Beltway Express Lanes try to lure drivers with new ads

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Local,Liz Essley,Metro and Traffic

Washington commuters are seeing and hearing new ads for the Interstate 495 Express Lanes this month.

The ads in print, online, on the radio and in the Tysons Corner Center mall promise drivers a speedier trip on the Capital Beltway and offer specific information on how to use the new lanes, such as where drivers can enter them.

Officials from the high-occupancy toll lanes said the new campaign, which will run until June, isn't related to the lanes' lower-than-expected income in their first weeks of operation.

"The details of it were refined after we opened, but we always had a phase two [of our marketing campaign] planned," said express lanes spokeswoman Pierce Coffee. "We wanted to make sure everyone knows the express lanes were there and how to use them."

Coffee said Transurban, which operates the lanes, spent "several million dollars" on the new campaign and the first campaign that started before the lanes opened.

"We have made a substantial investment in communications and outreach because we do not think there is anything more important than travelers' safety and making sure they know how to use the Express Lanes," she said.

The Beltway Express lanes lost $11.3 million in their first six weeks of operation, according to documents for investors and reported by The Washington Examiner. The lanes raked in $800,000 in tolls and $200,000 in fees, but that wasn't enough to offset operating and financing costs, as well as depreciation.

An average of 23,308 vehicles took the lanes every day in their first six weeks, about one-third of the 66,000 a traffic consultant for the project predicted in 2007.

The lanes opened in November, offering commuters a congestion-free ride on the Virginia side of the Beltway in exchange for a toll paid with E-ZPass. The price climbs the more cars use the lanes, so a ride during rush hour costs more than a mid-day cruise. The lanes stretch from Springfield to just north of the Dulles Toll Road.

Coffee said the new campaign, in addition to placing radio and print ads, would send direct mail to households that live near the express lanes interchanges.

"In advance of the launch we wanted to make sure people knew the express lanes were coming," Coffee said. "This time around there is more a focus on helping people understand how you could use the lanes."

Transurban, the company operating the lanes, takes any hits from less-than-expected revenue and also pays for any advertising.

But a disappointing performance could mean less bang-for-the-buck for Virginia taxpayers, who financed part of the construction of the lanes. If the lanes do well, the state will receive 30 percent of the revenue, after Transurban pays off the $1.7 billion used to build the project.

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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Liz Essley

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner