Virginia HOT Lanes: For Insiders Only

The new I-495 HOT lanes, also known as 495 Express Lanes, are expected to go into operation late this year.  Discussion of these lanes and the concept of dynamic pricing can be found in many places on the web (official site,  a previous post of mine re: the theory of HOT lanes).

My particular concern for this post is the requirement that all users must have an E-ZPass in order to use the lanes.  What this means is that only local drivers with knowledge of the system and those who are willing to bear the monthly admin charge will be able to utilize the lanes. Thus, in order to use the HOT lanes for free one must:
  • Have 3+ persons in their vehicle, AND
  • Have an active monthly E-ZPass Flex Account, AND
  • Make sure the Flex pass is set to HOV mode
Tour buses and visiting groups with many people in their vehicles will be banned from using the lanes, even though they would more than qualify for the HOV-3 requirement.  I think this is a bad policy.  Particularly here in the DC region, where there are millions of visitors every year, making it impossible for visitors and guests to use a transportation system that could make their visit here more enjoyable is a big mistake.

Making the Express lanes free for groups of three or more without a transponder is not impossible.  In fact, it is already done in numerous places (see below).  For instance, in San Diego they have had HOT lanes for years.  Carpoolers do not need a transponder.  This means that out-of-towners in groups of three or more may use the HOT lanes without ever having been to San Diego before.  Good.  Those with a transponder who want to drive for free because they meet the HOV requirement on a particular trip can put their transponder in a foil bag so it is not read.

The I-25 Express lanes in Denver allow anyone to access the lanes, with or without a transponder, and use license plate recognition to send a bill later (with about a 25% extra fee) to those without.   HOV drive free without need of a transponder.

The Inter-County Connector in Maryland also has a system for billing cars without transponders.  It is not a requirement to have one to drive the ICC, although they do add a $4 admin charge to the toll.  The ICC does not have an HOV distinction: all users pay tolls.

As currently designed, the I-495 Express users must have an E-ZPass.  Those who want to travel for free with three or more people in the vehicle must have an E-ZPass Flex.  The Flex pass has a switch allowing one to change between free/HOV mode and regular toll mode.  It is not clear what happens to vehicles that enter the HOT lanes without a transponder, although one would presume there would be a fine.  I believe I read in Dr. Gridlock that the fine would be something like $12 plus the toll.  (Which raises the question, "If you had 3 or more people in the car, would the toll be zero?")  It's also not clear what would happen to drivers who accidentally leave their transponders in the wrong setting or reset it while they are on the road.

Based on these examples and others, clearly the capability exists to allow HOV users without transponders to utilize the I-495 Express Lanes.  Yet the system is designed essentially as an insider's club, for locals only: visitors, tourists and outsiders not welcome here.  And if you even try to get in, we'll slap you hard and leave a bad taste in your mouth.  I think this is bad policy.

  • I-680 Alameda County (CA)
  • I-15 San Diego County (CA)
  • Katy Freeway in Houston
  • I-25 Express Lanes in Denver
  • I-35 MnPass Express lanes in Minneapolis

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