Capital Beltway Express Lanes: Meeting held to answer HOT lane questions

With new high occupancy toll lanes set to open on the Beltway this Saturday, there are still a lot of unanswered questions from drivers about how to use them.

Fairfax County supervisor Pat Gerrity hosted a meeting in West Springfield Wednesday to give residents a chance to ask questions.

There are two new toll lanes set to open in both direction. They run 14 miles from 495's interchange with 95 up to just north of the Dulles Toll Road exit.

Many of the residents who came out to Wednesday night's meetings have a lot of questions about the new toll lanes, and ABC7 found answers for them.

Q: "If you have three people, do you have to have an EZ Pass?" -- Michael Guest, Lorton

A: Yes, you do. It will be free to use the new toll lanes for cars with three or more people in them. However, to take advantage of that, you need a device called an EZ Pass Flex, which is larger than a standard EZ Pass.

Q: "How will the machine know if I should be charged, or [if] it should be free?" -- Pam Dettelbach, Springfield

A: Each EZ Pass Flex has a switch. You flip it one way to turn HOV mode on; the other way to turn HOV mode off. When HOV mode is on, you won't be charged for driving on the new toll lanes. When it's off, you will be charged. Officials with Transurban, the company running the toll lanes, say law enforcement will be able to tell if you have your EZ Pass Flex on HOV mode. They say if it is and you have less than three people in the car, you risk being pulled over and given a ticket.

Q: "Is it purely electronic, is it all done by EZ Pass the whole way through?" -- Jamieson Knopf, Oakton

A: Yes. There will be no toll booths. Transurban officials say all drivers are supposed to have either a standard EZ Pass or EZ Pass Flex to use the road. Technically, you can drive on the new toll lanes without an EZ Pass, but officials say a camera will take a picture of your license plate and you will be mailed a bill that is $1.50 more expensive than what you would have paid otherwise. You can pay by mail or online if you use the lanes without an EZ Pass.

Q: "How do you merge onto [the toll lanes]? Is it just you merge right over from 495?" -- Jamieson Knopf, Oakton

A: No, you can't just merge from the regular 495 lanes onto the toll lanes. There are removable barriers that have been set up to keep drivers from doing that. You can only get on the lanes at 11 spots. The only time you can go from the regular, free beltway lanes onto the toll lanes directly are at the southern starting point (495 & 95) and the northern starting point (495 and just north of the Dulles Toll Road). The other nine spots you can get on are as follows: Dulles Toll Road, Jones Branch Drive, Westpark Drive, Rt. 7/Leesburg Pike, I-66, Rt. 29/Lee Highway, Gallows Road, Braddock Road, and the 95/395 HOV ramps.

Each of those areas have specially built exit ramps that lead straight on and off the new toll lanes. Some of the exits, like Westpark Drive in the Tysons Corner area and Rt. 29, are on roads that you couldn't access the Beltway from previously.

In other cases, such as Little River Turnpike, there is an exit for the Beltway's regular lanes but there is no way to access the new toll lanes.

Q: "How high might the tolls go?" -- Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity, who says that's the question he hears most from constituents

A: Technically, there is no limit. The toll prices are set based on how far you go and how high the demand is for the toll lanes at the moment you get on.

For instance, when there is heavy traffic in the free lanes, there will likely be bigger demand to use the toll lanes. That bigger demand will make the toll prices go up.

Transurban officials say they are required to keep traffic in the toll lanes moving at an average of 45 mph, and the toll lane prices will go as high as necessary to keep traffic moving at that speed.

They estimate that during rush hour the average driver will pay somewhere between $3 and $6 to use the toll lanes. Outside of rush hour, they say it will be far cheaper.

Electronic signs will alert drivers to toll prices before they get on the toll lanes. Once you get on the lanes, your price is locked in and won't go up or down.