools open and everybody back from the holidays. I look forward to updates.

    Is this the coming thing? Will the technology relieve congestion and reduce the pressure for more and more lanes? Probably. But the other issue is the use of private capital, and the need then to generate private profits over a 30, 40 even 70 year time period. In the long run I suspect our children and grandchildren will not be praising our memories for these decisions. But then they will just have to add this to a long list, eh?

  6. The agreement between VDOT and Transurban includes a profit-sharing components, such that very high earnings, if any, will be shared with VDOT. And VDOT is required to use them in Fairfax County.

  7. re: ” I am gratified to see that Larry has finally caught on tho this idea. And here is another feature of this idea. In the toll model one pays more, the more congested the road is. ”

    geeze Hydra – one pays MORE to get in return a LESS-CONGESTED lane.

    re: children and toll lanes – or is it children and dynamic toll lanes?

    children in the Northeast already grow up with toll roads and there does not seem to be a great sadness of long gone days of “free roads”.

    children do grow up to understand that prices fluctuate according to demand. They know that Redskin playoff games are going to be more expensive than last-place Redskin football games.

    they know that the “hot” movies, and video games and IPODs will cost more than other less “hot” or less in demand.

    Kids grow up knowing that vacations in tourist locales do vary by season and demand.

    they know that Christmas decorations are dirt cheap AFTER Christmas.

    I would posit that kids are not going to have a problem with this concept.

    many Kids now days are driving less.. taking public transit more and living closer to where they work and play rather than a 50-mile commute.

    I predict that the phrase “drive til you qualify” is going to be amended to say “drive until the commute cost does not exceed the benefit of the lower housing costs”.

    People need to “own” the cost consequences of their decisions – in all manner of things.

    dynamic road pricing is a fair way to allocate costs and I predict after the initial break-in period, they’ll be no more an issue than the price of an airline ticket during the most congested flying periods.

    • geeze Hydra – one pays MORE to get in return a LESS-CONGESTED lane.

      Well, yes, but once in that lane, one pays more, the more congested it becomes.

      “…dynamic road pricing is a fair way to allocate costs …”

      Not really, the essence of trade is full and fair knowldge of the trade. You will not know the price to be paid until jst before you have to enter the express lanes: not much time for you to evaluate you “choice”.

      Transurban meanwhile has computers and algorithms calculating their side of the deal.

    • I predict that the phrase “drive til you qualify” is going to be amended to say “drive until the commute cost does not exceed the benefit of the lower housing costs”.

      But that is altready the case and always has been. People understand this and people do make rational decisision aout where to live. They may not be the same decisions tht others puld prefer them to make, but that does not make the decisions irrational or unthought of.

      What is true is that changing the transportation rules by fiat after thousands of people have made a 30 year commitment, is going to make them very angry.

  8. Here are the problems that have been identified by this project:

    1. There is no transparency regarding sources and uses of revenue in Virginia. The general sense in NoVa is that we pay far more than we receive. Now, we’ll be paying $1+ per mile to drive on decent roads when projects like the Charlottesville bypass and the proposed Rt 460 cost nothing. If NoVa is getting an overall square deal then this is fine. If not, then it is not fine. But the dumbasses in Richmond either can’t or won’t disclose the flow of money across the state.

    2. VDOT should have been able to finance and build this road. In fact, VDOT put together a plan to expand this section of the Beltway that cost far more and took far longer than the Flour – Transurban plan. It’s hard to escape the sense that VDOT is incompetent. If so, VDOT should be disbanded and the entire transportation organization in Virginia should be privatized.

    3. The constant carping about the high cost of building roads in Northern Virginia is a red herring. Many, many other locales in the United States are crowded and have high real estate costs. Why is NoVa the worst congested locale? It is not because it holds a monopoly on crowding and high real estate costs. New York? Boston? San Francisco? The so-called pundits in Virginia obviously don’t really understand the problem when they try to lay off NoVa congestion issues on population density and high real estate costs. Other densely populated MSAs with expensive real estate make this work. Why can’t we? Could it be that a strict adherence to Dillon’s Rule precludes the competent management of cities? Think about it.

  9. My kids understand the difference between owning the asset (no matter how the cost of building and maintaining it is collected) and letting foreign investors own the asset. I’m not against tolls, but I worry about decades and decades of profits that might have been spent better. So yeah, I think our kids will think we were idiots.

  10. re: “owning the asset”.

    I’m pretty sure Va owns the express lanes.

    they have signed a lease agreement.

    the agreement is not dissimilar to the way that Va deals with Dominion Power which allows them a certain percentage of profit … rather than unlimited profits.

    its just a different way of doing business and I think the good part of it is attracting private capital instead of having to spend taxpayers money though I’ll acknowledge there are different aspects to this.

    • Va owns the land under the express lanes, Transurban owns the improvements. If we ever kick transurban out, it will be a “Revenue Event” for the company.

      In short, it will cost us a lot more to buy it, than it would have cost to build.

  11. DJR, I’ve been told by VDOT and Fairfax County that it was unlikely the feds would have allowed VDOT to build more general purpose lanes on the Beltway for air quality reasons. Since the Express Lanes result in reductions in SOV trips, they could be built. So I don’t think the choice between more general purpose lanes and the Express Lanes is a real one. I don’t think (but could be wrong) C’ville and Tidewater-to-Petersburg are in the same bind as we are on air quality limitations.

    As fare as a fair shake is concerned, I’ve been told by supervisors, legislators, Fairfax staff and VDOT that NoVA has been receiving more money than it contributes in transportation taxes. Larry, you guys need to shell out more for us. Personally, I would agree to a deal with RoVA that we maintain the school funding formula in exchange for a contribution to our transportation needs. But it won’t happen, as our legislators would fold.

    The fundamental problem remains we have traffic problems because local government approved more development than the roads or likely improvements could handle. Until Tysons was approved, this was the policy in Fairfax County. I’d support paying more in exchange for an adequate public facilities law and a requirement new projects improve LOS by two grades for at least five years. What do we get in exchange for higher taxes?

    • TMT:

      Regardless of what the feds thought – VDOT’s plan to add the capacity cost more than Flour – Transurban’s plan, it took longer and it required the taking of more private property.

      In other words, it was an inept plan that was quickly and convincingly beaten by Flour – Transurban.

      This has nothing to do with air quality or federal regulation – it has to do with engineering and program management competence.

      Breckenridge is completely and totally right in thinking that a vast amount of profit is likely to flow from the taxpayers in NoVa to Flour Transurban based on this deal. That is money that should be getting collected by the state but the state is too dim-witted to pull off something that Flour Transurban rather easily accomplished.

      Here is the first really bad statement of 2013:

      “The fundamental problem remains we have traffic problems because local government approved more development than the roads or likely improvements could handle.”.

      Let’s review:

      1. In NoVa unemployment is low and wages are high. In other words, there is substantial economic opportunity.

      2. People will move to places where there is substantial economic opportunity. This is as true for NoVa as it is for Austin, TX.

      3. If the localities did not approve development the cost of housing would have skyrocketed as people moved here for the economic development.

      4. A failure to approve development would have either killed off the economic opportunity or created a situation where more and more people lived further and further away in order to get to the jobs and be able to afford to live.

      5. More development than the roads or likely improvements can handle is a reasonable point. However, the roads and their likely improvements are being artificially strangled by a gas tax, measured in cents per gallon, that has not been increased in 27 years. Do you blame the development or the frozen gas tax? I blame the frozen gas tax and the frozen intellects in Richmond who are responsible for that abortion of common sense.

      As for NoVa’s legislators being chicken s*** ninnies – I couldn’t agree more. The various BoS’ along the eastern part of Virginia are finally banding together to try to poke their Richmond “representatives” in the eye.

      • DJR – why should people pay higher gas taxes if they aren’t going to see any benefit in terms of reduced traffic congestion or improved safety? MWCOG has come out with a study that shows, despite building all sorts of road and transit capacity increases, there will be no improvement in traffic congestion in 40 years. So tell me why ordinary Joes, Janes & Joses must pay more to see nothing improve. What if VDOT and the local government had to agree to improve LOS for any road project by two grades and maintain it for five years or not build the project and not authorize rezoning? Why do you oppose taxpayers getting something for their tax dollars?

        Why should we subsidize land speculators and developers by paying for the road improvements they need to develop their property? Why are property rights in dirt more important than property rights in cash?

        I’d be happy if the state would require the landowners to pay the same percentage (59.5%) of the costs for road and transit improvements needed to permit them to develop their land that the Tysons landowners are going to pay. What’s wrong with that?

        I don’t mind paying more taxes if I’m going to see better services in terms of construction and maintenance. I do object if all I get to do is tread water.

        • re: ” I don’t mind paying more taxes if I’m going to see better services in terms of construction and maintenance. I do object if all I get to do is tread water.”

          ah.. that’s not the question though. The question is are you okay paying no increase in taxes but congestion gets steadily worse?

          • Larry, I could support indexing the gas tax to keep up with maintenance needs if the General Assembly also raised fees on big, heavy trucks that do the damage to roads & bridges.

            I do object to paying higher taxes to build things that don’t improve traffic flow and safety. I’m sick and tired of the idea that someone’s rights in dirt outweigh my rights to my cash.

          • “I’m sick and tired of the idea that someone’s rights in dirt outweigh my rights to my cash.”

            Rights in dirt are exactly equivalent to rights in cash, and those rights ought to be equal.

            If I were adjudicating the issue you, or some group of people in your shoes, whould have to show me that your loss in cash is greater than the land owners loss in cash, should some project go/not go forward.

            At that point I would suggest that the owner pay up one half of the amount proven a a loss in excess of the landowners loss. The reason being that the rights are equal. If you demand more than that then the other side starts taking exactly the same kind of cash loss that you are complaining about.

            Characterizing this as loss of rights in dirt vs rights in cash is misleading. The both represent cash interests, but given the millions or even billions in potential losses to developers, the kind of losses you complain about are small potatos, even when considered over the entire community.

            In short, if you ever get the equality you claim you want, then you probably won’t like it.

          • “Larry, I could support indexing the gas tax to keep up with maintenance …”

            The gas tax shouldb e re-set to 1987 levels, and then indexed. And the fees for heavy vehiclse should increase.

  12. TMT:

    You’ll someday have to explain how the Express Lanes will reduce SOVs. Any traffic they take will de-congest the “free Beltway” and provide a disincentive to carpooling. No?

    • Any SOV vehicle will ride in the express lanes for free. That will ultimately incentivize people to carpool and take buses and vans, etc which will replace 3 cars (or more) on the general purpose lane for each SOV car on the express lanes.

      I’m amazed that this concept is not understood by skeptics.

      • Studies have suggested that carpools will be reduced by the express lanes as people opt to simply pay the tolls. this option is not available on the regular car pool lanes.

  13. DJR – Cars with three or more passengers can ride the Express Lanes for free, as can van pools and express buses. A bus on the Beltway’s general purpose lanes doesn’t make much progress.

  14. re: ” we maintain the school funding formula in exchange for a contribution to our transportation needs. ”

    we still talk as if the 1% sales tax collected by the state for education belongs to the locality.

    re: air quality – TMT is correct. You cannot add infrastructure if it will add more cars without some draw-downs in other areas.

    Every new proposed road has to be run through the air model and pass muster.

    this could change as more and more natural gas replaces coal and in turn results in cleaner air for Washington Area.

    I wish DJ would get this stuff before he assumes wrongly… :-)

    http://www.mwcog.org/transportation/activities/quality/

    so now DJ can add the Feds to the Clown Show, eh?

    • re: air quality – TMT is correct. You cannot add infrastructure if it will add more cars without some draw-downs in other areas.

      People happen. They will need air, infrastructure, jobs and schools etc. Where will these people go?

      Is the Clean Air Act now a major enabler for sprawl?

  15. “The agreement between VDOT and Transurban includes a profit-sharing components, such that very high earnings, if any, will be shared with VDOT. And VDOT is required to use them in Fairfax County.”

    Yet one of the reasons for toll roads was to avoid ( at least the apearance of) tax increases. If this ever happens, it is definitely a tax increase, albeit off the books.

  16. “You’ll someday have to explain how the Express Lanes will reduce SOVs. Any traffic they take will de-congest the “free Beltway” and provide a disincentive to carpooling. No?”

    Studies have already shown that the express lanes will most likely reduce tha use of carpools, as people with carpools forsake the carpools and elect to simply pay the tolls.

    This suggests that the costs of running a car pool are too high, considering the benefit obtained. If you want more car pools, you will need to pay people to have them.

    Same with small farms: if it is not profitable, people will not do it.

    • Why would Express Lanes reduce the use of buses and carpools if buses and carpools get to use the lanes for free?

      • I’m not sure the studies addressed buses. but it is pretty clear that carpol use will be reduced. According to the studies (also true in other cities, I believe) people feel that the cost of paying the toll for a single use vehicle is simply less than the cost and aggravation of operating a car pool.

        This was apparent when car pool lanes were underutilized, much to the dismay of those stuck in the regular lanes. Underutilizsation was adressed by reducing the HOV requirements, allowing motorcycles, and also by the development of the slug system.

        Buses are different because they get paid for their services. Some have suggested that car pool operators get paid, and some test projects were actually in place. But the expert opinion is that the express lanes will reduce car pool use.

        As for buses, yet another recent study concluded that on average buses carry ten passengers, and at that rate their costs and fuel use per passenger is WORSE than modern passenger vehicles.

  17. “Any SOV vehicle will ride in the express lanes for free. That will ultimately incentivize people to carpool and take buses and vans, etc”

    There is also a clause in the contract to cover this: if car pool traffic cuts in to Transurbans profits, they may exclude car pools or charge a fee for them.

    I wonder if the fee will be per car, or per rider?

  18. re: ” But the expert opinion is that the express lanes will reduce car pool use.”

    re: ” There is also a clause in the contract to cover this: if car pool traffic cuts in to Transurbans profits, they may exclude car pools or charge a fee for them.”

    so which is it?

    I predict that at the times that the toll gets pricey, that some folks, perhaps a lot will see the clear advantage of riding in the express lanes at the most congested hours – for free.

    also – the folks who slug – are concerned that too many others will use the express lanes but remember – Transurban has to meet the 45mph spec and the way they do that – is by increasing the toll dynamically on toll payers – not the HOVs.

    Transurbans clause that says they get compensated by the state for reduced revenues due to too many HOVs would essentially mean that HOVs would totally crowd out toll-paying SOVs but as long as there is available space (as Hydra has claimed they were not heavily used by HOVs before)…. anyhow.. as long as there is available space, there will be SOV slots available – for a price – and in congested circumstances, that toll could be quite pricey – which was INCREASE Transurbans revenues.

    The next few months might be fascinating and it may well be a lesson in “markets” when it comes to highway capacity.

    I think ultimately Hydra is going to be seriously disappointed by a very successful operation.

    And a lot is riding on this. If it “works” even if not perfectly, expect it to be replicated across the state where there are rush hour conditions.

  19. Which is it?
    It is oth. Transurban has enough foresight to protect itself from the most unlikely events. The studies expect that car pool use will decrease, if they are wildly wrong, Transurban can put a stop to it.

    I won’t be disappointed one way or another: the truth will turn out to be whatever it is. If it works, it will reduce traffic congestion and that is good. Then the truth will be known: how much reduction in traffic reduction at what cost.

    If it is a succssful operation, the question is successful to whom?

    This road amounts to an off the books tax increase and a permanent government subsidy to private enterprise, which sheds much of the risk and keeps most of the profit. Regardless of what else it does, onee thing it will not do is reduce the VMT or increase the use of multipassenger vehicles.

    My training is to look at things as an entire system. I will be very surprised if a) this system provides increased transportation capacity or decreased congestion at a reasonable system cost,
    and b) if most of the benefit in the entire system does not accrue to Transurban rather than to the users and nearby landowners and businesses.

  20. There are large benefits for the Tysons landowners that carry large burdens of reducing SOV traffic. Just putting express bus service on the Express Lanes helps them meet some of their obligations. Just widening the Beltway would not do that.

  21. re: ” Question: Whose taxes are being increased?”

    excellent question.

    the folks who continue to use the non-toll lanes will still have just as many lanes to use and won’t pay any more for them.

    the folks who carpool or use transit won’t pay anymore and they’ll actually get more – a quicker, more reliable trip.

    the only folks who will pay more are those who want to drive solo and are willing to enter into a voluntary transaction to buy something of value – to them and they are the ones who decide if it is worth it or not.

    why is this not a win-win-win?

  22. I often drive on the Lewinsville Road and Old Old Dominion Road bridges on weekends. Despite the generally lower-volume of Beltway traffic (from weekdays), I generally see several vehicles on the Express Lanes and in both directions. Some drivers must see benefits sufficient to pay the tolls even then.

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