HOT Lanes: New high-occupancy toll lanes set to open on I-495

Construction has been going on for five years on the I-495 HOT lanes.

As early as next week, brand new high-occupancy toll lanes are set to open on a 14-mile stretch on I-495 in Northern Virginia.

Two new lanes each direction will be in operation from near the George Washington Parkway to I-95.

The old lanes will be free, but the new lanes will require a toll to use and only be accessible at certain points that include the beginning and end, plus I-66, I-95, and several new exits being built just for the toll lanes along I-495.

"If you travel on the beltway daily, this is a gamechanger for you," said Pierce Coffee with Transurban, the company that is operating the toll lanes.

Coffee says the new project, called 495 express lanes, will give drivers the option of avoiding rush hour traffic jams in the free lanes. She says drivers will be able to maintain speeds of at least 45 mph in the toll lanes no matter how slow the rest of the traffic is moving.

But in order keep traffic moving that fast, toll lanes will have to be at a price high enough to keep too many drivers from wanting to use the lanes.

Coffey says during rush hour, the average driver will likely pay somewhere between three and six dollars to use the lanes.

Non-rush hour prices are expected to be significantly cheaper.

But the prices aren't set in stone -- if the price has to go higher than six dollars to keep traffic moving in the toll lanes, it will.

"Until we actually put the price on the sign and we see what the driver's reaction is, we won't ultimately know," Coffey said.

Coffey said it's possible the average price could be higher than expected, but it's also possible it could be lower.

One year ago in the metro area of Atlanta, which is very close in size to Washington, toll lanes opened on I-85.

Although some drivers like having the option of paying to drive in less traffic, others have been strongly critical of the lanes.

One of the biggest complaints has been the price, which had steadily risen since the lanes opened. One day in October the price set a record by going above six dollars.

But Coffey says there are major differences between the projects in Northern Virginia and Atlanta that should make things go smoother here.

One major one: in the Atlanta area there is only one toll lane each direction, while on I-495 there will be two.

Coffee says there will be a learning curve with the new lanes. For instance, drivers will have to learn where they can and can't get on them.

There are barriers up to prevent drivers from moving from the regular beltway lanes into the toll lanes.

Tolls will be collected using EZ Pass. Cars with three or more people will be able to use the toll lanes for free, but will need a new device called an EZ Pass Flex to do it.

Transurban recommends drivers check out this website to learn important information about the new toll lanes and EZ Pass Flex.