VA/495 Express Lanes to open November 17
2012/10/31: For a bold project the announcement of its start-up sounded tentative, even timid. The 495 Express Lanes "will open as early as November 17," the first announcement from VDOT and the Express Lanes operator Transurban said.
No firm date still?
They were aiming for November 17, a Saturday start-up, but it just might be postponed, probably to the following weekend if complications arose in the meantime.
Well, of course.
But it sounded as though they had contracted a touch of the E-ZPass Group disease of Testitis, a compulsive disorder in which the patient gets so obsessed with testing, more testing, and testing more again that he finds great difficulty committing to operations.
When pressed today however the Transurban people soon said November 17 was indeed a firm start date. And a couple of hours later the 495 Express Lanes (495XL) website discarded the wimpish "as soon as" saying simply the express lanes "will open" November 17.
Nearly seven weeks ahead of schedule
That's six and a half weeks ahead of the year-end contract commitment under the terms of Transurban's 75 year toll concession with VDOT, and it will allow them to open before winter takes full hold and before Christmas holidays shopping and visiting traffic ramps up.
An official told us the big storm Sandy made no difference to them as they've finished 99.9% of the outside work. They remain running contract test cars through the lanes to test the traffic management, tolling, and motorist assistance, training staff at the traffic management center, and making small adjustments to equipment.
A challenge with 915MHz antennas is tuning them to avoid reading the transponders of any cars traveling in the far left general purpose lane alongside the express lanes ('cross-lane reads'). Drive in that left lane alongside the separator fence posts and the gantry cantilever arms place the antennas so close you feel you could reach up and out the open driver window and touch them.
These are testing times for Raytheon which has the toll systems contract with Transurban. They are using familiar equipment - Kapsch (previously Mark IV) readers, proven microwave equipment for vehicle detection, tracking, and classification (no smart loops for Raytheon) and JAI cameras. They've done all-electronic highway speed tolling of this complexity (minus dynamic pricing) going back to 407ETR in Toronto in 1997.
And they've had more recent experience in dynamic pricing.
Transurban officials told us the pricing algorithms used to adjust toll rates in the 495 Express Lanes are based on the model developed by Raytheon for the Minnesota MnPASS I-394 HOT Lanes (renamed I-394 Express Lanes) that began in the major radial highway I-394 to the west of Minneapolis May 16 2005.
Raytheon built that dynamic pricing model which worked pretty well from the beginning and has been fine tuned and adapted in the six and a half years since.
"We started with the MN/I-394 pricing model as the heart of our system, but of course added what was needed for our more complex network," a Transurban official told us. "It gives us confidence we have a sound pricing model to start with something that is well proven in operation."
Tried and true from the Twin Cities
The pricing model takes constant feeds of data on traffic speed and density in the different segments of the Express Lanes and uses changes to forecast developing conditions at the current toll. Tolls will rise in busier times to price off enough vehicles to prevent overload of the lanes that could cause traffic to bunch up and speeds to fall below level of service D or 45mph.
The concessionaire is committed under the terms of their contract - as well as having a commercial incentive - to always keep traffic moving at close to free flow speeds outside of a major accident or other emergency.
As speeds pick up and traffic density decreases in the Express Lanes the algorithms drop the toll rates. Seen on the variable message signs ahead of entry ramps extra traffic is attracted. At free flow times a base toll rate is in effect.
Separate tolls are calculated and in busy times recalculated every few minutes for each of nine segments of the facility.
495 Express Lanes (495XL) is America's hottest HOT Lanes project so far because of several unique features:
- its cost of $1.53 billion (CORRECTION)
- its prominence in the national capital with its large media army
- close spaced entry and exit points: 23 (12 entries, 11 exits) in just 14 miles allowing many quick on-and-off trips (see map and list of ICs at bottom)
- 75 possible origin-destination combinations or different trips
- all 9 intermediate interchanges with dedicated ramps making the facility independent of the general purpose lanes alongside (nowhere is weaving across needed)
- several of the more important interchanges of the Express Lanes (at the northern Tysons Corner end) have much more direct connections to motorists' points of origin and destination than the regular lanes provide via their interchanges giving it special appeal
- being 4 of 12 lanes in a corridor handling 200,000 average daily traffic it is probably the most ambitious toll lanes project with dynamic pricing (though I-15 north of San Diego comes close)
- the first use of a new E-ZPass Flex transponder with a vehicle occupancy declaration switch to claim carpooler toll-free rights
- all entries and exits and breakdown shoulder are on the left side, not because that's the way they drive in Transurban's homeland but because most ramps are a single bidirectional central ramps to a cross street
Tolling is at nine points each direction, so there are 18 toll points and each toll point has a pair of gantries so there are 36 toll gantries total. All key equipment is overhead, only redundant or backup simple old electromagnetic loops for vehicle counts are in the pavement.
Gantries are a single directional arm cantilevered out from a single central median post.
Separation of the express lanes from general purpose is by crash-through plastic posts about 4 foot high at about 7 foot intervals placed within multiple solid white striping. They are designed to be robust enough to deter any motorist who thinks about driving through in normal conditions. But they are just flexible enough to allow someone to bang their way through in an emergency.
Variable message signs show the current toll to the end of the facility plus the toll for a more heavily used intermediate exit.
The concessionaire is making a major effort to operate a safe facility with a publicity campaign to familiarize motorists with the Lanes. They have pull off areas for disabled vehicles, total coverage by a video cameras monitored 24/7 by a minimum of two operators at their operations center just inside the Beltway near the Springfield Interchange. And they have contracts with the Virginia state police and pay for a specified minimum coverage, plus a commercial motorist assistance patrol.
Police under contract
Virginia state police will do vehicle occupancy enforcement and can apprehend motorists without the needed transponder.
Tolls start right off when they open Nov 17 but motorists who enrolled ahead of time got some toll credits. Only light vehicles and buses are allowed in the Express Lanes, no heavy trucks.
Every vehicle using the facility whether a carpooler or not must have an E-ZPass transponder. To get a high occupancy free ride the motorist has to have a special E-ZPass Flex transponder equipped with a switch to signal the carpool status (3 or more vehicle occupants) as opposed to the switch setting for a toll payer.
Today's announcement urges drivers to prepare for using the 495XLs by getting an E-ZPass transponder, and understand the rules and the entries and exits - shown in diagrammed maps on the website, several of which we reproduce nearby.
VDOT Commissioner Greg Whirley is quoted: "The 495 Express Lanes are on track to open earlier than expected in November which means drivers must take steps now to prepare to use the new lanes. This facility will have a regional impact on all travelers. We need drivers to be prepared for the changes in traffic patterns and new rules of the road. If you plan to use the Express Lanes, make sure you are equipped with an E-ZPass.”
Tim Steinhilber, Transurban’s general manager for the 495 Express Lanes Project: "The 495 Express Lanes will be easy to use, but this is the first road of its kind in the region. Drivers need to educate themselves on how to use the lanes and make sure they are equipped with an E-ZPass so they can take advantage of a faster, more predictable trip. We have developed a number of resources to help drivers learn about the lanes and strongly encourage all Northern Virginia drivers to take advantage of these tools."
Anticipated problem at north end - sleeping Maryland
A commonly anticipated problem is 495 Express Lanes' northern end, just north of the interchange with Dulles Toll Road where there's a lane drop in the Beltway from 6 lanes to 4.
The two northbound Express Lanes end and total lanes remain four only. A short distance further on there's the busy George Washington Parkway traffic joining at the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River that takes the Beltway into Maryland.
Next logical extension of the Express Lanes will be north in Maryland about 6 miles on the Beltway, then up I-270 toward Rockville and Germantown, and eventually to I-70/US15 in Frederick.