After swerve incidents VA/495 Express Lanes make modifications to southern entry to give drivers more time to choose

November 20, 2012

2012-11-19: Northern Virginia's new toll express lanes on the Capital Beltway are getting modifications to the southern entry in night-time work for the next several days. This in response to a spate of swerving incidents that included six crashes in the first 72 hours of operation of the 495 Express Lanes (XLs.)

The first modifications done November 18/19 overnight provided more warning of split and entry to the toll express lanes by:

- adding additional colored reflectors to the channelizing barrier posts

- changing digital messages on electronic signs to read "new traffic pattern" and "use caution" and "two left lanes express lanes only"
November 19/20 overnight they are extending the diverge area and informing drivers sooner of the express lanes entrance.

Heading north from Springfield Interchange, they are changing the pavement striping to begin transitional dotted line right back  in the area where the Springfield Interchange ramps meet the Beltway nearly a mile south of the original toll express lanes entrance. This striping should indicate to drivers more clearly that the two left lanes will turn into express lanes to give them more time to think about whether they'll choose the toll express or free lanes.

Then they'll begin the solid line stripe warning drivers not to change lanes about 700 feet sooner (further south) than where the solid line's original starting point. The solid stripe of course precedes the barrier posts.

The left two approach lanes northbound from the Springfield interchange will get E-ZPass Only marking in the pavement a mile ahead and a half mile ahead adding to overhead signage with that message - for the heads-down drivers.  And more divider posts are being added where they start to make them more visible.

Small hours work

Most of the work - agreed between concessionaire Transurban/Fluor, Virginia DOT and Virginia State Police - is being done through the small hours of the morning by the concessionaire's crews.

Tim Steinhilber, Transurban's general manager for the 495 Express Lanes Project is quoted as saying that "driver confusion" at the southern entry is being addressed by the "enhancements" to signage and lane markings, but he also issues a call for drivers to take note of the changed traffic patterns. And their PR person

The 495 Express Lanes opened to traffic 2am Saturday morning.

Crashes and crashes-into-crashes

The Washington Post reports the first crash occurred before 7am when a 19 year old driver driving in the approach to the express lanes on the left swerved too hard right and overcorrected left to avoid entering them, lost control and ended up in a wreck on a jersey barrier. She and her 18 year old passenger were sent to hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

But that first crash caused backups which lasted an hour and there was a second rear-ender crash before traffic was flowing properly again.

2:15pm Saturday there was a third incident like the first with a driver losing control and spinning in the roadway trying a too-sharp right to escape the toll lanes. No injury or damage was done but traffic was heavily disrupted.

Sunday morning 8:04 there was a third late-swerve accident that had a vehicle banged up on the right side jersey barrier - no injuries but again disruption.

Monday morning saw a 6am side-swipe collision from a driver swerving late to escape the toll lanes. And again the backups caused another side-swipe crash when two drivers misjudged their movement to get around the backup. But all was clear by 7am.

Police charged at least one driver with traffic offenses.

Race sees 10 minutes in XLs vs 13 on GP lanes

Monday morning of course was the real first test of thethe toll express lanes and their variable pricing to manage traffic. It was something of an anti-climax. Traffic was lighter than usual - perhaps the Thanksgiving week. Usage of the toll express lanes seemed meager.

In a test run Washington Post traffic reporters Robert 'Dr Gridlock' Thomson driving the express lanes beat his colleague Mark Berman in the free lanes 10 minutes to 13 minutes in a  5 mile Gallows Rd to Westpark Drive, Tysons trip. In part his win reflected the more direct connection to Tysons via Westpark Drive, an interchange not available to the general purpose lanes. The regular lanes had slow traffic midway on the reporters' trip midway, in the area of I-66, but otherwise the mainlanes traffic flowed well.

The very light traffic produced a minimal 65c toll for Thomson.


Comment made Nov 12 at request of Washington Post on significance of the Lanes and likely problems:

The 495 Express Lanes are a very big deal for the DC area and beyond because tolled lanes like this are the only feasible way of improving mobility in our major metro areas.  There's no money or political will to substantially widen our highways as freeways, and outside of Manhattan transit can only cater to a minority of travelers.  Highways are our mass transportation, but they'll only be financially sustainable if they are managed so that users pay for them and in a way that offers a comfortable, reliable free-flow ride in return.

Variable pricing of highways is proven as the only known way of getting free flow conditions on major urban highways in peak hours - 91 Express Lanes Orange Co CA, I-15 San Diego, I-394 Minneapolis, I-95 Miami. A dozen or more are in the works in Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco.

Getting the pricing right on the express lanes probably won't be achieved straight away, but with experience, experimentation and tweaking of the algorithms within  couple of months they should be offering a very good alternative to taking your chances in the unmanaged free lanes.

The 495 Express Lanes are a first not in the dynamic pricing as such, but for using such pricing in a very ambitious and complicated format with so many entries and exits. Nowhere else is there a tollway-within-a-freeway like the 495 Express Lanes equipped entirely with dedicated on- and off-ramps, and a lot of them catering to shorter trips as well as longer. Most others force users to enter and exit via the free lanes, weaving across the traffic. Or else they are long 'pipes' catering only to long trips, so shorter distance travelers can't make use of them. Many others, also are not much more than conversion and upgrade of existing HOV lanes.

Not so the NoVA Beltway Lanes. Nearly a billion dollars of investors' money has been put into a complete rebuild of this section of the Beltway expanding it from eight lanes to twelve. And it has new direct entries and exits completely separate from the free Beltway lanes around Tysons Corner.

It's going to be a boon to commuters in northern Virginia but it remains to be seen if they can make enough money to justify the investors' investment.

Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments long range plans show a network of HOT lanes like this across the whole metro area to provide rapid bus and carpool travel as well as a choice of a quick ride to single car drivers in return for the toll.  The 495 Express Lanes are the first test of the concept.

The obvious problem they have is the bottleneck at the northern end just beyond Tysons where the Express Lanes end, narrowing Beltway lanes from 6 to 4 lanes. Virginia and Maryland should be working on extending HOT lanes over the Potomac and up I-270. END COMMENT

TOLLROADSnews 2012-11-19

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