Higher Speed Limit Could Give Express Lanes a Lift

express_lanesby James A. Bacon

495 Express Lanes has increased the speed limit on the I-495 express lanes in Northern Virginia from 55 miles per hour to 65, giving riders a significant new time-saving inducement to use the tolled lanes. The change took effect after the Virginia Department of Transportation released a study confirming that raising the speed limit would not pose a safety problem.

Transurban, the operating partner, opened the express lanes in November with a 55 mph limit to identify possible safety issues, with the expectation that the speed limit eventually would increase to 65 mph. After operating the express lanes for half a year, Transurban sent its safety data to VDOT, which voiced no significant concerns.

Though not a surprise, the change is nonetheless good news for 495 Express Lanes, which is in the midst of a multi-year ramp-up to build traffic to profitable levels. The company prices tolls dynamically, depending upon traffic conditions, in order to ensure speeds of at least 45 mph during congested periods. The higher speed limit will provide motorists a reason to use the express lanes during periods of lighter traffic and free-flow conditions, where they will enjoy a 10 mph speed advantage over the mainline lanes.

Nationally, express lane revenues have brought in revenue less than anticipated since the recession, as Americans have driven less. (See “Dude, Where’re My Cars?” as well as this recent post on the Atlantic Cities blog.) Forecasting traffic volumes can be a hazardous business, as Transurban learned from its experience with the Pocahontas Parkway outside Richmond. When revenues for that toll road fell short of projections, the company took a $181 million write-off and sold its interest to a consortium of European banks.

The Pocahontas Parkway traffic was contingent upon traffic materializing from major real estate development projects that never transpired. Traffic volume along the Capital Beltway, by contrast, was a known quantity. Even so, there was a question how much Washingtonians would be willing to pay to avoid congestion.

The new lanes opened in November. Four months later, in February, Transurban’s Peirce Coffee conceded to Washington’ Channel 8 television station: “Traffic is a little bit below expectations.”

In April, Transurban rolled out free weekend access to the express lanes in order to introduce people to the facility. Thousands of drivers — four times the normal weekend volume — responded, says Transurban spokesman Mike McGurk. “People definitely took advantage of it.” Company officials hoped that the free weekend would be reflected in a bump in E-Z Pass transponder sales but McGurk said he did not know if that bump materialized.

VDOT’s validation that the express lanes are safe is a positive for 495 Express Lanes. The tolled lanes experienced 51 crashes between November 2o12, when they opened, and April 2013 — an average of two a week. “It is important to note that a majority of the crashes originate in the general purpose lanes and spill across the channelizing posts into the Express Lanes,” states the VDOT report. “It is also important to note that the 485 Express Lanes is a new facility and drivers require time to familiarize themselves with the access opportunities. … Aside from the first two weeks, the 495 Express Lanes have not experienced trouble spots where there are frequent accidents.”

One safety advantage of the express lanes, noted VDOT, is a prohibition against heavy trucks. Another is the fact that there are only two lanes, as opposed to four in the general purpose lanes, meaning “there is no potential for two vehicles moving into the same lane from different directions at the same time.” Moreover, the express lanes are priced to reduce congestion, a risk factor for crashes.

Higher speed limits give motorists  yet another reason to use the express lanes. The central question is whether drivers — even affluent, Washington-area drivers — place a sufficient premium on their time to warrant paying to achieve faster, more predictable travel times.

“HOT lanes are a brand new concept,” says McGurk. “It’s such a significant change, we understand there’s a learning curve there.” People can’t just say, hey, I’ll give the express lanes a spin today. They have to obtain an E-Z Pass first. They also have to familiarize themselves with the exit locations and new traffic patterns. “The good thing for us, looking at our traffic and revenue reports,” he continues, “is that we have seen an increase from the early days. We hope more people will recognize this is a great option to have.”

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24 responses to “Higher Speed Limit Could Give Express Lanes a Lift”

  1. accurate Avatar

    55, ouch – I’m pretty sure there isn’t ANY freeway in Texas (for sure not in the Houston area) that has a limit that low. I might have seen 60, but most are 65 and above. Not that it really means that much down here; we pretty much take it (and drive like) the numbers on the sign are merely a suggestion. Laughed at myself the other day when I was cursing the fellow in front of me for going so slow, since we were getting passed a lot. Looked at my speedometer, we were doing 70.

  2. I suspect most drivers on the Express Lanes are already driving 65. And, as they say, there are no big trucks, only two axle vehicles and buses allowed.

  3. They need to get rid of the transponder fee for Virginia Residents. A fee should be accessed to out-of-state residents (mainly Maryland) if they chose to get a Virginia managed transponder.

    1. I think you are correct. More people would try the Express Lanes if the monthly fee were eliminated.

      1. larryg Avatar

        The transponders work for other toll roads in other states – and vice versa.

        you want it to be that way especially in areas where more than one state is in a region. You want the same transponder that works on the HOT lanes to work on the Md tunnels and ICC, etc.

        I’m noticing that it is the State that handles the transponders – not the toll road operator.

        My view of of benefits of electronic tolling would change to be opposed if they were not so standardized and people had to have a glove box full of different ones depending on the state or specific toll road.

        As such – these transponders needs to be egalitarian from state to state.

        So far, nothing prevents out of state from signing up for a transponder as far as I know… and you want as many people signing up as possible because even then they can use photo-plate tolling – it’s more expensive dollar-wise and logistically especially for out of state.

  4. larryg Avatar

    Tollroadnews had an interesting report:


    Investors were told that 66K trips a day would use the HOT
    lanes but currently the numbers are about 24K.

    the 65mph should help boost that number I would think.

    and 65 means 75 if the lanes permit it.

    If this “works”, and I admit, the jury is still out – then we’re going to see HOT Lanes spread because they have distinct advantages:

    1 – they WILL provide a faster, and more importantly (a RELIABLE TIME) trip that some people ARE going to find a perfectly acceptable value proposition – for their trip.

    2.- the congestion can be “managed” maintain a free-flow condition – which goes back to a reliable trip even when the non-toll lanes are a disaster.

    3. – the whole concept of the HOT Lanes motivates the operators to monitor and maintain free-flow conditions – that they CAN accomplish by varying the toll fees.

    The guy that must be somewhere in 30 minutes (like catching a plane or attending a meeting or performing a surgery) are NOT GOING TO QUIBBLE over a $6 premium because of heavy demand – TRUST ME!

    there will be others who will swear up and down and swear at the toll lanes but there will also be those who will quite literally buy into the “time is money” proposition.

    A LOT is riding on the Beltway HOT Lanes. It may well drives the administration policies over TFIA infrastructure bank loans and related.

    If they work as hoped – Accurate down Houston way is going to see a LOT MORE HOT Lanes on his travels!

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    I have long predicted that the Express Lanes would be an abject and utter failure. It’s one thing to charge 25 cents per mile and quite another to charge $2.00 per mile. Apparently, the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond can’t understand that. So, now – new perks! There is no place in Fairfax County where you can drive 65 mph as the legal limit. For years, the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond and the Clowns in Training in Fairfax claimed that the county was too crowded for anything beyond 55 mph. Now, low and behold, 65mph is safe. VDOTs comments about safety are dog crap. There are lots of two lane highways in Fairfax County. For example, RT 66 heading west. 55 mph in Fairfax and then, suddenly, 60 then 65 mph in Prince William. No change in the road. VDOT are well practiced liars. This has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with saving face. What next? A DUI exemption?

    When the COLD lanes get to 90 mph – call me, I might be interested.

    The politicians in our state are heinous.

  6. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III


  7. DJRippert Avatar

    If the liars, cheats and thieves in Richmond and Fairfax are willing to bend their long term rules on speed limits to make their idiotic HOT lanes desirable, what’s next? No doubt failure to effectively maintain or improve the “free Beltway” is on their list. Given what we have seen from Cuccinelli and McDonnell regarding “gifts” and “disclosure” how could anybody ever trust a public – private partnership in Virginia?

  8. larryg Avatar

    HOT lanes are not just a NOVA or Imperial Clown show deal:


    SR 237 Express Lanes in Silicon Valley
    I-85 Express Lanes in Atlanta, Georgia
    I-680 Express Lanes in Oakland, California
    I-35 W Express Lanes in Minneapolis, MN
    I-95 Express Toll Lanes in Miami, Florida
    SR-167 HOT Lanes Pilot in Seattle, Washington
    I-25 Express Lanes in Denver, Colorado
    I-15 Express Lanes Pilot in Salt Lake City, Utah
    I-394 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
    I-15 Express Lanes in San Diego, California

    but we better get used to them because many states are going to operate them rather than have a public-private entity do it.

    It’s the easiest and cheapest way to add capacity – that will not be squandered by latent demand.

    you build the road – and the people who use it – pay for it – the purest form of user-pays and taken one step further – you pay for a specific trip at a specific time OR you have other options of paying less at less congested times OR carpool OR ride mass transit OR use the untolled lanes.

    It’s the right way to go – in our urban areas (and other) with rush hour congestion.

    it makes no sense to keep building more and more capacity to serve any/all rush hour trips no matter their economic benefit and really it’s just not fiscally possible to keep building more anyhow.

    we’re at the limits of what we can do with geography and money and now we have to manage what we have and we do that with dynamic tolling.

    1. An extremely important factor that has not been discussed is the availability of reliable bus service on Express Lanes. If on-time express service was not available on the Beltway and later on I-95, heading north to the Beltway, Fairfax County would have necessarily been required to cut-back on development at Tysons. Contrary to the foolishness of the WaPo’s editorial board, the Silver Line is just a small part of the enhanced transportation network necessary for the revised Tysons Comp Plan and associated rezonings.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        There’s nothing wrong with the HOT lanes other than the price of the toll. In fact, the speed with which those added lanes were built proves the incompetence of VDOT. VDOT pissed and moaned for years about how hard it would be to expand the beltway, how long it would take, how much it would cost. Then, lo and behold, a private firm comes in and builds the additional capacity lickety split.

        1. VDOT’s competence on building the Express Lanes. Agreed.

        2. larryg Avatar

          re: pissed and moaned – THAT’s WHY the toll is HIGH… it has to be to pay for the lanes!

          remember – those tolls are paying for the new lanes + maintenance + operations whereas in the past people only calculated the construction cost and considered the other two as not real.

          But we could have done it like Georgia did and the outcry about “incompetence” was no different.

          I have, in fact, yet to see, any state in the Union claim that their State DOT is “competent”. The favorite activity in most states is to blame the DOT for everything from potholes to congestion with bad breath and B.O, thrown in for good measure!

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      The question is the cost. In addition, several of the states you cite have no personal income tax. Virginia is NOT a low tax state regardless of what the apologists in Richmond claim. Take away the 5.75% personal income tax and you can toll roads until the cows come home.

      1. larryg Avatar

        I don’t think it has anything what-so-ever to do with personal income tax … it has much more to do with rush hour urban congestion and how to manage it by spending gobs of money for additional capacity that is only used at rush hour and other approaches that involve attempts to manage the load by instituting economic, value-propositions to people to make choices that make sense for them and at the same time help mitigate the unnecessary trips at rush hour.

        Some think this is a draconian solution but I just refer you to how rock star concerts work or for that matter Redskin games. The price varies according to demand and you pick which price you are willing to pay and it should be no different for rush hour roads.

        If these events charged the same price no matter the demand – they would be mobbed with crowds that would overwhelm their ability to manage even basic needs – like bathrooms – yet we use this exact approach with rush hour roads. We view them as free to any and all no matter the load – even when the load overwhelms the facility and gridlocks it.

        it’s a dumb way to do roads. we need to institute some good old fashioned supply/demand, free-market economics for roads.

        I expect Breckinridge and Accurate to weigh in here at any minute supporting my position!

        Why do we advocate less govt and more free-market approaches to the economy – EXCEPT when it comes to roads?

    3. DJRippert Avatar

      “we’re at the limits of what we can do with geography and money and now we have to manage what we have and we do that with dynamic tolling.”.

      Spare me.

      VDOT babbled for years about how physically and fiscally impossible it would be to expand the beltway. Then, Flour and Transurban expanded the beltway in about 24 months of construction.

      Lots of things that are “impossible” for our state government are fairly easily done by competent organizations.

      1. larryg Avatar

        Mostly fiscally impossible just as the tunnels in HRTW are – without tolls.

        but you’re done expanding the beltway. you’ve used up the middle and the sides so anything more is going to require taking developed properties and that pretty much leaves you with managing your existing lanes.

        that’s a reality.

  9. larryg Avatar

    Not sure where to put this – and yeah I realize that I might get suggestions along the lines of putting it where the light don’t shine!!!!

    but I found this interesting in terms of a state actually specifying how they will allocate transportation funding ( pay attention to the split between state, regional and local) but also be aware that North Carolina is one of but 4 states where the DOT assumes responsibility for local roads and in this plan – they clearly lay out how funding will be allocated to all 3 – statewide, regional and local.

    (I’ve also redacted some stuff for clarity/space – go to the link for the entire text):

    The Strategic Mobility Formula

    Statewide Level
    • Projects of statewide significance will receive 40% of the available revenue, totaling $6 billion over 10 years.

    • The project selection process will be 100% data-driven, meaning the department will base its decisions on hard facts such as crash statistics and traffic volumes. Factors such as economic competitiveness and freight movement will be taken into consideration to help support and enhance logistics and economic development opportunities throughout the state. Regional Level

    • Projects of regional significance will receive 30% of the available revenue, equaling $4.5 billion over a decade based on regional population. Projects on this level compete within specific regions made up of two NCDOT Transportation Divisions. This map shows these regions. For example, Divisions 1 and 4 are paired together to form a single region.

    Division Level
    • Projects that address local concerns such as safety, congestion and connectivity will receive 30% of the available revenue, or $4.5 billion, shared equally over NCDOT’s 14 Transportation Divisions.

    • The department will choose projects based 50% on data and 50% on local rankings.


  10. larryg Avatar

    then again:

    ” Transurban cuts back in North America – NY office closed, no new proposals, bids”


    Sounds like Transurban would like to get out…. and that would leave VDOT to operate the tollroad OR find someone else to do it.

    and it sounds like Transurban took over the Pocahontas to help VDOT and it was ill-advised….

    If VMT is really dropping long term trend – rather than short-term economic – it may well impact the viability of PPTA toll road operations.

    and in my view, what that will do – is take away options rather than expand them, e.g. – you may not get more roads or tunnels at all… in the shorter term. I just don’t see Virginia falling on it’s fiscal sword for projects that are likely to damage it’s ability to borrow money longer term for other needs.

  11. Mr. Bacon misses a critical point. Gov. McDonnell and VDOT are misusing their authority to give an artificial advantage to the investors who invested in the express lanes. As the other commenters noted, the majority of drivers in either the express lanes or regular lanes already go 65 plus when conditions permit. But now the Governor has decided that the driver doing 65 in the express lanes won’t be ticketed, while the driver doing 65 in the regular lane remains vulnerable to a ticket.

    How about this experiment: The speed limit in both the express lanes and regular lanes gets raised to 65 because that’s what everyone is doing. If the investors in the express lanes have created value through better traffic management or more configured on ramps and exits, then drivers will pay a premium to drive in them. However, the Governor has stacked the deck by giving the express lanes a 10mph head start over the regular lanes.

    Mr. Bacon does an excellent job of asking critical questions about public subsidies. He should have recognized this for what it is, a subsidy the Governor has given to the express lane investors.

    1. M, you raise an interesting point. It’s worth looking into. However, here’s my question: Hasn’t the Beltway in Northern Virginia *always* had a 55 mph speed limit? If so, wouldn’t that be the case because the Beltway was designed for 55 mph? The express lanes are designed for 65 mph. The ticketing law enforcement would be selective, in favor of the express lanes, only if it turns out that the regular Beltway lanes were designed for 65 mph.

  12. larryg Avatar

    the express lanes are “managed” according to congestion. They only guarantee a minimum of 45mph.

    As time goes by – if they become more crowded – the speed limit will come down but people are guaranteed a 45 mph trip.

    On the non-tolled lanes – 65mph on most days between Fredericksburg and NoVa is risky business. It would be irresponsible to set the speed at 65mpg given the shenanigans we see already on that road – IMHO.

    but there is no guarantee of 45mpg on the non-tolled lanes. You get what you get from an “unmanaged” road.

    The most germane thing here is that people get to choose. No matter what the state does or does not do with respect to speed limit on the managed lanes – you have a choice – every trip – as to what is more valuable to you – your money or your time.

    If your trip is truly economically important – it will be an easy calculation. If it’s not – then you still get to decide what you’re willing to “pay” in terms of money or congestion (or speed).

    only time will tell if this is a sustainable approach – either for a private sector for-profit company or for a state-operated facility.

    but one thing is for sure. There are no more easy ways to get more lanes without buying up developed land and we do have some idea – the ICC in Md which had to buy developed land – netted out at about 100 million per mile an we know now that it will be a LONG TIME before the tolls actually PAY for that road – as a result.

    HOT lanes are the best of the worst an little more. We are out of easy lane expansion and now onto managing the lanes we do have. the only alternative to that is to have no lanes that are managed.

    Some people would seem to prefer that. Perhaps in the end that’s what most will want instead of HOT. we’ll see.

  13. beekeeper6 Avatar

    One thing I’m not seeing discussed in any articles about the Beltway HOT lanes is the fact that they are HEAVILY patrolled by the State Police. Every single time I’ve driven on the Beltway (never on the HOT lanes) I’ve seen someone pulled over, and/or a cop on the side of the road with a radar gun. The regular lanes are NEVER patrolled like that (mostly because they can’t be, there are no good places for police to hide, traffic is too heavy, etc). So why should I pay money for the privilege of getting a speeding ticket? Maybe the higher speed limits will help but I’m guessing they’ll still be over there…

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