Express lanes rack up more than $800k in first six weeks

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Photo - Southbound rush hour traffic  at a standstill on the Capital  Beltway ( i495) A study conducted by Texas A&M University ranked the D.C. region number one for the worst traffic in the United States. Monday, Oct., 31, 2011
Southbound rush hour traffic at a standstill on the Capital Beltway ( i495) A study conducted by Texas A&M University ranked the D.C. region number one for the worst traffic in the United States. Monday, Oct., 31, 2011
Local,Transportation,Liz Essley

The 495 Express Lanes raked in $828,000 in tolls in their first six weeks of operation.

An average of 23,308 vehicles took the newly built Capital Beltway toll lanes every day between Nov. 17, the day they opened, and Dec. 31, according to a report from the group managing the lanes.

The $1.7 billion lanes, built by a private firm in a partnership arrangement with Virginia, charge drivers variable toll rates based on how many cars are using them, charging more when the roads grow more congested. Carpoolers can use the lanes for free.

But even while raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars, the lanes aren't seeing the amount of traffic officials expected.

"Demand at this point in the ramp-up phase is lower than anticipated as local traffic patterns and user preferences adjust," said express lanes spokeswoman Pierce Coffee. "While the initial numbers are below expectations, we believe that it will take a minimum of six months of operations to establish any reliable trends."

About 93 percent of drivers on the express lanes were charged a toll during the lanes' first six weeks. The rest were carpoolers, motorcycles, buses or emergency vehicles, which use the lanes for free. The average toll drivers pay is $1.07, the new report said. The most expensive trip -- the full length of the lanes, from Springfield to just north of the Dulles Toll Road -- cost $3.70.

The $828,000 collected will be used to operate the toll road and pay off the project's $1.1 billion debt, Coffee said. Once that's paid off, the private company operating the lanes, Transurban, will start earning a profit. Virginia shares in the profits only under specific conditions, and Transurban will get most of the road's revenues for the next 75 years.

The lanes' main attraction is their predictability: Beltway drivers no longer have to leave an hour early to reach a destination 20 minutes away, supporters say.

"It's just really nice to have some measure of predictability on the Beltway," said Falls Church resident Mike Krempasky, who bought two E-ZPasses for his family's cars so they could use the express lanes. "I used to live in Woodbridge and commute on [Interstate] 95. Anything that reduces time is well worth it."

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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